The OF Blog: E-piracy, books, and the commodification of literature

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

E-piracy, books, and the commodification of literature

OK, I had planned on very light (if any) blogging through the weekend, but I did read a post just now on Floor to Ceiling books that made me react just enough to lead to this short post.  I'll presume the reader will have taken the time to read the comments, so I won't recapitulate most of the points argued there.

Whenever I read discussions about e-piracy these days, especially in regards to books (in e-book form, of course), I at first find myself wanting to be sympathetic toward those who argue that the "free" reading of stories via Torrent downloads is a bad, naughty, wicked thing that hurts the authors.  Then I recall the counterpoints made by authors such as Cory Doctorow, supported by sales figures, that seems to imply that having free e-book editions seems to help the sales of physical copies.

While I'm not wholly inclined to support Doctorow's opinion, as I think he sometimes belabors the point to its detriment, I cannot help but to think of a larger issue here, that of the commodification of literature (click on this link to see how I'm utilizing this term).  Too often, people making pro/con arguments regarding torrent e-book downloads seem to conflate value and price.  It appears that the crux of most arguments against these free downloads lies in the perceived loss of price (i.e., hypothetical potential earning power lost due to commodity units being available for free rather than at a monetary cost) rather than on any perceived loss of value (how much worth said product provides to the consumer).  Although there is a strong, valid argument that can be made about needing to protect the price of a literary product, there seems to be an intrinsic loss in this moral/financial equation.

Reducing literature to commodity exchanges is a very troubling development of the past century or so.  Although certainly there is no true ars gratia artis, as a Michelangelo or Leonardo did often work on commission when producing their greatest works, literature as an art (as opposed to literature as a business dependent upon sales figures) has held an intrinsic value that is independent of cost/profit margins for most of recorded history.  For some people (and I perhaps am numbered among them), it is almost a desecration to have the art of writing reduced to a commodity that has to be bought and sold in order for it to have any perceived value.  Such a view removes the innate value of the art form, placing it among other commodities that are bought, sold, traded, or stolen.  Too often we hear of talented writers who lose access to traditional "markets" due to "disappointing sales figures."  But what if the issue runs deeper than just how much is sold and how much is "stolen" or accessed without monetary benefit to the writer?

Obviously, writers need to be paid in order for them to maintain a livelihood.  The human value of labor, especially when considered in the often-arduous months and years of labor involved in the production of a literary work, cannot be discounted here.  What perhaps should be considered more closely is the very model upon which the price/piracy issues depend.  If a literary work's value is reduced to being synonymous with its price, then one might be left wondering what the point would be valuing a work that has no extrinsic monetary worth.

Doubtless, some are reading that last point and thinking, "No, I don't think of a work in that fashion!"  True, this is but the carrying out of some currents of thought on piracy/literature beyond what most are willing to think about consciously.  However, when the price/value gauge fluctuates beyond a certain spot (often dependent upon a consumer's capital expenditure power and other extrinsic factors that act upon the value of the literary product), the "consent" (defined here as the consumer's willingness to agree to the implied terms associated with the use and/or consumption of a product, here a writing available in electronic form) might weaken to the point where the potential consumer either refuses to consider the work in any form or fashion or s/he wants a "sneak peek" to see if the cost is worth it.  Most people, at any given time, are not thieves; most people, at certain times, are liable to be momentary thieves or at least contemplate seriously a "theft" of an otherwise unobtainable or monetary value-questionable resource.  Jean Valjean,  c'est nous, using my poor French.

Of course, some might argue that there are scales and limitations to such arguments and that there might be a few too many sweeping generalizations in the above paragraph.  Perhaps, but when the point is to consider the inherent weaknesses in a system that reduces art to something that can be bought, sold, traded, or stolen, what does that say about us when capitalist exchanges have come to pervade even those products of human labor that we might like to think ought to remain above that dirty, mundane business?

Feel free to weigh in below on your thoughts on the related issues.  Hopefully, this essay gave some food for thought, not that I would expect most (or even a few) to agree with what I have written.


Andres said...

