Saturday, May 7, 2016

Rationalizing Piracy

This last week writing circles exploded when an author received an email from a fan explaining that after reading all her books—and they were awesome, she should be proud—the reader had to return them because they ranged from 99 cents to $2.99 and that was “just too much for me to spend on an ebook. Can you make your books free from now on please?”

People were not happy.

I think what shocked writers wasn’t that someone had taken advantage of the return policy—most indies have experience with constant returns, abuse of electronic giveaways and being asked for free books—but to hear someone who seemed to have no shame in doing so, in fact feel entitled to her work, shook our understanding on who was pirating literature and for what reasons.

Surely they knew they were doing something wrong?

After blocking the reader, a new account was made to send her a hate-filled message telling her the reader was hurt that, after complimenting the series, she found herself blocked and called a liar, thief, and bitch. When she went to Amazon to return a book, she had to call in due to the investigation suspending her account. After a long lecture about how the author needed to learn how to properly speak with her readers and until she learned how to treat people she would never be a bestseller, the reader insisted we should not have to “pay for the stories in your head.”

Obviously we all know someone who has thought like this, but to actually state it, completely indignant that anyone else would suspect otherwise? For anyone who is written, it’s hard to understand that rationale. Is it because she thinks writing’s easy? Because we like doing the work we shouldn’t get paid? Because real authors shouldn’t write for the money?

I remember back when CDs started switching over to mp3s and the first time electronic piracy came into conversation. As a pre-teen in a small town, my choices were to go to the few stores that sold albums in town, hope they had it, pay fifteen dollars for one song and bank on liking more of them I had an allowance of twenty dollars a month, and spent the majority of my first few teenage years with only three different CDs. Music theft opened doors for me, and I rationalized it like anyone else. It gets your name out there. They make money off the concerts!

My brother got an iPod before me, and he, of course, filled it with the music of his friends. That wasn’t theft, really. How was it any different than borrowing CDs?

Plus, combined with the laughable severity that the big corporations treated piracy, it felt as though they were just being money grubbing. It’s not like mugging. It’s victimless.

I was a good girl, still am, so I didn’t do anything in the way of shoplifting—cigarettes, underage drinking, talking to strangers or anyone else for that matter—and was astounded to find when my friends admitted to having taken stuff from Kmart. But from the way they spoke about it, it was clear they didn’t see it in the same light as stealing from a friend or individual. Why?

The cost a company got on wholesale is less, to be accurate, and when you’re dealing with a megacorporation it can seem like ten bucks isn’t a big deal to them. It’s not like there was any sentimental value, and it will be naturally be restocked anyway.

Most crimes occur via dehumanizing the victim. Businesses aren’t people. They’re the man. Empathy for the owner of the local Walmart is non-existent. And hey, they don’t have empathy for their employees either so…

Yet somehow it still happens to the Ma and Pa stores, the local craftsman, and even the lone artist.

Indie authors genuinely do most of their promotion by working face to face, getting their name out there, and networking, but I suppose we’ve long put authors on pedestals, and it wasn’t until the internet that we became so familiar with the actual face and Tweets of those we know and love. Even to this day the average reader doesn’t take notice of names, let alone being able to pick his favorite author out of a line up. We still don’t see writers as the same as us, and if we do, it’s usually because we don’t really consider them authors. Perhaps that’s where the reader was coming from.

In the case of any petty theft, we feel like those we are stealing from can afford to lose it, or that our desire is more than their loss. This makes electronic piracy even more tempting because the owner isn’t actually out anything. The gain of the taker did not detract from the holdings of the proprietor.

Yet still, you can assume that even after someone rationalizes downloading something off a pirated website as not hurting anyone, they’d still have the sense to have the sense they aren’t entitled to it? To be aware that the writer has the right to value herself and her work worthy of a trade?

In her reply, the reader claimed that normally writers responded to this kind of letter by making her a beta-reader. I suppose, and hope, that maybe it wasn’t because she legitimately believed the author should be offering her books for free, just that it was a means of becoming a beta.

Even still, her end sentence was telling: People shouldn’t have to pay for the stories in your head.

Is that true? Now that ebook publication can be done virtually for free, is it arguable that artists should give away their work?

I understand the logic—to some extent. People demote materialism and commercialism every time you go out in public. From where I’m sitting, we’re not a Kardashian world; we’re a world who loves to hate them. Selling out has been the greatest sin for artists since we stopped having patrons. Ask any aspiring writer and you’ll hear them go on about how they’re not in it for the money.

