Thursday Throwdown: Piracy for Dummies

Or maybe that should read “Piracy is for dummies.”

If you haven’t been around the Twitterverse or Dear Author lately, you may have missed the flare-up over an article in the New York Times yesterday, wherein a reader told a reported that she shares her Kindle account with several friends, does not always pay for the ebooks she reads, and was pretty sure what they were doing by sharing this Kindle account was exploiting a “loophole” in Kindle’s Terms of Service. Turns out, upon review, that there was nothing shady or dubious, let alone piractical, about what she and her friends were doing, but that didn’t stop some folks from castigating her and calling her a thief. It also let to a pretty lively discussion on Twitter about whether there was a difference between sharing ebooks within a household/among family members versus among friends who don’t live together.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time regurgitating my thoughts about this particular case of booksharing (which I have no issues with whatever and which others have already more than adequately explained1), but instead try to coalesce my thoughts about the issue underlying the outrage: ebook piracy.

There’s no doubt that true ebook piracy is rampant and poses a significant threat to authors. It’s simply far to easy (even with DRM) for a person to buy one copy of an ebook, then upload the file to a torrent site for thousands of passersby to download on a whim. Not only that, there are folks out there who take pride in never paying for books (or music) because they know how to suss out the free copies. They know they are stealing, and not only do they not care, they’re actually willing to brag about it.

A little harder to quantify is how many innocent folks stumble on a book or song they want on a torrent site and don’t realize it’s not legal to download it for free. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. No one could be that stupid/Internet illiterate. Alas, I think they can be. And it doesn’t help, IMO, that Amazon has started offering some of its Kindle books for the whopping sum of $0.00. That may be a win for classic literature, but it does instill the notion that books can be downloaded for free and still be legal. (A lot of authors also offer free reads from their websites, and I think it’s a great strategy for attracting new readers. Buuuuut, it does have a downside, which is again to reinforce the idea that readers shouldn’t/don’t have to pay for content.)

All in all, I don’t think there is a topic out there that can touch off more moral outrage in the author community than piracy. Authors see pirates taking money out of their pockets, and they don’t like it.

I’m not about to say authors should like it, but I do think it wouldn’t hurt to get less exercised about it. Because in all honesty, I don’t think piracy by itself is near as big a threat to authors as (are you ready?) the fact that most publishers seem to have little or no interest in stopping it.

As angry as authors are about piracy, you would think publishers would be absolutely foaming at the mouth over it. You’d think they’d be threatening lawsuits against every illegal downloader the way the music industry publishers back in the days of Napster. You’d think they’d be hiring attorney to bring suit against ISPs for allowing torrent sites that regularly violate copyright. (Most of these sites are hosted in countries with questionable legal systems or enforcement of copyright laws, so going after the SITES is pretty tough.) And you’d think they’d be working way harder to get strong, consistent, coherent definitions of fair use and ownership of digital media so that people would be absolutely clear on what constitutes legal sharing and what constitutes thievery.

Instead, publishers seem to me to be doing little more than sticking their fingers in the dyke by putting DRM on their ebook files and/or otherwise dragging their feet to join the digital age. And frankly, DRMing or holding up ebook production is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “neener, neener, neener” at piraters, because all it takes for someone to pirate your print is a scanner and a few too many hours of spare time. Bottom line: If someone wants to pirate your book, they will, because a) they can and b) there are no real consequences for doing so.

Why aren’t publishers as worked up about this as authors are? I have no idea. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing the evidence of it. But will say this–authors can’t do much about stopping/reducing piracy without the help of the deep pockets in the game.

So, the next time you, the author, find your book on a torrent site for download, in addition to railing about the injustice of it all and emailing the site to get them to take it down, send the information to your editor or the sales department at your publishing house, along with the number of downloads. Maybe if publishers saw each and every instance of piracy in literally hundreds of emails from their authors, they’d take the threat a little more seriously.

1For great discussions of the situation, see:

Thursday Throwdown: Are Most Bestsellers Good or Garbage?

With Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol hitting the shelves this week and almost certainly destined to be a blockbuster bestseller, I remembered a discussion I had about a month ago on Twitter about whether or not books that make the bestseller list are, in some objective measure, “good”–even if we personally don’t see their appeal. I said I thought they were.

Just because I don’t like a particular book and/or don’t think it’s well-written doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. And I think if large numbers of people are buying and reading a book, there has to be something worthwhile about it. I just don’t subscribe to the theory that popular culture has poor/low taste and can’t recognize quality. For starters, if I did subscribe to that theory, I’d a) think democracy was the stupidest form of government on earth and b) stop trying to write good books and try to write crap instead.

The reason the release of the Dan Brown book made me think about this is that his breakout book, The DaVinci Code, is without a doubt one of the most maligned bestsellers in recent memory. According to many of its critics, it’s poorly written with wooden dialogue and a boring protagonist and a plot that’s both derivative (“Hey, someone else thought of that whole Mary Magdalene bit first! How dare the author use it?”) and predictable (“I figured out the last clue PAGES before the protagonists! How could they be so stupid?”).

Now, all of that may actually be true, but I’m going to tell you a secret: I liked The DaVinci Code. Not as much as Angels and Demons (which coincidentally had an even more absurd and fanciful plot, but who’s paying attention?), but…it was, for me, an enjoyable read. No, I didn’t think it was high literary art or destined to become a classic in the canon of American literature, but as entertainment, these books worked for me–and clearly for several million other people as well. And when we get right down to it, isn’t that what books are supposed to be? How can people be wrong about what entertains them?

None of this is to say that deserving books always become bestsellers. There are a whole host of factors that go into determining which books hit the bestseller lists, not the least of them being whether or not the publisher markets it with the intention of making it one. But I do think publishers have a pretty good idea which books have the right elements to become bestsellers and they plan accordingly. They aren’t stupid. Of course, sometimes, they get it wrong (like all the publishers who turned down The Shack, which has since become an enormous bestseller), but by and large, they do a pretty good job of guessing which books will have the popular appeal to hit the bestseller lists.

So, that’s my opinion. I think most bestsellers are, in fact, good rather than garbage. Even the ones I either didn’t like or that I have no interest in reading (dude, Twilight). Hey, I don’t have any interest in reading Moby Dick, either. I escaped it in high school and I know it’s supposed to be great literature, but I also really don’t care that much.

But I’m curious what you think. Do you think most bestsellers deserve their status or do you think they’re mostly garbage or is it somewhere in between. Vote below and leave your comments!

[poll id=”5″]

P.S. Yes, I’ll be buying The Lost Symbol but I’ll be waiting for it to come out in mass market paperback. Not only because I’m cheap, but because I just don’t like reading hardbacks!

Thursday Throwdown: Why You Should Want Universal Insurance

Yes, I’m pre-empting my normal ranting and raving about publishing and writing to bring you an overtly political rant and rave about healthcare reform.

Here’s the thing…I’m frankly baffled that this is political at all. Everyone should want universal access to healthcare in America. Everyone should want everyone else to have insurance coverage. Everyone. Including, yes, those terrible, evil illegal immigrants who are ruining America.

But I digress.

I have a very personal story to tell that illustrate why universal coverage should matter to you, even if you have health insurance. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do, really, with enlightened self-interest or lowering costs by getting all those uninsured people out of the emergency room.

No, it’s because it can save your life (or the life of someone you love).

Back in July of 2003, I had a sudden and severe asthma attack. The best way I can describe it is to say that it felt like someone had closed a door between my upper airways and my lungs. Everything seemed to have swollen shut. I tried my rescue inhaler without success. I tried my nebulizer, also without success. It was the middle of the night, so I called 911, imagining that there would be something the paramedics could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself. Then I woke my husband.

I don’t remember much after that. My husband says it took almost 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. They tried to get me to use my nebulizer (duh, I’d tried that; didn’t work). They tried giving me oxygen. And finally, they realized they had to transport me.