Larry, I have great difficulty in understanding the current pricing structure of ebooks / printbooks / audiobooks. On the one hand it is agreed that an ebook should be priced in the range between 10 and 13 USD and that provides you only with the "literary content" of the book.
On the other hand hardcover books are sold in Amazon* between 15 and 20 USD, what you get for this price is the physical book which anyone would agree is much "more" than the ebook. Finally the cheapest subscription to gets you one audiobook a month for 15 USD, the tradeoff is that you lose the artwork in the book (sometimes important) and you sometimes gain superb performances that add a new dimension to the book.
The main issue is why are ebooks comparatively so expensive? Publishers argue that you are paying for the value of the writing, editing, etc. Therefore I must assume that the value of printing, shipping and storing the books is about 3 USD for each book, which I find unreasonable. Even more so by the fact that paperbacks usually sell for less than the ebook. I believe that overpriced ebooks are the great drive for piracy.
Since I have been living in Japan for 4 years now and I have to move back soon I had to cut down on my physical books and go for audiobooks instead, which I find gives you the most value/price ratio.

Just my two-pence,
A. J.

* I understand that heavily discounts cover prices and make profit on volumes rather than single sales. I also know that I should support "my local bookseller" and whatnot, but I don't live in the US (or Canada) so I don't particularly care.

Joe said...

Where I don't quite follow you in your argument is the the missing component of authorial choice in the distribution of said art or media.

Say, for some freakish reason beyond example, that you and I both write a novel. You, elect to eschew the route of professional publication and put the novel out there for anyone to enjoy, anywhere someone can find it. That's your choice.

My choice is to sell to a publisher the rights to publish in a particular region via a particular medium. I don't want to give my work away for free (call it art, call it a commodity).

Cory is a third road, choosing both.

I get what you're saying about the perception of value, and the commodification of art - but, really, art, to me, is both commodity and art. If the artist so chooses. The artist *should* choose, and does every day by deciding what she will try to sell and what she keeps for herself, or gives away.

The whole thing with piracy / torrents / theft is that it takes away that choice from the artist. You can't e-steal Cory's stuff - he gives it away gladly. But Cory chose to do that. Others don't. Whether they are ultimately making a business mistake or not, it is there choice to make.

That's part of what bothers me.

Allan said...

I dont see what price has to do with anything.

You dont own it. You download it for free without permission when it is for sale elsewhere. stealing!

i dont think ther are any justifications for it whether it increases sales or not.

Allowing free download is a marketing device used by the author and publisher with their permission. (see brandon sanderson warbreaker) Wothout permission equates to theft.

If you think the price is too expensive. dont buy it...wait a year or two. I dont mean to preach but justifiying stealing something because it is too expensive is really very weak.

Anonymous said...

Let me put it this way. I labor on something for months or years without thinking about publication. But then when publication occurs, I will rip your kidneys out if you steal from me.

Free downloads don't always work, are risky unless your income comes from more than just your books. If you can't pay a decent amount for what you love to read, especially understanding some writer depends on the income, you suck. JeffV

Anonymous said...

If it's not against the law it's not stealing.

Secondly, and more important, instead of fighting the changes, learn from history. The record industry was fighting napster, but could have made an itunes instead. They didn't and so they lost it.

It's quite simple: make a flat fee library system (with no country limited access). Everyone pays once a month and can borrow as many books as he or she wants. You can distribute the money among the authors.

that way nobody loses and it's closer to what's actually happening with the ebooks for sale anyway. Those books aren't sold, they are lent to you.

Angelo said...

I think things are simple. If I don't agree with a price, I won't buy the book/ebook. If I pirate it, there's no sale loss, because I wouldn't buy it anyway.

If it was possible to prevent me to read a pirated book, that wouldn't make me buy the book. Those ebooks I want to read and are reasonably priced, I'll buy gladly.

So, I read the pirated book. I might enjoy it and talk about it to my friends. Maybe some of them will buy it. And talk more about it to other people.

The publisher and the author didn't loose any value with a pirated ebook. It's a copy, it's not like stealing a paper book: that would mean the previous owner would have one less book to read/lend/sell.

It is said that, giving the opportunity, people will steal. I don't agree, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to not giving them that opportunity. DRM? no! Reasonable prices? Yes!

I'm not saying that ebook should be sold cheap. I know the value of work and art. Just like in my profession I get to save lives but have a lousy salary. Should "art" be more protected than my profession, for example? No.

So, when I say "reasonable prices", what do I mean? ebooks have lesser costs to produce, so they should be cheaper than buying pbooks. But most publishers want to use that to have wider profit margins. They try to exploit us, readers, so they don't have a moral high ground with us.

Then comes the argument: a Ferrari is not reasonably priced, should we steal it? No. First, there's no way for you to copy it. It's stealing, with significant lost to the rightful owner. Second: it's a luxury item. Do you really want to put books in the same category? Really?

Anonymous said...

In comparing the cost of a book to a Ferrari, you just crossed over into asshole territory. As in, you are an asshole. jv

Joe said...

