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Publish like a pirate?

I’ve been musing about art, copyright and money for the last couple of weeks. What I have to say is very untutored and I may be just repeating the bleeding obvious; if anyone would like to suggest a reading list or offer a more informed commentary that would be cool.

So before you read much more, be warned – this is a long post, it meanders a bit (or a lot), and it potentially says stuff that others have said more eloquently elsewhere!

Imagine for a moment a world in which digital cultural products – books, photos, music, film – have no economic value in and of themselves. That’s not so far from the truth, given the level of file sharing going on. The extent of fileshare/bit torrent music and video downloads is already pretty well documented. Wikipedia, for example, report that Pirate Bay alone runs four servers each of which handles 2,000 requests a second.

Reportedly the advent of e-books has suffered the same fate, with some publishers and some authors estimating that around half of all downloads of their books come from fileshare sites and don’t result in any payment to them. E-books may only be about 3% of the book market currently but allegedly sales are now growing at 100% a year, and in some genres e-books are substantially more than the 3% overall figure… so the extent of file sharing is likely to increase exponentially. While this affects all authors to some degree, I suspect it will most hurt newer and less well established authors whose sales are likely to be predominantly through e-books, and some genres such as romantic fiction (why romantic fiction? I have no idea) where e-book sales reportedly account for a much larger proportion of sales than average.

Nor, incidentally, is it just fileshare sites that are the problem. A recent (12 June 2010) issue of Amateur Photographer has an article about a photographer who posted work on his own website, to discover some time later that it had been copied and used in newspapers and other commercial publications without his knowledge. It seems that businesses as well as individuals have a cavalier attitude to the implications of copyright. Some, no doubt, are taking the view that only the wealthiest of their victims will be in a position to sue, and a worst-case scenario would be that the case can be stalled for a few years and then settled out of court if the victim has the tenacity and finance to keep it going.

There are many reasons why people would and do fileshare and thus pay nothing for their cultural consumption. On the whole, they look like the well-known ‘techniques of neutralisation’ (Gresham Sykes and David Matza, ‘Techniques of Neutralisation: a theory of delinquency’, in American Sociological Review, December 1957 – if you’re interested the techniques are googleable and also on Wikipedia).

To which we might add, if something is available for free from one source, and at a cost of several pounds/euros/dollars from another, it’s difficult to envisage why, as an individual economic choice, someone who has the choice would opt to pay. Okay, morally they should, and it’s in their long term interests because it will ensure the artist, writer, musician will continue to produce. But it’s a rough old world out there and if that creative person dies of hunger or gives up and works in an office instead, another will pop up in their place.

The net result is this: we have cultural products – books, albums, pictures, films and so forth – that may have taken years to produce, and in some cases involved many people collaborating and huge financial outlay. And they have, as digital media, effectively nil commercial value to the person or people who created them – despite the high regard many readers, listeners and viewers may have for them.

I’m overstating the case. Such products have some value that can be realised because there are people who will buy from legitimate sources rather than download them for free; the non-electronic copies – printed books or framed and mounted photo prints – can be sold; books borrowed from libraries attract (in the UK) a small rights fee; bands can (maybe, the finances are often precarious) make money from their gigs or more lucratively from their music being played on the radio, in adverts, in supermarkets, mobile phone ringtones and so forth.

But the general point is still valid. The digital age, like almost all the ages before it, grossly undervalues its creatives. In times past, many creatives were virtually ignored in their own lifetimes and became famous long after they had any use for the income their work could achieve. I’m thinking of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, artists like van Gogh. In contemporary times, however, many if not most are simultaneously famous and undervalued, through being ripped off at the point when they become well-known.

I’m sure there are obscenely wealthy artists who can afford not to care about things like filesharing because they make their millions anyway. But that isn’t the case for most of them (perhaps I should say, most of us). There are plenty of writers of, say, romatic fiction novels – which as I’ve said is a big area right now for filesharing – who don’t generate huge sums per book. They get by, more or less, and the dent in their income caused by filesharing means they can’t pay their bills, or maybe, so I’ve been told, can’t pay their mortgage.

Part of the issue, perhaps obviously, is the problem of physical versus digital copies. As an author, if I publish a novel, I get royalties on the sales of new books. In the UK I also get a fee based on library loans of the book. I don’t, however, get paid for second-hand sales (though I gather there are mechanisms in place for this in some countries). However, the number of physical copies is finite. There are issues in some countries with books being translated or reproduced illegally but that’s a little beyond the scope of what I’m trying to think through here.

With digital copies, this changes. Giving away a digital file essentially means copying it to another location, but the original is still there. It’s not impossible to create security features. One can embed counters in files so that they can only be transferred from one machine to another a finite number of times; nor is it impossible to do what software manufacturers do and require a user to go online and register their purchase before it works. But it’s also not impossible to crack such features.

So ‘giving away’ a digital file essentially does mean making a copy. But some level of copying has to be seen as acceptable, even necessary. If I buy a physical book I can put it in my bag and read it wherever. With a digital book, like with downloaded music, it’s not unreasonable that I’d expect one fee to cover me having copies on my PC, laptop, and possibly an e-reader so I can read it wherever I am with whatever equipment I’m carrying with me. The bottom line is that when you buy an e-book, you’re buying the ability – though currently not usually the right – to make a number of additional and backup copies. However, you’ll still have those copies if you give the book away. In this sense the technical and legal arrangements are out of kilter.

It’s likely the technical security side of things will change. Publishers may use encrypted files that can only be used with a key, and keys that can only be bought from them or re-registered to another user via their website. But as I’ve said, the cracking of such systems often follows within weeks of them being set up, so better security isn’t intrinsically likely to solve digital piracy. Trying to use technical measures to conform to what’s legally allowable is never likely to work. What we need is an alternative way of thinking through how the market should work.

