As a leftist, I’m meant to take a stand against profit driven enterprises. Many people on my end of the political spectrum decry copyright law as inherently exploitative, keeping art and literature in the hands of the privileged class and denying the working class access to content. To some extent, this is true. We’ve all heard stories about giant movie studies going after small YouTube creators for using movie clips, or HBO suing individuals who downloaded one episode of Game of Thrones. When multi-billion dollar industries, and the corporations behind them, take on individuals, people who usually have limited resources with which to fight these companies for small copyright infractions, it is hard to side with the creators. Those of us who were downloading music on Napster in the early 00s remember how much ridicule Metallica endured for suing Napster and asking the company to ban users who downloaded Metallica’s music (which they did). When piracy is seen as a conflict between the big guy and the little guy, we tend to side with the little guy.
The problem with book piracy is that often the piracy of books is not about the little guy versus the big guy, it is about the little guy versus the other little guy. Authors may be under contract with publishers, who are indeed large companies with a lot of resources, but the authors themselves have little control over what these companies do with their money. Authors themselves, contrary to what many people think, are not rich. Those six figure advances that the public hears about are the exception, not the rule, and for every J.K. Rowling there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who struggle to make even the equivalent of minimum wage for their work. While you may think that by pirating a book you’re sticking it to a big corporation, a publisher like Random House or a bookseller like Barnes and Noble, you’re also directly impacting authors. Every book that you download is a sale the author does not make, and money that the author does not earn. Are the large corporations impacted? Yes and no. Because large publishing companies publish thousands of books a year, including bestsellers guaranteed to sell regardless of whether or not pirated versions are available, downloading one pirated book is unlikely to make the same impact upon say, Random House, as it would upon the author of that book.
Nor is book piracy similar to the piracy of television shows or movies. If you download an episode of Game of Thrones you can rest assured that the directors, actors, and writers will be paid regardless (and paid well). Downloading an episode of a television show means that you did not pay for the subscription service or view the advertising that funds these shows. Still, these shows are massively successful and piracy does not generally jeopardize their existence. Book sales operate on an entirely different premise. An author is paid an advance for a book, and must make the amount of that advance in sales before they see a penny in royalties. Most advances are modest, and rarely amount to more than what would be a year’s salary for most people, say $30,000-$50,000, even though books represent sometimes two or three years worth of work on the part of the writer. Sometimes advances are even less. Again, an author does not start earning royalties until their books have earned back the advance. At that point, the author earns money, or royalties, on every book sold.
Authors, by and large, do not have many other ways to make money aside from book sales. While bands might sell merchandise and play to packed stadiums, or sell the rights to their songs to movies, TV shows and films, writers, for the most part, must rely book sales to make money. There is the slight possibility that a writer might sell the television or movie rights, this doesn’t happen to all, or even most authors. Some authors like J.K. Rowling may create an entire intellectual property based upon their works, with toys, posters, and t-shirts, these authors represent a tiny minority of the whole. The vast majority of writers rely on book sales and the occasional paid appearance to earn a living.
Many people who complain about greedy authors who oppose piracy seem to imagine the author as a figure of immense privilege, when in fact writers often work several jobs in addition to writing because writing alone rarely pays the bills. And while being able to write at all certainly implies a degree of inherent privilege — an education, perhaps, enough time each day to set aside for writing — writers are not, by and large, wealthy people. They struggle to pay the rent. They’re paying off college loans. They’ve got kids to support. Writers are not sitting in castles counting their stacks of cash, they’re people, just like you and I. Authors are not trying to deprive people of reading material out of greed, they simply want to be properly compensated for work that represents years of time and effort.
While it can certainly be argued that the entire capitalist system of modern publication is something that needs to be revamped, leftist thought has never involved denying workers the right to make a living. Writers provide an essential service, creating stories that entertain, educate, and inspire us. If writers cannot make a living, these stories will cease to exist. And in our current society, if publishers deem certain books unprofitable, those authors will lose their contracts, those books will cease to be published. Writer Maggie Stiefvater most famously planted a fake pirated copy of the fourth book in her Raven Boys series after piracy took its toll on the sales of the third book. When would-be pirates downloaded the fourth book and found it incomplete (with a message at the end the portion regarding the impact of piracy), they were forced to purchase the book outright, and sales of that book far outpaced those of the third. When we download books illegally, not only do our favorite authors lose the ability to make a living, we may lose the ability to read these authors’ books at all.
So, you understand that authors are not rich, and you don’t want them to lose money, but you still can’t afford books. What can you do? In the year 2020, if you live in the English speaking world, there are a great number of ways to access books online without violating authors’ copyrights or interfering with their ability to make a living. If your town doesn’t have a good old fashioned brick and mortar library, or your library’s selection is limited, most libraries now allow for the borrowing of e-books. Libby, for instance, is an app that lets you connect to libraries all over the country and will give you access to potentially millions of e-books for free. You are not limited to simply one library either — you can sign into multiple libraries with one device. Again, Libby is entirely free (I’m not being paid to plug Libby, I promise, I am just a big fan!), and because libraries have contracts with publishers that grant them legal licenses for the books that are in their systems, authors get paid when you use the service. Aside from Libby there are services such as Scribd which are relatively low cost — a subscription to Scribd costs $9.99 a month and grants access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks. And of course, any books that are already in the public domain are freely available on a multitude of sites.
Perhaps one day society will be remade and artists will be supported by state funding or endowments for the arts, and books, artwork, movies, and music will all be available to everyone at no cost. Certainly writers and artists would be the first ones to rejoice if there were a way to ensure that not only would they be fairly compensated for their work, their work could reach an even broader audience. In the meantime though, we do not yet live in that society. It is cruel to argue that writers should have no control over the products of their own labor. And while there are some writers today who are willing to write for the sake of it (I’m receiving no money for writing this blog, after all), and who will freely disseminate their work, it is unfair to expect writers to do this on a regular basis while maintaining consistent output and professional standards. If we think of authors as workers, writing as labor, and books as the fruits of that labor, then taking books away from the writers who created them and giving them nothing in return, is hardly a progressive stance. What’s even more shameful is treating authors as the enemy because they have the audacity to ask that people not pirate. Authors are simply people trying to make a living. Speak out against an unjust system, against publishers, Amazon, big box stores, but authors? All authors want is some small compensation for their labor, and if that makes them the enemy, then so is anyone else who refuses to work for free.