A recent comment thread in an article here had some interesting remarks from people on all sides of the issue. This is always a fascinating topic for me because I did spend a few years as a professional writer, and ultimately decided that I just did not have the personality type to hack it as a freelancer. Unstable income and irregular work did not agree with me, so I made the choice to make a day job change and keep writing as just a hobby. But do I blame the ‘pirates’ for this? Or are there other forces to think about here?
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HOBBY AND A JOB
Let’s start with one fact we can all agree on: all of us have to pay our bills. None of us is ever guaranteed that we can do this solely with things we find meaningful, creative and interesting though! There are others, like me, who don’t have the personality for it (I have two co-workers in my ‘day job’ who are currently spending large chunks of off-hours time in rehearsals for community theatre productions—both of them used to do such things professionally to varying degrees of success before reaching the same conclusion about their personality type that I did). There are also others for whom the money they earn with their passion is not the driving force for them. I have two relatives whose sole paid job is their ‘art’ and one of them has a husband with a fairly mundane but lucrative family business, and the other has a husband who is a tenured professor.
The fact is, people like a lot of things that don’t pay the bills. If they have to manage their time to juggle these things plus their paid jobs or their families or whatever commitments they have, it’s just life, and not something to feel sorry about. So, to me, writers who whine about having to give up writing because they couldn’t make enough money to support their families come off to me as very amateurish. If this truly was a ‘job’ for them and not a hobby, they would understand that writing as a JOB is not so much a creative profession as it is a sales one, and money in a sales profession is far from guaranteed. Most writers I know who do make a living at it do so by writing more than just novels, because they do view it like a sales job and they have multiple products (commercial writing, for example) on the offer.
THE SALES ASPECT: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REALISTIC
So, with the assumption that this is a sales job, there are a few points to look at. First of all, just how big is the market anyway? You’re going to get a fixed number of people who read in general; a sub-section of those might only read in a certain area. Another niche market I am involved in, the exercise video market, works the same way. The yoga people are going to check out every new yoga release but they won’t go near the Jillian Michaels. And the Jillian people will check out the Tony Horton stuff that the yogis won’t go near with a ten-foot pole. Myself, I would never pick up a fantasy novel any more than I would a pilates dvd, because those aren’t my thing. It doesn’t mean I am a bad person out to deprive the creator of food for their babies, or that I am an evil pirate who would have bought something and now is not. I was never going to buy it anyway. Okay, if my friend happens to have a pilates dvd (or a fantasy novel) they particularly like, I might take a quick look-see. But that does not equate to a ‘lost sale’ by any stretch.
To give you two real-world examples to think about: my father’s non-fiction book, which was connected with a major publisher and had fairly good press since he works in media and his employer is a fairly notorious media guru, sold 500 copies in its first year. And the publisher was very happy with this result and gave the go-ahead for a sequel. On the consumer side of the coin, take someone like my mother, who considers herself a fairly heavy reader. And her total novel consumption, given that she spends some of this reading time on newspapers, magazines and books about knitting? One or two books a month, in a good month. So when you have your HEAVY customers making maybe 15 purchases a year, you are not exactly dealing with a high-volume market! The odds of actually making a living solely writing novels is fairly small.
THE IMPACT OF PR ISSUES ON THE READER
Most readers I know—the serious ones, who actually WOULD buy the book in the first place—actually do buy them from legitimate channels. I personally have spent almost $1500 this year alone on books, both ebook and otherwise. And none of my books are pirated copies. But I also feel frustrated that for many writers, especially the lesser known ones, piracy is becoming a bit of a red herring that is preventing them from seeing other issues that really are preventing sales. For example, the dreaded geographical restrictions. To give you just one example, I have held off on buying the Discworld books because two of the series are not sold to Canadians. The lack of those two being available has caused me to leave the other 30 books in the series on the table while I wait for a resolution! Also, consider the technical barriers. My mother the tech-phone still finds her Kobo over-whelming; it is registered to my Kobo account as it has been from day 1, and I purchase and download all the books she reads.
I think a lot of readers feel like if these issues—DRM and compatibility, ease of purchase and use, geographical restrictions and pricing difficulties (ebooks going for higher than paper price)—are resolved, then they would be more understanding about the few sales that actually are lost to piracy. That doesn’t mean they condone it, necessarily—it just means that in a case where there is no means for them to legally buy it anyway, it’s hard to care that much that the author has ‘lost’ that sale since they feel the author is not inclined to make it anyway.
Some of this is not the author’s fault, yes. But the average reader doesn’t know or care whose fault it is. The average reader only sees the author’s name on the cover, so it’s the author’s PR problem to fix, like it or not. Once the market matures a little, some of these issues will go away. But until they do, it is hurting authors, no matter how much they protest it is not their fault and there is nothing they can do.
SO, HOW BIG AN ISSUE IS PIRACY, REALLY?
That final question—how many lost sales are there, really—is a tough one to quantify, since it’s hard to get accurate numbers. Are some sales actually lost? Yes. But sales are lost in every business, every day, due to inefficiency and supply issues and theft or loss or slippage or whatever you call it. It’s part of business—part of EVERY business. And yes, most industries are vigilant (as they should be) in trying their best to prevent future losses. But they also seem to recognize that some of this will happen regardless of what they do, and they don’t whine and complain about it the way some writers do.
I think that for me, the bottom line is that while I do not condone piracy and I respect the author’s right to go after those who pursue that activity just as I respect the right of the store owner to put a lock on his shop to prevent shop-lifters, I really am very tired of the rhetoric that writers are ‘giving up’ because the pirates are stealing food from the mouths of their families. I think there are other reasons that SOME authors might not be making a comfortable middle-class living from their work, and I think that if what they want is a secure living, they have simply chosen the wrong job. I respect what writers do and I do pay for the media I consume. But when you consider that someone who thinks they are a good customer is only going to buy a dozen products a year, and that the industry is not yet developed enough to take a sale from every customer who wants to give them one in the first place, I think there are issues at play here that affect an author’s bottom line more-so than the piracy one. And I think that for some authors it is a bit of a red herring where they are worrying about this smaller issue instead of worrying about some bigger ones which are much more important.
The cold, hard truth is that not everyone can make a living doing only things they love, regardless of how much they love doing it. And we all are in the same boat here of trying to balance these loves with family, with jobs that pay the bills, and with whatever obligations we have in our lives. It’s hard asking me to feel sorry for an author who has to give up writing time to work a day job when this is a choice every single bill-paying member of society has to make about fitting their passions into their lives.