Yeats’ writings are now in the public domain, it now being seventy years from the end of the year of his death year of 1939. Damien Mulley, whose blog on the subject alerted me, has some interesting suggestions about how they might be used in the digital age.
Speaking of the digital age, David Hewson’s technology articles in the Sunday Times were essential reading for me for about ten years. I really enjoyed his pugnacious style.
He’s now a thriller writer and his website, blog, etc is here, and reviews confirm him as a master stylist.
I re-found him, so to speak on Twitter, @david_hewson, retweeted by literary agent @caroleagent. He’s written a series of entries on book theft. eg Book theft myth no 3: Technology can fix it, (at least I think that’s where you find it. He uses an url shortening service). By book theft he means the digital copying of his work which is then uploaded to torrent sites.
It’s a very interesting question, especially for authors, but I don’t think it’s a simple cut and dried case.
Novelist Paulo Coelho takes the opposite view, for instance.
“Since the dawn of time, human beings have felt the need to share – from food to art. Sharing is part of the human condition.” Paulo Coelho, supporting The Pirate Bay.
Mr Coelho is world famous, and sharing one’s work via bittorrent can actually be very profitable for someone who is as famous as he is.
Publishing his books on The Pirate Bay worked out really well for Coelho. He actually sold tens of thousands of extra books because he shared them on BitTorrent. “I do think that when a reader has the possibility to read some chapters, he or she can always decide to buy the book later,” Coelho said, and he is not alone in that assessment.
Then there’s Cory Doctorow, who actively shares and has done so since his first novel.
His novels are published by Tor Books and HarperCollins UK and simultaneously released on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their re-use and sharing, a move that increases his sales by enlisting his readers to help promote his work.
Of course, as well as being an author, he is “the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing (boingboing.net), and a contributor to Wired, Popular Science, Make, the New York Times, and many other newspapers, magazines and websites,” so he had a good base start for a very successful experiment.
For somewhat obscure writers like me it probably works in more mysterious ways. We’re glad if we’re read at all!
But the more important point is that books have been shared – or stolen, according to your point of view – since writing was invented. St Colmcille is famous because he stole a book without a moment’s thought, not having any concept of ownership. The world’s first copyright decision arose from that – after a lot of blood was spilt. The library in Alexandria sought ‘loans’ of books, copied them and gave back the copy. (see Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History)
If it’s a question of the author’s livelihood, what about books that are loaned, or bought second-hand? The author gets no money for that, at least not directly. All he or she can hope for in monetary terms is that if the reader who has read the book on loan, or has bought it second-hand, likes the work, that they will seek out the author’s other work and gladly pay for a new copy. Or at least buy the author a drink.
Of course no writer minds anyone loaning or selling on their books to second-hand bookstores, who often make large profits a few years later if the book is significant, so why, exactly, do we mind when someone passes on a digital copy to others without a profit motive?
It’s now known that the majority of those who download pirated music buy more music than those who don’t download. Does that work for books? No one knows, at least not to my knowledge. We’ll probably find out when more books come in digital form. Of course if pirates resell the book I’d be the first in line to hammer them.
David Hewson obviously won’t see a bump in his royalty cheques because of bittorrents. On the other hand a lot more young people than before probably now know of his work, and if they like it, at least some of them will buy it sometime in the future. I haven’t read thrillers as a rule since my teens (and for the record I’m not young and don’t upload books to bittorrents), but I’ve just bought David Hewson’s Dante’s Numbers: The Seventh Costa Novel ). To prove a point? No, more as a thank you to David Hewson for all those great technology articles. But there is the point that I wouldn’t even have known he was now writing novels were it not for the bittorrenters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve every sympathy with an author who finds his or her book on a Korean torrent site without their knowledge or consent. It’s an awful feeling. And yes, it’s illegal. And yes, it’s stealing. Just as newspapers lifting information or news from blogs without attribution is stealing, or indeed, large media corporations lifting biographical notes from my Irish Writers Online website without attribution, despite the explicit creative commons licence which asks only for attribution – that’s stealing. Which bolsters David Hewson’s point that it is a cultural phenomenon.
But let’s put this in perspective. Only a comparatively tiny number of people, mostly penniless teenagers, have even heard of the term torrent, let alone know how to use torrent sites. An even tinier number, even though they could afford to buy the book or song, or video, do it because they can, or out of principal. But teenagers grow up, have to earn a living, learn how hard it can be. Give them the chance to download music, books, films at a reasonable price and most of them will.
At the moment, very few people read a book through on a screen. They sample it, to see if they like it. pretty much like browsing through a book in a bookshop. Developments like Enhanced Editions, mentioned by Damien Mulley in his Yeats post, could change all of that, and is probably the way forward for publishing. There’s no doubt about it, a book torrent will have a completely different meaning in a few years, maybe even in the coming year: a torrent of readers will download books – legitimately, because finally, they will be able to do so. One of the reasons book chains are failing is that books which are not obvious best sellers – obvious to them, that is – are given a few weeks’ shelf-life, if that. Old-style bookshops used to have sellers who knew about books. It was a pleasure to browse, or to speak with the bookseller. Now, with noble exceptions such as Books Upstairs here in Dublin, staff typically know about bestsellers only. Mention a great literary writer and… As for poetry – forget it, unless you’re a megastar. So readers will gratefully download the books they want at their leisure, and be delighted to pay a reasonable price. Many of us live in small houses or apartments. I’m lucky enough to live in a small terraced house, but it’s bursting at the seams with books. Moby Dick plus a thousand others on an Android or Nokia/Maemo smart phone with a decent screen? You bet.
What about the infamous Google Book Agreement? Well, that’s a giant corporation and immediately people think of cultural colonisation, with good reason. As for its benefits and drawbacks and whether it’s piratical, it’s far too complex for mere mortals like most authors to figure out. Agents and publishers hopefully understand it better. For my part, I opted out.
I will say this, though. I’m doing a lot of research at the moment, and the limited preview feature on Google Books has been a godsend. Why? Because I can find out whether an expensive book has the information I need. Not only do I buy the book if it has that information (my poor postman is now aware of muscles he never knew he had) but I often use the limited preview to look up a reference in the hard copy on my desk. It’s quicker than trawling through an index, believe it or not.
Meanwhile, you could do worse than browse Philip Davison’s first novel, The Book Thief’s Heartbeat, 1981, which he has made available under a Creative Commons licence.
Pre-eminently human… funny in the way that The Catcher in the Rye was funny. BOOKS IRELAND
Mr Davison has a gentle touch with words that allow them to filter through the mind, leaving a residue of warmth and familiar recognition behind. SUNDAY PRESS
It has a hero who smacks of early Beckett EVENING HERALD
It is obvious that Philip Davison could make any place or circumstance or character that took his fancy equally compelling. He has a sparse and strangely matter-of-fact style of writing that gives full value to every word and act. THE IRISH TIMES
It’s now out of print, but if you’re a book collector, you can buy The Book-Thief’s Heartbeat from Kenny’s for £86.40, which is about €97.50.
So it’s a complex subject in an ever-more complex world. If I have any strong opinion on it it is that Cory Doctorow has the right idea – publish in hardcopy but also encourage digital re-use and sharing in order to promote the book. In other words positively and actively make a virtue out of an inevitability. All the DRM stuff is a pain in the neck for everyone concerned.