In response to the author’s post this week, many people pointed out how spending less than what it costs for a cup of coffee could help independent authors pay their electricity bills. Which is true. A lot of the writers I know are struggling financially and use their writing as a supplement to keep their heads above water. Plus, career authors, those who have quit their day job, can produce and polish work faster than those who still have to make their end’s meet elsewhere. So there is direct a benefit to readers to pay authors in that aspect.

Writers put forward a huge amount of time, invested their own money, and set their own terms for trade—many way below standard in fact. It’s a business. It’s a job, and in any other circumstance no one would be shocked to say, “You want me to pay you for your time?” Yet I didn’t feel that argument would hold much water.

Writing is a luxury, people think. It is our choice. It is someone playing pretend and charging others to be a voyeur to our sick little pleasures.

And the sad thing is, it’s kind of true. All of us started our first manuscript without being sure we’d ever see a dime for it. A good portion of us started the next without having the first go anywhere. Many of us would continue to write long after we realized we would never get paid in our entire lifetimes.

It’s something like when my brother got his driver’s license and we started to argue how much I should pay for gas when I hitched a ride with him to school. Should I pay half because I’m using it just as much? Should I pay nothing because he’s going to use the same amount whether I’m in the car or not? I felt entitled to the free ride because it didn’t change his cost. If you’re a real writer, the logic goes, you should be writing whether you get paid or not, so what does it matter if I read for free?

It’s hard enough for writers to get past this mentality of, “You’re doing me a favor,” when anyone has interest in their work, probably a part of the reason why the fan thought complimenting the author on a job well done would compensate for the ridiculous request. It seemed to work well enough in the past.

When I was in Los Angeles, my biggest mistake was when I convinced a director, and friend of mine, to commission a script from me. We worked together to suit his—and his repertory company’s—needs and create something he was interested in but matched up with the required size of the cast. The end results were excellent, but it was harrowing, mainly because it was my first commission and by a friend; I worked so hard to please him rather than take a strong, professional stance. On the few occasions that I did argue with him, like when he wanted to plagiarize, he paid no attention to my consideration and insisted I was being stubborn and argumentative. He later apologized and I learned a great deal about the importance of valuing your own time and opinions, but it was still an error on my part to not see that I was doing him just as much of a favor as he was me.

As for the idea that it’s not really work because we choose to do it, it reminds me of when people approach writers stating, “I have an idea, will you write it for me?” and seem to have no inclination of what kind of effort that would actually be: the pain, the suffering, and the amount of time that goes into it. Of course, when the writer suggests “you do it,” they seem to think that there is some magical difference between the two of you, like you just have more time on your hands, or are simply more driven.

No, we writers aren’t meta-humans without urge to procrastinate or sit on our asses watching T.V. In the odd cases that we do get to write full-time, it’s not like we have a day off. We work just like everyone else. Most writers have this real career as a secondary job. Instead of coming home and playing video games, we spend another two hours actively forcing ourselves to keep going, despite not getting paid.

It’s hard to explain to someone what the experience is like if you’ve never done it, but let me try to put it into perspective.

My record word count in one day is 23,000 words. Keep in mind I’ve hit that once in the last fifteen years. My average is closer to 2,500.

But let’s give me the benefit of the doubt.

Say I write an 80,000 word manuscript, which is actually on the thinner side for something you’d find in a book store. (Hunger Games is about 100K, for example.) If I wrote 20,000 words a day, it would take me four days to complete draft one. My top writing speed is around 2,000 words an hour (that’s half my usual speed), so, let’s say that I put in a forty-hour work week.

Now let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that I just slapped that baby up online, no editing, no revision, no discussion with beta-readers, no proofreading, just right up there. First I would have to format it (or hire someone to format it) for it to not turn into ugly gibberish as an ebook, and that might take me several hours—if I know what I’m doing. Then there’s the question of the cover. If I make it myself that’s more time invested, or I could pay someone to do it. I suppose I could put up a solid color with text over it and call it a day, but most people take time. Even those taking images off the internet (both legally and illegally), require a long search to get the right ones.

It’s not unreasonable for an author doing it all herself could tack on at least another ten hours to get it ready for publication, and again, I’m rounding down.

So, if I grossly underestimate the time taken (skipping several steps and endowing the hypothetical author with the stamina of a sex god), that’s fifty hours of work to create a book.

If we were to pay the author the average American minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, we’d need to make 362.50 dollars to make it financially viable.

