The Nameless Horror

Why the Publishers Association should walk the plank

Via @david_hewson (and I know, before we start, that my views and David’s are very different on the subject, but that’s totally cool), we have a Bookseller piece in which the Publishers Association - an organisation surely in need of an apostrophe - calls for the fight against piracy to be escalated and for “authors to press the case against copyright theft”.

Incoming PA president Little, Brown chief executive Ursula Mackenzie said the PA needed to “ramp up” the fight against piracy “or to give it another name, theft”, and use authors to explain to consumers the amount of work that goes into the creation of published books.

Let’s dismantle this a little. The PA spent £196k on “anti-piracy measures” in 2011 - which may or may not be lobbying expenses and legal fees (DRM charges would be per-publisher, not for the association) - and recently welcomed the wholly empty ISP blocking of the Pirate Bay.

No surprise, then, that the incoming president trots out the old “piracy is theft” line. It’s not, and let’s be clear about that. If someone puts a copy of one of my books up for torrenting (or on Scribd or on Usenet) - and please, someone do; it’ll mean they’re being read - they haven’t deleted the original from existence, preventing it from being bought and enjoyed by other users. This is unauthorised copying. It’s a rights breach. It’s not stealing. It might impact my income (though that’s debatable, as we’ll see), but it doesn’t directly take money from my pocket and prevent me earning more through the sale of goods. It doesn’t even come close.

It also, crucially, doesn’t force anyone else to download that book. This isn’t the Napster era and there can’t be anyone alive in the developed world who isn’t aware that torrenting such a file is piracy. If they choose to do it, they know very well what they’re doing. Sure, they may justify it to themselves because the owner of the rights makes ridiculous money off them, or because the legitimate price is too high, or because they’re “trying before buying”, or because it’s a way of striking back against censorship of the internet.

But it’s their choice. Their responsibility. This is a crucial point, I feel, not only in piracy discussion but also in so many other areas where extra legislation and court mandates rule. Banning “happy hour” promotions in pubs, for instance, may make it more expensive for youngsters to drink themselves into violent, puking oblivion, but only enabling or educating those same youngsters to recognise that seeking said oblivion every Friday night might make you a bit of a twat, and making twat-free alternatives viable, is ultimately the only thing that’ll stop it. (I learned by doing, as many of us do.) Personal responsibility, no?

And if you then say, “But most people can’t be expected to do the right thing, not even most of the time” then you’re basically giving up on society and you should probably go and live in a cave somewhere. Some people will always be twats, and some people will always pirate everything they consume, but the trick is to ensure these remain a comparatively harmless minority.

Aside over - though we’ll touch on this later. Roll on.

The piracy argument is laced with assumption and very dodgy statistics, the former on both sides and the latter predominantly on the side of the “copying is theft” crowd. For example, in 2010 “copyright protection company” Attributor released a widely-publicised ‘study’ claiming that ebook piracy in the US “cost” nearly $3bn, with an average of 13,000 illegal downloads per book. (They assume $10 average sales price, so some elementary maths tells you that we’re dealing with 21,538 titles.)

$3bn. Wow. A lot of cash.

(If you don’t want to bother seeing how maths destroys this type of estimate, skip the bit between the horizontals.)

$3bn is a lot especially when you realise that the actual ebook market in 2010 was $900m globally, ~$750m in the US. That’s an 80% piracy rate. Endemic. And the result of all this terrible piracy? The ebook market grew by over 200% in 2010, and continued to explode afterwards, even though piracy hasn’t become any harder between then and now (despite court cases and blocks, the closure of MegaUpload et al., file-sharing sites continue to proliferate like mushrooms and blocks are trivially easy to circumvent; while, conveniently, often making it impossible to identify the user doing the pirating). DAMN YOU, PIRATES! We’d have sold $10bn worth of books in the US in 2011 if it hadn’t been for your horrible ways.