Angelo: So, what you're saying is that if you would never have purchased the book in the first place, it's okay to steal? Because it isn't a lost sale and the "publisher and author didn't lose any value" from your perspective?

How much perceived loss does there need to be for stealing to be wrong? Is a pack of gum okay? A shirt from J Crew? Where's your line?

Or, because you don't agree with how an electronic copy of a book was priced, it's okay for you to choose to steal that - even though the publisher and the author produced a product and did not permit copies to be given away for free?

It's still stealing when you take something that didn't belong to you and wasn't given to you by the people who have the legal right to make that decision. It doesn't matter what the "cost" is.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angelo said...

Joe Sherry:

You misunderstood me. I'm not saying it's ok or moral to steal anything (even if nothing is really stolen, but copied). Just like a student copying someone's exam is wrong, although not technically "stealing" or representing a loss for someone who is copied.

I'm just saying how things are, how people think and how things are done.

Although this is not a similar case to Robin Hood, I'm bringing this up because that character stole (for whatever purposes). Stealing is wrong, but there will always grey areas. I guess Robin Hood hadn't moral scruples. But I don't see people bad mouthing Robin for stealing, because people can understand his motives.

epiracy is wrong, but it is only aggravated because there's some wrong doing from publishers too. When people feel exploited or that the publishers aren't being fair, they will do what they thing is right to do. Even if conceptually and moraly it's not.

I was just stating the obvious, showing the motives. Not justifying it.

There's a solution: fair prices, fair availability (stop georestrictions) and stop treating everyone as possible pirates (DRM) and being intrusive or making ereading an hassle (DRM again).

Debra Di Blasi said...

...a system that reduces art to something that can be bought, sold, traded, or stolen, what does that say about us when capitalist exchanges have come to pervade even those products of human labor that we might like to think ought to remain above that dirty, mundane business?'

While I very much appreciate your perspective of literature as somehow above the capitalist fray (Frey?), the reality is that the decline of our capitalist culture's valuation of art, as in reduced humanities courses and grants, is the result of the view that the writer's "wares" are without monetary (read "tangible") value and should be provided to the public gratis.

The only writers who make a living through writing are, with rare exception, the less and least artistic. People like James Patterson and Sandra Brown are manufacturers very much along the lines of toilet paper manufacturers: you can make it softer, thicker, more absorbent, but it's still toilet paper, i.e., a product. As a writer of artful literature, I pay more for one roll of toilet paper than I earn on the sale of one book that took me ten years to complete.

Those writers who practice writing as an art form, shifting boundaries and seeking to reflect contemporary culture via not just the storyline but also the shape and sound of the language, are fortunate to earn $100 a year in royalties. Poets' royalty statements are sometimes in the negative; that is, their publisher received more returned books than were sold. Great writers work two to three jobs. One of them is writing. It has as much value as waiting tables, does it not?

Royalties are typically 7-10% of the list price of a book. That's an earning of $0.70-1.00 per download of a $10 ebook -- if there is no advance. (An author must earn back the full advance before any royalty is paid. And they earn it back in royalty percentage, not retail.) A pirate steals this pathetic coinage from a writer who may have spent five years on a novel or story collection.

Also, publishers do not make the other full percentage left over from royalties but must distribute it to the reader platforms (e.g., Sony, Amazon, Apple) and overhead (except in the case of presses like mine wherein the publisher wears nearly all hats and receives no salary).

And the platforms themselves are the result of expensive R&D, including salaries of many who make six figures as software designers.

Like the universe, everything is a system. As in Hollywood, the writer is as the bottom being swallowed up by scavenging catfish -- that now may include pirates.

Again, your respect for the writer is laudable, but the age-old "art for money demeans the art" is a lie our culture, ironically, has been sold.

Adam Whitehead said...

"So, when I say "reasonable prices", what do I mean? ebooks have lesser costs to produce, so they should be cheaper than buying pbooks. But most publishers want to use that to have wider profit margins. They try to exploit us, readers, so they don't have a moral high ground with us."

The argument presented by British publishers (at least) is that since the lifting of the Net Book Agreement, both publishers and authors have seen their cut of book sales plummeting, the result of massive vendors (both the large chains and supermarkets, as well as Amazon) lowering prices and using market share to make the publishers agree to dubious deals. In addition, physical production costs have risen (the wholesale cost of paper alone has doubled in the last decade), whilst the cost of books has increased only marginally (paperbacks only slightly and hardbacks not at all in the last decade) as there is a public outcry every time prices go up. Publishers and authors seem to have taken the view that ebooks are a way of restoring some of that lost venue and get back to making writing full-time a viable living, but members of the public seem to be fuming that they're having to shell out more money, even at mere inflationary levels.