An electronic book selling for 99 cents on Amazon yields the author somewhere around 30 cents per book. In order for her to make a minimum wage on all of the time she’d put into it, she’d have to sell 1,209 copies.

Most self-published writers never make more than 500 dollars their entire careers.

Now then, for actual comparison, I’m a pretty prolific writer, but it actually takes me anywhere from 40 days to 3 months to finish a first draft, working two to three hours daily. On my current work in progress, I’ve done nine major drafts, attended hours and hours of writing classes, writers’ groups and conferences, took betas out to lunch to discuss changes—excluding the number of hours that they put in reading it—and often gave them gifts for their time, read up on writing, and written literally millions of words of outside “practice” words up until now.

It is reasonable to say that I have clocked in over 300 hours on one manuscript. That means I would have to sell 7,250 books to make back a minimum wage selling it for a buck a piece. Good news though! If readers are willing to spend up to 2.99, the self-published author would receive more around the lines of 70%, meaning I’d be getting around 2.00 (rounding down) each book. I’d only have to sell 1,087 books if I were to consider my artistic talents being financially equal to any other low paying job. (Before thinking that’s not so bad, go to the dollar store and take a gander at what 1,000 paperclips looks like.)

So, it’s easy to prove that a buck a piece is not asking too much, even if the writer had no cost. But that doesn’t solve the bigger question of is their time worthy of reimbursement?

I mean, the argument authors deserve money just because they worked hard doesn’t actually hold any water for me personally, but by that I mean I am not obligated to buy or read a book just because it was written. It does not mean that I am entitled to it for free. Considering how many hours a writer has to put into a manuscript and how much time it has taken away from actual money-making areas, that alone makes sense why they should charge for their books in my mind. But, devil’s advocate, let’s just say that you still think of it as a hobby. Everyone has things they like to do instead of working. Why should a stranger pay for it? You, random stranger, don’t owe me money just because I spend a lot of time fishing over work.

But don’t I have a right to charge you for my fish? If you wanted it, you’d pay for it no question. Why? Because you get something out of it. Truth is, it stops being a hobby the moment it creates something desirable to an outside party. So, do others get anything out of our writing?

Currently I read about fifty pages a day. We’ll say it takes me about two hours to do so, so if we were to guess a book is around 350 pages, that is 14 hours worth of entertainment.

As the saying goes, you drink a cup of coffee for five bucks and it takes you less than ten minutes. You go to a movie for ten bucks in two hours. You play a video game for anywhere up to seventy dollars and get seventy-two hours of it.

Asking three dollars for a full-day of fantasy? Three dollars for something that took someone 300+ hours to create?

But, okay. A cup of coffee is a physical item. They had to pay money for those beans and milk. What’s wrong with a pirating a virtual copy?

Just because we don’t pay for the materials doesn’t mean it’s free to the creator.

Here’s some pricing I’ve seen spent and offered for self-publishing:

-$35 for a copyright.
-Anywhere from $500 to $3,000 dollars for professional editing. (Depending on size, type of editing, number of edits, and reputation of editor.)
-$50 to $800 for cover design. (Higher range for customized and hand drawn covers.)
-$40-$60 for formatting.
-$10/year for domain name of website.
-$5-$10/month for hosting services.
-Price of any pre-ordered print books for signings, to sell to book stores, or to pitch face to face.

And that’s not considering promotion:

-Cost of giveaways, if any. (My quilt giveaways range from $60 to $80 for materials alone, and that’s not including shipping.)
-Travel costs (hotels, gas, airfare) for signings and book fairs.
-$300 table cost for events.
-$50 for 500 bookmarks.
-Any outside advertising.
-ARCs and any books (or loot) given away.
-Any graphics needed for website, Facebook page, bookmarks, and all advertising in which the cover art needs to be redesigned and/or altered.

Let’s not discuss the joys of possible lawsuits.

Now, many of these things aren’t “necessary,” and there are ways for us to self-promote and create professional books without breaking the bank—as long as we’re willing to put in the time to do so. But the truth is that if you’re hearing about this author, it’s because she put in a lot of effort and money into making her book good, her work professional, and getting the word out there.

Are we doing this for fun? Sometimes. Sometimes we’re doing it despite the immense tedium, anger, frustration, and desire to just sit around throwing Doritos at our cats. This is work. It is work we love, it is work we’d do without pay, and yes it comes from day dreaming, but the damn truth is that for us to get these silly stories from our heads into your hands requires a great deal of extra work. If you value an author’s creation, if you got even just five minutes of entertainment out of her, then throw her a couple of dollars and help her spend more time with the art both of you love.

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