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First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Authors

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2019

(Illustration: Wellcome Library, London.)

I didn’t plan this piece to coincide with the Patreon campaign I started last week. But it suggests what’s happened for writers like me on the book publishing side of our lives. The magazine and newspaper sides of our work have also suffered at the hands of Internet giants like Google and Facebook.  For me, 2017 was the year these changes really hit home.  In the past, magazines sent me wherever I needed to go to get the story, from Easter Island to Bhutan.  But suddenly three major magazines hiring me to write feature stories asked me, in so many words, to phone it in. One wanted me to write a story “with lots of tick-tock” about tropical deforestation. But the editor would only give me expense money to travel to Washington, D.C. (On reading the manuscript, he complained that he wasn’t “smelling the rainforest.”) Another magazine where I have been a contributor for 34 years asked me to write a travel feature but wouldn’t send me to the destination because a different magazine had sent me there on an unrelated feature the year before. (The editor made it that month’s cover story.) Finally, a magazine (contributor for almost 30 years) didn’t actually tell me I couldn’t travel.  But they asked me for an expense estimate for a proposed day trip to New Jersey from my home in Connecticut. (I went. Yay!)

I don’t mean to complain. I have been extremely lucky to have a career and support my family as a writer. I want to continue doing this work, though, and I want younger writers to have the same opportunities. That is becoming harder and harder for us all. 

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

One day not long ago in a college class I was teaching, some of my students couldn’t find the page I was talking about in the reading. And it dawned on me: There was only one required text in the class, an anthology of writing about the natural world called “American Earth.” And they were reading pirated copies — versions downloaded free from some dubious “provider” on the internet.

It was a college well known for its progressive politics. So maybe my students thought they were striking a blow against the dark hegemony of greedy textbook publishers. Or maybe, tuition and textbook costs having soared into the stratosphere, they just wanted to save 27 bucks, the discounted online price. As gently as possible, I informed them that they were in fact stealing from the author (or, in this case, editor) who happened to be the climate activist Bill McKibben, one of their environmental heroes. Also, Library of America, which published the book, is legally a nonprofit. (Many other publishing companies now achieve that status merely de facto.)

I’m afraid it was a teaching moment fail. My students looked baffled, but unpersuaded, caught up in the convenient rationalization that authors subsist on inspiration and the purest love of subject matter. I tried to explain: Authors need to eat, too, and we get by (or not quite, these days), by showing up at our writing places at a designated time day after day and staying there till we have fretted out our quota of words, to be sent off, after a time, to a publisher, in the hope that, two or three years down the road, a few pennies may come trickling back under the ludicrously grandiose name of “royalties.”

These days, though, what comes trickling back are mostly email alerts about websites in brazen violation of copyright law, offering free downloads of books the authors have spent years of their lives producing. At the moment, I have about 400 such offers of my own books in an email folder labeled “Thieves.” Most of them, it turns out, are phishing scams, asking gullible users to hand over credit card information before proceeding to their ostensibly free copy.

The real theft happens elsewhere, though, according to publishing industry experts who track the rapid growth of book piracy. It happens in a bewildering assortment of venues, including “piracy libraries” that turn up in Google searches, illegal PDFs on eBay, counterfeit physical copies on Amazon, private file-sharing groups on Facebook, and person-to-person sharing via thumb drive.

“There are people out there that just want everything to be free,” says Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Authors Guild (where I am a member), “and it’s like a religion to them.” Some piracy sites, she says, even advise users how to buy a digital copy of a book, strip out the digital rights management (D.R.M.) intended to protect the author’s rights, upload the book to a file-sharing site, and then return the book for a refund, “so they don’t even have to pay for the original.” Some sites are so insanely bent on copyright piracy that they offer their followers wedding vows, in which the couple solemnly commits to support the copying culture. “They don’t understand that writers need to get paid, and publishers are not going to publish books if they can’t make money on them.”

