Several people I know recently shared this article about ebook piracy. The basic argument, as made by fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, is that you shouldn’t pirate books because it jeapardises authors’ livelihoods and hence ability to keep writing. She makes the point that her own Raven Cycle of novels nearly came to a premature end because of piracy affecting sales.
The argument boils down to this: if you like something, you should pay for it, so you can get more of it.
Now as an aspiring author I’m hardly going to argue in favour of piracy. I am, however, going to commit heresy. Because I don’t actually find this argument that persuasive.
Why not? For two reasons. Firstly, because the stuff-for-free genie is already out of the bottle. There is now so much writing available online for free – even without pirated ebooks, there is loads of fanfic, and loads of self-published writers who’d rather give away their writing than keep it in a desk drawer – that many readers have simply become used to getting stuff they like without having to pay for it. And secondly, because paying for an author’s books doesn’t always mean you get more of them.
Look at fantasy writers George RR Martin, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss, and litfic writer Hilary Mantel. What they all have in common is that they’re currently disappointing their fans by failing to produce the promised next instalments in their respective book series. I don’t want to throw these authors under the proverbial bus – I’m sure there are good reasons for the delays – but the fact remains that paying money for books is not a guarantee that the author will write another one.
Here comes the heresy (brace yourself!). If writing really is a business and not a hobby, then shouldn’t writers be obliged to fulfill their end of the bargain? And if for some reason they can’t do it themselves, shouldn’t they subcontract to get the work done on time?
What!? Subcontract the creation of a novel!? How can I suggest such a thing? Well, it seems to work for James Patterson. And yes, I know many people are sniffy about the quality of his thrillers, but he keeps his readers happy. And his publishers. And his bank manager.
Collaborative works don’t have to be low-quality. One of my favourite books I’ve read this year, The Medusa Chronicles, is a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, based on a novella by Arthur C. Clarke. And let’s not forget that Brandon Sanderson finished off the Wheel of Time book series after original author Robert Jordan failed to complete it before he died. I’m sure Wheel of Time fans are happier with that outcome than with being left hanging. Co-writing books with more established authors can be a way for young unknown writers to learn their craft and build a reputation, as well as for the established writers to expand their own brand. (Yes, I said brand. I can feel the shudders). Collaboration is so common in the world of TV and film script-writing that it’s amazing it’s not more prevalent in the world of books. And fanfic is now so widely accepted I’m expecting to see more and more of it published under licence.
I know, I know, this is all highly heretical. But let’s be honest, authors and publishers need to do something to combat the threat of piracy, and unlike musicians, they can’t really rely on live tours to make ends meet. Whether the future holds more collaboration and licensed fanfic, more Kickstarter-and-Patreon funded books, fewer writers making any money at all, or all of the above, the times they are a-changin’.