Moreover, much as filesharing may be lambasted by those who depend on sales, it can work to the advantage of new talent. Those at the beginning of their creative career face the problem of just getting noticed by a potential audience. Musicians release material on Youtube; writers accept that they will be putting out material for free, frequently in online magazines. This can be thought of as a legal form of fileshare deliberately engaged in by emerging artists. If they get to the point that there is an audience that wants the stuff, the fact that it is out there being downloaded is validation of a kind. Downloads from Youtube may be, actually, a lever to use in negotiating a contract.

The problem they face is the transition from ‘downloading as validation’ from sites such as Youtube to actually trying to make an income from their work, at which point filesharing Pirate Bay style becomes a problem. While artists and the companies that publish their work make a distinction between content intended to be offered for free as a form of advertising, and content that is intended to be paid-for and revenue generating. Whether filesharers even recognise this distinction is another question entirely (presumably they don’t actually care about it or the problem wouldn’t exist).

So: back to the poor starving creatives in their garret, trying to find ways to offer material online and generate revenue from it. If what we want is a new way of thinking about how the market should work, what are the options? The problem, as I’ve said, extends across all digital media. But I’m a writer, e-books are coming on strong, they’re being pirated increasingly frequently, and I have a living to make. So most of what follows relates to e-books.

I think the main option, the main axiom, is probably going to be: ‘publish like a pirate’.

If you know your stuff is going to get fileshared, it makes sense to give it away and find alternative revenue streams. The problem then is how these can be generated.

Pirate Bay itself admits to two main sources of funding: a private backer who put up the initial capital, and advertising (there don’t incidentally, appear to be lots of advertisers though looking at the site, some are quite unexpected!). There’s also some merchandise, and the front page has a Pirate Bay dating site – I haven’t investigated if this has been ‘monetised’ but presumably it could be.

It’s unlikely these strategies would work for an individual self-publishing author but they could work for a small independent publisher. They might publish books paid for by advertising contained within them, perhaps on pages between each chapter. It may not look that good, but then people are prepared to watch TV with ad breaks so why not read a book with them? They might, among many other things, advertise alternative versions such as a print-on-demand copy with additional material such as author interviews or artwork, special presentation binding and so forth.

Another solution borrowed from Pirate Bay would be to find a financial backer. No one appears to know what Carl Lundström (the Bay’s backer) has in mind in terms of a financial game plan but if he’s prepared to do it, others might be too – if only for the kudos of being publicly identified with some creative project. Plus, they wouldn’t be appearing in court as a co-defendant in anti-piracy legal cases.

For better-known authors, it could work this way: the author announces the latest book will be released free once donations via his or her website reach some specified amount. No pay, no show. People who pay are obviously paying partly for the file to be released, but might also feel that they’re contributing something on behalf of others and get the same warm fuzzy feelings they might get from, for example, supporting a sports team or donating to a charity…

One band I know has eschewed charging for their music for some time now – it’s all available free for download. They make their money from gigs and merchandise. How this might work for authors is an open question, but I do remember 30 years ago a series of poetry readings on the South Bank in London where W H Auden and Joseph Brodsky were the ‘headline’ acts, half a dozen others were the supporting cast, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was rammed to the rafters. So it can be done when there’s support for and interest in whoever’s at the top of the bill. Such a strategy would require, though, an impressario, a publisher, or a group of people with good publicity skills to make it happen. And in all likelihood it couldn’t happen often enough for writers to make a living purely from that kind of source.

So there’s the rub. If filesharing comes to be the norm, creatives need to look at solutions that may involve giving away the primary product (the book, for example) and making money from a range of revenue streams around it – sponsors, advertisers, public performance, chatroom participation, broadcast fees (thankfully TV and radio continue to pay actual money for such things), mechandise, interactive paid-for content on allied websites (think alternative endings, games, and so forth) and sales of hard copy ‘special editions’ with extras included. When I say ‘extras’ I’m not just thinking of special bindings or author interviews or artwork – one publisher or erotica, for example, gives POD purchasers the ability to personalise the book by choosing the names of the characters – choosing other plot details and even from among alternative endings would be equally possible.

Much of this will require writers to get involved with each other, and with other creatives (video makers, website designers, artists and so on) and with publishers, to do things that are better organised on a collective rather than individual basis. It will also involve building some kind of following, perhaps through social networking, so that readers become more than ‘just’ readers – they become fans and followers. And it will involve multiple small revenue streams from advertising, paid-for associated website content, author readings, performance pieces at festivals, multiple formats of print-on-demand, and so forth.

Whether (and how) such financial models could work successfully is open to question – and remember, Pirate Bay’s financial figures suggest it’s losing money too. But, as Carol White says (see the reference below), smaller publishers survive by offering quality publications for which there is a demand, and promoted in imaginative ways.

Thus far there’s been a lot of literature about how piracy can be challenged and stopped, and yet it continues and grows. There’s been literature on how technical advances may prevent copies being pirated, but many of those with the right technical expertise see such systems as a challenge rather than a deterrent.

The alternative way of looking at the situation would be, if piracy continues to increase, to find ways to generate income in ways that rely on, rather than try to fight, the pirates being the primary means of distribution.

And that’s going to mean operating in collective ways that involve groups of creatives and entrepreneurs with diverse skills who can weave many small income streams into a decent living.


Sykes, G and Matza, D (1957) ‘Techniques of Neutralisation: a theory of delinquency’, American Sociological Review, December.

White, Carol (2010) Marketing in Today’s Turbulent Publishing Environment. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/4905872.stm.

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  1. June 22, 2010 at 2:55 am
  2. June 22, 2010 at 9:10 am

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