Since 2009, when eBooks and book piracy became a phenomenon, income for full- and part-time authors has declined 42 percent, according to Rasenberger, with the median income from writing now so low — just $6,080 a year — that poverty level looks like the mountaintop. By contrast, a 2017 Nielsen survey found that people who admitted to having read a pirated book in the previous six months tend to be middle class, educated, female as well as male, between the ages of 30 and 44 — and with an income of $60,000 to 90,000 a year. Weirdly, many of them, like the students in my class, are fans of the authors they pirate, as if circulating copies of someone’s lifetime of work without payment is somehow high praise. Book series are especially vulnerable, because hoarding behavior leads some book pirates to think it’s cool to put the whole shebang together and make it available free.

The Nielsen survey, commissioned by Digimarc, a provider of copyright and trademark protection services, estimated that book publishers lose $315 million in sales per year to piracy. Taking the typical starting percentage for royalties, that works out to $31.5 million authors no longer earn. And that translates into many authors giving up and going into public relations, or worse.

What’s maddening is how little we can do about any of this, or rather, how much we can do, with so little effect. American law allows the legal copyright holder to send a formal takedown notice to the culprit site, which generally ignores it, especially if operating outside the United States. Even in the unlikely event that the culprit complies, the book simply moves to a new URL, or web address, requiring the author or publisher to send another takedown notice, and another, and another. Whack-a-mole can become a full-time unpaid job.

It’s also maddening because the platforms that enable this behavior, including Google (2018 profits: $31 billion), Amazon ($10 billion), Facebook ($22 billion), and eBay ($2 billion), are far better equipped financially and technologically to block piracy before it even starts. But the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifically exempts them from liability for the illegal and antisocial behaviors they communicate. Recent public outrage has made these platforms fearful of regulation and thus more attentive to the business of monitoring and policing content. But Google’s business model remains largely “indifferent to whether consumers arrive at legitimate or pirated goods,” according to a recent statement by the Association of American Publishers. Likewise, Amazon enables “widespread counterfeiting, defective products, and fake reviews” which leave authors and publishers at a rapidly deepening loss.

Maybe, though, it’s too narrow to focus on the way our society has discounted its authors. No doubt musicians, and local retailers, and hometown newspapers, and schoolteachers, and factory workers all feel discounted in much the same way. We have surrendered our lives to technocrat billionaires who once upon a time set out to do no harm and have instead ended up destroying the world as we knew it. Convenience and the lowest possible price, or no price at all, have become our defining values. We have severed ourselves from our communities and from the mutual give-and-take that was once our ordinary daily life. Now we sit alone in our rooms, restlessly scrolling for something free to read.

##

Richard Conniff is an award-winning science writer. His books include The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W. W. Norton, 2011). He is now at work on a book about the fight against epidemic disease. Please consider becoming a supporter of this work. Click here to learn how.

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3 Responses to “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Authors”

  1. dinets said

    Russia became essentially copyright-free in the 1990s. Everything that is published gets pirated almost immediately. For about a decade it was great to be a Russian speaker, because so much stuff was available online for free. But then authors got tired of working on pure enthusiasm, and the quality of literature plummeted. What used to be one of the world’s most interesting literary cultures is now dying. There is just one guy who still writes good poetry; all prose is sloppily written, amateurish, and boring.

  2. This comment came in from Jerry H. Ginsberg, but on the wrong article. So I am moving it to here, with minor edits:

    I am a retired chaired professor at the Georgia Insititute of Technology. I read your column in the NY Times on 16 Sept, “Steal This Book? There’s a Price”. I have written a number of advanced textbooks in engineering, and am extremely sensitive to all of the issues you brought up in your column. Approximately eight years ago, I received a major award from one of my professional societies. In connection with that award I wrote an article in the society’s journal: The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America about writing books. In the closing section I raised all of the concerns about internet piracy that you raised. It is astonishing that the younger generation does not recognize the wrongness of this practice. If you send me your email address, I will send you the article. It is not technical, and is the only article in that journal to reference “Lawrence of Arabia” and “David Copperfield”. I would welcome discussing these matters with you or any of your interested readers.

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