What is very interesting is that we're seeing a lot of bitching about ebook prices at the precise time authors are dropping out of writing full-time as it is no longer economically viable to do so, such as R. Scott Bakker a couple of weeks back even though he doesn't actually sell too badly.

That said, the physical cost of producing a book is fairly low in relation to the author's share, the publisher's share, what the editors get, what the marketing department gets and so on. Removing the physical production process costs should result in a minor reduction in the cost of an ebook compared to its print equivalent, but those thinking that ebooks should be a third or even half the cost of a paperback are seriously deluded. That's only possible if you don't mind your favourite author having to copy and line edit his or her own book and do all the marketing personally, doubling or tripling the wait between new books.

Books, like some other fields (PC computer games come to mind), have been sold at lower than a comfortably sustainable market value for some considerable time now and that situation cannot continue. It is unfortunate that publishers are using ebooks as a way of retaliating, but I'm not sure they have much of a choice in the matter.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Unfortunately I have a difficult time with the whole idea of Exchange of currency for non-tangible products in general. Thats why I don't like Digital Downloads of Video Games, and Don't like Itunes/Ebooks either.

I just can't make my brain consider those streams of data to be real objects, or worth real money.

In this same vein, wouldn't purchasing second hand books, be equally bad, since no money is going to the publisher or writer?

Larry Nolen said...

I wish I had the time to respond in depth to each of the comments here, as there have been several good points made in support of related points, but since I'm leaving in 15 minutes for most of the night, I'll just have to content myself with the following:

I'm thinking much larger picture here than just e-piracy issues. I have a very uneasy relationship with the concept of materialism and the perceived need to "own" abstracts. So I'm dismayed by several trends that seem to be toward a privatization and "ownership" of ideas - the so-called "intellectual property."

While there are several good reasons to have things such as copyrights and royalties for creators, there are times that I worry that there might be too much of a swing in certain directions that leads to a restriction on the free and fair exchange of ideas. That is a post for another time, however.

But for those of you reading this, I will link to a response I read elsewhere when I posted a mirror of this post. This response addresses directly several concerns that were at the back of my mind when I wrote this essay last night. Thoughts on this?

HM said...

I'm thinking about what the publishers are saying:
Everything costs more but they cannot rise the price of the book? Public outcry? Come on...really???
Public is going to stop the rising of prices? It didn't manage to that for anything. But what they will do is stop buying books and that's what's stopping them.The loss of revenue which this will bring.

Another part of the whole deal that nobody seems to mention...the margin for bookstores is around 30-40%, plus they often get a discount from the publisher for larger quantities and the publisher in the end gets maybe 50% of the price you pay in the bookstore. The prices you can see on Amazon and other wholesale retailers are actually realistic if we take out the middleman and that is the traditional bookseller (with costs for space, lights, sales personell ,etc.). Not that I'm saying shut them down but it is also a factor.

But let's get back to e-books. How is an e-book made? Simply enough you take the electronic copy of the text which you already made for printing and via a program for text conversion (a lot of them completely free for use) you turn it to a number of formats. Time to do this is measured in minutes and could be done by somebody's grandma if she was shown how. (The preparation of text for print is another thing entirely and is complex,arduous and therefore costly.)

The sale of e-books? Costs? Where? You can sell them from a number of preexisting webistes with programs not that costly (an e-store can be bought for a very reasonable price and maintained by somebody with not a lot of tech savvy).
Payment though can be a bit of a bother since the services take a percentage, but it's not that high.
Marketing? You're on the web already, all you have to do is swap a few inches of space for some other few inches in compensation and you can have a lot of advertisments floating around, or just give a blogger an ARC e-book and he will put up your banner for free.

As we can see the production, sales and marketing cost of e-books are miniscule when compared to printed books.
So let's say if the price reflected that would they have more sales? My opinion is YES! So you can either sell one book for e.g. 13USD or 3 for 6 USD.

Hm? I'm no mathematician but that seems kind of obvious. Plus you're building a market, people will get accustomed to buying e-books, since they are cheaper then paper ones and they take up a lot less space, and then you can up the price for a dollar, then one more and so on... Some publishers seem to get that (look at Baen books Webscriptions) and then again some do not.