And then they spent SEVERAL MINUTES in the driveway of our house trying to get my husband (at 2am with his wife DYING in front of his eyes) to supply proof that we had insurance. Never mind that, even then, that was illegal. Never mind that I was in the back of the ambulance going cyanotic and gasping for air.

Obviously, they did eventually transport me and, thank God, a wonderful team of doctors and nurses saved my life. But by the time I arrived, I’d been in cardiac arrest for almost five minutes.

Now, if those paramedics hadn’t stood there in the driveway asking my husband about our insurance, I MIGHT have arrived at the hospital with a heartbeat. I might not have had to have CPR. I might have spent less time in the hospital, costing my insurance company and the health care system in general less money. At the time, I had a

Even though they weren’t supposed to ask, the fact that they KNEW many people don’t have insurance made them feel they were justified in doing so. They wanted to make sure they would get paid. I can’t say I entirely blame them. But that small delay could have been the difference between my living and dying.

When my husband arrived at the hospital, the paramedics were coming out. They wouldn’t look at him. He thought then that I was gone. They are probably lucky I lived, because he’d probably have had a cause of action in my wrongful death if I didn’t.

But either way, wouldn’t it be better if no one EVER had to worry whether a patient’s care would be paid for? It could save lives. Maybe yours.

Thursday Throwdown: Shelve the Books Already

We all know there’s something of a crisis in the bricks-and-mortar bookselling industry. Both independent and chain bookstores are strugging to survive as people are buying fewer books overall and more and more of those buyers are choosing to purchase from online retailers, especially the 1,000 lb. gorilla, Amazon. They’re also facing stiff competition from the big box chains like WalMart and Target, which stock a much more limited number of titles but provide nice discounts on the ones they do carry.

What are bookstores to do in this economy and environment? Well, I’ll tell you one thing they could do that would make me immensely happier and more likely to buy from them–shelve books on (if not before) their official release date! I cannot tell you how many times in the past few months I’ve gone into my nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble on the release date of a book I was craving only to discover it hadn’t been shelved yet. When I asked, I was told they hadn’t “broken down that box yet.”

Want specifics? How about this–although my Barnes & Noble had my book shelved several days early, my Borders didn’t bother putting out the one copy they apparently ordered for a full TWO WEEKS after its release date. TWO WEEKS! And I’m a local author. What’s up with that? And when I went there looking for Tessa Dare’s first book, Goddess of the Hunt, a few weeks later, it was also not shelved on its release date (although I did find it there a few days later).

I came to the conclusion that my Borders must be understaffed, but since the B&N had my book out few days earlier, when it was time for Tessa’s second book, Surrender of a Siren, to hit the shelves, I went there, sure they’d have it out. But they didn’t! They lost a significant sale from me as a result of this failure because I was going to buy the next two books in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, but since I couldn’t get everything I wanted and I knew I could also get the Westerfeld books at Target (which always stocks a good selection of YA), I left without buying anything. I went to Target two days later, where I scored everything I wanted for a lower price (and also purchased a bunch of need sundry items into the bargain…ah, convenience).

So, here’s the deal…if bookstores don’t get with the program and shelve by their release date (not the day after or two days after or a week after), it’s my personal belief that they will continue to lose more sales to the chains and to the online booksellers. Amazon was shipping my book, which had an official release date of May 26, 2009, as early as May 17. (If I had any notion of hitting any bestseller lists, that might have irritated me, since I know early release is bad for those “numbers,” but given that wasn’t even on my radar, it was actually nice to know they were sending it out to folks who’d preordered months before.) For Borders not to shelve it for a full two weeks after the release date is, IMO, unconscionable (and honestly, since the last attempt to find a book on its shelving date failed, I’m seriously considering never shopping there again).

What do you think? What do you think is killing brick-and-mortar booksellers? Am I onto something or are there other factors you’d like to discuss? I’d love to hear!