Up until quite recently, when I thought of pirates, I thought of pirates, with hooks for hands and mustachios and scurvy. Now that I’ve become an author, however, I’ve become acquainted with another form of piracy.
I know that piracy within the music industry has existed for a very long time, but I was never a music pirate. First of all, I was never technologically savvy enough to really get into piracy. But I am also entirely, completely bourgeois, and the idea of doing anything called “piracy” repels me. I’ve never shoplifted; I’ve never stolen someone’s credit card; I’ve never walked off with someone’s jewelry or iPod.
That said, almost everyone else I’ve ever known has downloaded free music off the internet. They defend themselves with the following excuses: that big music studios won’t feel the loss, that artists like Britney Spears can afford to lose a few bucks, and that they will buy other songs or albums from the artist’s they really like. In other words, the pirated album is like a taste test and once they decide they like the artist, then they will pay for future works.
I never really thought much about the fact of my friend’s piracy or about their reasoning legitimating their actions until piracy became very real for me, as an author.
There is lots of talk about piracy within the book world, especially now with e-readers everywhere and downloadable copies of our books so very easy to make and to dispense. I knew piracy would be an issue for me and, indeed, almost as soon as my debut novel, Tempest Rising, was published there were copies available online.
Most of these sites are very anonymous and very . . . piratey. In other words, when I find my novel on one of these sites, I can imagine a bunch of pantalooned men sitting around hawking into spittoons and chortling as they scan copies of novels with one hand, while ravishing wenches with the other.
Then I found a site for fans of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. It’s a pretty, pink site with links to authors websites and contests, along with reviews and lots of excited discussion of new series, or new books coming out, or old books recently discovered. In other words, it’s a pretty typical fan site for readers of my genre. Only with one difference: this website also offers our novels, free for download. The authors of this site even ask those who download a book to leave a comment, to let them know that “their work was appreciated.”
My first thought was, “Oh my God, how could you! You say you’re fans of our work and then you’d steal from us?” My second thought was, “Where is my downloadable form from Hachette’s legal department, so I can get their lawyers on this shit.” My third thought, after I’d filled out and sent the required forms, and cleaned my bedroom to cool off, was, “Okay, let’s say they are really fans of our genre, as they claim. That means they are not doing this piracy to hurt us. They don’t know what their actions mean.”
That’s why I’m writing this blog post: to let the sort of people who create or utilize such websites know what they’re really doing when they pirate one of my books.
I imagine that when people pirate a book, or upload a book onto a pirate site, they are thinking some of the following things: that authors make the big bucks, that “big publishing companies” are untouchable, and that all they’re doing is taking a few bucks away from the fat cats. Maybe they think they’re even doing the publishing world a favor: that by offering our books for download, they’re increasing the size of our fan-pool; or cutting out some of the wheat from the chaff so that fans won’t waste money on authors who aren’t that great or that they don’t like, meaning they will have more money for authors they do enjoy; or trimming our salaries so we don’t become rock stars who pull rock star bullshit. Instead of going nuts, having babies, and shaving our heads, we’ll stay grounded and writing books, as we should be.
First of all, publishing houses are not untouchable monoliths. DoubleDay, Simon & Schuster, and Random House all suffered huge losses over publishing’s “Black Tuesday,” with direct losses in terms of staff, budget, and, in some extreme cases, entire imprints. When a publishing company’s budget goes, that means they can’t pay their authors, they can’t buy new books, and they can’t offer new contracts to existing authors. When an editor is lost, that means fewer new books can be bought by that company over the following year. And when an imprint goes, that means that many of the series that imprint was sitting upon will be dead in the water, unless a particular series or author has such high sales number that a different publishing company will risk buying what amounts to a defunct brand.
Secondly, writers are not Britney Spears. We are not rock stars. We are not even folk singers. If I were to tell you what my advance was for my three novels, it would sound like a huge amount of money. You’d be all, “Holy shit!” Then I’d tell you that money would be doled out over two years, not one. Then I’d tell you that my agent gets (a well deserved) fifteen percent, and that the government then takes exactly one third of that money. Then I tell you that although my publishing company is actually very good about publicizing its authors, I am still responsible for my own conventions, travel, swag, contest materials, etcetera.
In other words, what sounds like a great big sum of money becomes, quite simply, a very small salary. I estimate that this year I cleared from my writing, after taxes and all the expenditures (conferences, swag, etc), about 25,000 dollars.
Yes, my author’s salary for the year 2009 was about $25,ooo. For around $25,000, I wrote three books. Which means I wrote rough drafts, then did edits (in one case, grueling edits), copy edits, and final pass edits. I wrote back copy and front copy, and acknowledgements and dedications. I maintained a website, I blogged, I did copious interviews, I ran contests, I travelled and spoke at whatever convention would have me. I Tweeted, and Facebooked, and paid for a launch party, swag, and postage for review copies and bookplates.