As for those talking about pirates stealing from them as literary authors that barely make a living?
Really?? A pirate is going to take a book that is barely selling and put it on the net? And then thousands of people are going to read it and then they are going to be really quiet about it so nobody is going to know it is a book people want to read??
The big bad publisher is giving you's a tip for you...look into self-publishing! Or for instance sell your e-books on the internet for a dollar and a're up for 50 cents!

What I'm saying is piracy is a problem but everbody is contributing to it. Like the original post said the whole literature and art in general)is being commodified and success is measured in how much money an artist makes, not if he can live comfortably but whether he's getting rich. Everybody wants a piece of the pie and everybody wants their piece to be bigger.

Do I have a solution? No. But I'm more inclined to agree with people like Cory Doctorow then others.
(For instance I vividly remember reading a rant by Michael A.Stackpole a few years ago about how people who sell his books in used book stores are thieves. I think I know where he stands on the e-book issue, and I know how that affected me...I have never read another book by him and will never do plus I'll tell everbody he's a jerk.)

HM said...

I'm really sorry but my browser apparently went on a rampage and posted the same thing like four times. Could you please delete the superfluous ones?

Thank you

P.S.You can delete this too...

Anonymous said...

Larry: With all due respect, it's easy for you to be all high and mighty when you don't depend on your book income. I certainly don't believe current copyright laws make sense, but living authors and other creative people deserve the right to be protected and to have the chance to make an honest living. As it is, because of deep discounts in online stores and whatnot, it has become more difficult for publishers to make a profit on, for example, the midlist. So while a fair price on ebooks is important, it has to be fair for the publisher and writer, too.

Part of the problem in our world is cheap goods of all kinds--a low cost that isn't sustainable.

Also, R. Scott Bakker not being able to write full-time doesn't really prove anything. We don't know the debt load he's carrying, what other responsibilities he has, whether he had any other options with regard to doing other kinds of books, etc.

I will say this--for a lot of writers the key is diversification. If you are skilled in more than one area of the book culture/business, you stand a better chance. For one thing you are diversifying the number of "employers" you have and therefore aren't as dependent financially on any one type of book or any one editor.


Larry Nolen said...


I don't think we're really that much in disagreement, to be honest. I do believe in fair wages for work done, but what I was trying to express (and knowing that I'd botch it in some respects) is my concern regarding materialism, or the reduction of art/literature to just entities that are bought and sold (and unfortunately, stolen as well). I'm not talking about the exchange of money for works of art, but rather the worldview that's developed that things of worth cost X amount, when it seems value should/ought to be independent of just its charged price. I see the mindset that leads up to e-piracy as being a perversion of this materialistic worldview, where people decide, for whatever reason, the price charged is not what they want, so they take (or "borrow," as I suppose some might consider it) without ever giving any consideration to the value of such a work, since in their minds price/value are conflated.

That system is what troubles me, as I see e-theft/piracy as being a symptom of a much larger, more troubling issue that affects artists and authors and perhaps ultimately those who might be erstwhile patrons of the arts.

Your point about the fallacy that underlies "cheap cost" is a good one, by the way.

Tibor Moricz said...

My book, my rights, simple as that.

Anonymous said...

When you start using the words "theft" and "stealing" for the act of reading a book without directly paying for it, it means that your arguments are crap.

I borrowed hundreds of books from friends and the local library (one summer a few years ago I kept the library receipts and in the end I totaled some 49 books).

I didn't pay for any of those hundreds of books and I can counts on the fingers of two hands the books I bought after having read them this way.

Am I a thief?

Larry Nolen said...


No, you're not a thief in that situation, but rather someone who is obtuse or who is willfully misconstruing what was written. After all, lending of materials purchased a priori has been considered legitimate for much longer than any of us have been alive.

Anonymous said...

After all, lending of materials purchased a priori has been considered legitimate for much longer than any of us have been alive.

That's exactly my point, "considered legitimate". By whom? History? Tradition? Did the authors or the publishers ever authorize it? Did my friends had permission to lend me their copies of the books? In some cases one person paid and eight, nine, ten or more read for free. Were we all thieves? That should've been ten copies, and it was one instead. It's just the order of magnitude that makes the difference? What if I download an ebook, read it and then delete it? Is this still stealing?

Larry Nolen said...

It's covered under international laws.

Tibor Moricz said...

Downloading softwares by torrent is piracy? Sure it is. Downloading books by torrent is piracy? Sure again. The writers have their rights ensured by law and any other procedure that takes off these rights configures itself as theft. Simply as that.

Larry Nolen said...


I agree that all that is indeed piracy. What I was writing about was more an exploration of how mindsets developed that lead to the desire to pirate books.

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