To be honest, I had no idea writing was going to be this much work. And, for all of this work, I made about $25,000 dollars.
In the meantime, however, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a day job that allows me to write. As a professor, I have another salary on top of my book money. But don’t get too excited: I work for a state university in Louisiana. Which means, for all intents and purposes, I’m a Louisianan civil servant, i.e., not rolling in the dough. But I do have a salary. And, more importantly, it’s with a job that gives me time to write and, more importantly, gives me health insurance.
This is why most writers aren’t full time authors: until you are very successful (and there are only a handful of writers in America with this sort of success) you don’t make a lot of money. For keep in mind that an advance is just that: an advance on royalties. So I won’t make another penny on my first three novels until I pay back my advance. And that is going to take a very, very long time, unless a miracle (HBO series) appears on the horizon. Meanwhile, authors don’t get insurance through their publishers. We are independent contractors, meaning we get taxed out of the wazoo and if we want to see a doctor or a dentist, we pay out of pocket.
In fact, for the most part, any full-time author that you know about who isn’t Stephen King, Anne Rice, Danielle Steele, or the like is either a) married to someone who makes a decent living b) independently wealthy or c) okay with living as a starving artist.
Why Pirating Hurts Readers
Let’s say you don’t give a hoot about what I just wrote. Let’s say, for instance, you’re all, “I don’t care that author’s children can’t see a doctor, they get to be an author! that’s recompense, enough!” or “Whatever, so an author lives in a garrett and shops at the Salvation Army, s/he could get a day job! Nicole has one!” or, “It’s just one book, and I’m strapped for cash right now. One book totally doesn’t make a difference! I’ll buy the next one!”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Let’s take the “It’s just one book,” “the company can afford it,” or “the author can afford it,” excuse.
Firstly, as a new writer, I’m judged not on my literary merit but on my sales. Every single reviewer in the country could say I was a genius; that I deserve the Nobel prize. My fans could name their babies after my characters and move, as one, to Maine to start a town called Rockabill where they will squabble over who gets to be Jane for the day. But if my numbers aren’t good enough, my publishing company won’t buy more Jane True books. And not only do I need to sell books, but I need to sell my first book. Because I’m releasing on an eight-month schedule, we’ll be negotiating for more books based almost entirely on the sale of Tempest Rising. So unless you want my series to end at number three, my first book has to sell.
Secondly, most authors can’t afford to do this job. I read a lot of reviews of books where people talk about how “so and so is just churning them out nowadays, like she/he doesn’t even care about the quality of his/her work.” What readers don’t understand is that a lot of writers are on ridiculous publishing schedules not because they don’t care, or because they’re so eager to get that jacuzzi installed in their yacht, but because they have to eat. How many individuals (let alone families) do you know who could live off a $25,000 salary? Especially when that salary gets eaten up by covering the family health insurance, dental insurance, etcetera? Most authors cannot make ends meet on their book salaries alone, meaning that a lot of authors have day jobs that, unlike mine, are real nine to fivers.
Keeping in mind that my professorial job was created to give me some (if limited) time to write, and that last year I worked pretty much all the time with my two jobs, I can’t begin to imagine how someone with a “real” day job could write a book. Let alone if they have a family on top of everything. It just couldn’t be feasible, long term, for anybody. People will either stop writing, or they’ll start writing to make deadlines rather than writing to tell a story. And who could blame them?
In the meantime, I wish I was a rock star. I wish I had minions who I paid out of my overflowing bank account, stuffed full of the riches I earned from my books. But that’s a pipe dream. I mostly do the writing because I love it and to cut off my characters, now, would be like amputating a limb. And yet, I also need to pay my bills. At the same time, my publishing company has to know they’re not sinking money into a wasted cause.
Which is why, as a debut novelist, literally every book counts and is counted. And each of those books will add up to whether I get to write more about Jane True and her friends. So when someone reads her story, without paying their $7.99, Jane loses a vote. One vote doesn’t seem like a lot, but a lot of single votes adds up to a lot of votes, period.
And every pirated copy of my book downloaded illegally means one less chance I get to publish anything after book three. So if you enjoy reading and want to read more books, especially more debut novels by new authors, please don’t pirate. Not just for our sake, as authors, but for your sake, as a reader. For piracy skews numbers: it means that the “big” names will get bigger while less money is spent on younger talents. It means that debut novels that you enjoyed won’t be followed up by a second or a third book in the series. And it means that more authors will take on too much work, just to make a decent living.
In other words, if you have any love for books, don’t be a pirate. Or just buy an eye patch and a parrot and pretend, at home. That’s far more exciting. After all, someone will have to be the wench . . .