Of course, Amazon has a 90-60% market share. In 2011, sensible vague customer estimates (since Amazon rarely release actual figures) would put Kindle sales for the same year at 10-12 million units, plus iPad (40 million in 2011, but not everyone uses the Kindle app) and, to a much lesser extent, phone users, minus those upgrading from one Kindle to another, or buying as a present for Christmas (4 million of those Kindles were sold in Q4) as they’d make few book purchases in 2011, and minus those iPad/phone types who also own Kindles, which for gadget heads is quite a lot. Let’s call that an assumed buyer base of around 25 million on a market of US$7.5bn.

If piracy equates to lost sales, and the piracy rate estimates were accurate, each user would actually want to be buying $300 worth of books per year from Amazon. Since average bestseller prices are no longer the $10 assumed in 2010 but are probably more like $5, that’s 60 books, or 1.2 books per week for the average reader.

But wait! 35% of ebook buyers account for 48% of market spending. That’s 8.75m users spending $3.6bn, or $411 per year each, or ~82 books per year, 1.5 per week, every week, all year-round. The other 16.25m users spend $3.9bn, $240 each, 48 books, or still just under a book per week. Every week. For a year. If they only buy from Amazon and don’t also purchase print books or, for those not on Kindle, books from other sources.

Multiplying up for all those $0.99 ebooks and adding in all the freebies Amazon and others offer and ohholyfuckingshit you guys with Kindles must be reading all the time, even if 80% of what you’re reading is pirated.

Or maybe the pirated books aren’t read on Kindles because pirates can’t be arsed with USBing files across, in which case the potential userbase rises and pirates would only likely have to read one book every couple of weeks. Still: voracious, voracious readers those pirates.

Skipping past all the maths and the assumptions and the rest, piracy estimates this high suggest that without piracy, the ebook market would have (easily, depending on whose figures you believe) eclipsed the print market in dollar terms last year. Despite having an actual market base that’s much smaller in terms of people with ereaders vs. those who rely on print.

Clearly, high percentage estimates are woefully inaccurate, as you’d expect for figures put out by people who make their money “fighting piracy”.

Going lower, the Fail suggests - unattributed - that 20% of ebooks are pirated.

This number, though seemingly plucked from the Mail's arse, can only be more accurate, but ultimately, does this even matter? (Especially when if we're talking 2011 figures, 20% piracy applies to 20% of the market, or 4% of overall sales. And especially when there is equally vague counter-evidence that heavy pirate consumers of media tend to be higher than average paid consumers of that same media. And before you scoff that that idea, bear in mind that despite “rampant” ebook piracy, the US market alone - others are coming from further back and growing faster - rose $600m in 2010 and $900m in 2011.)

There’s an assumption in talking figures that pirate downloads = lost sales. This is utter presumptive trash and has been dismantled at length in many better places than here. Some of those downloads equate to sales that might have been made, but every single straw poll conducted of people who routinely download stuff suggests they do so because (a) they believe they’re entitled to free stuff because it’s on the internet innit, or (b) the legitimate price is outside what they’re willing to pay, or (c) they’re not sure they’d like it anyway and don’t want to risk the cash and/or have never heard of whoever or whatever it is and want to have a look-see at it, or (d) whatever it is isn’t available legitimately where they are. (With the optional - there’d be a lot of overlap with the others - addition of a smaller fifth category, (e), who are sick of being treated like fucking criminals - via DRM, those “YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR” ads, etc. - by content producers when they do legitimately purchase something when, famously, the pirated version usually strips all that garbage out.)

(A rejoinder to those ads and similar measures, incidentally, is that they’re like running a supermarket where you follow every customer around. Every time someone picks something up from a shelf and puts it in their basket you yell: “DON’T STEAL THAT! I’M WATCHING YOU! NO STEALING!” And, in DRM terms, then refusing to allow them to cook anything with those ingredients if the meal also involves food bought from somewhere else.)

Of those, only (a) are likely to include a significant number of lost sales. (b) can’t afford them, (c) wouldn’t take the risk on an unknown and (d) can’t buy. Note also that a person can be any combination of those four or five categories at various different times.

(a) are mostly children of the post-Napster internet generation. Which also means that they’re capable of using a search engine. Which means that they are capable of bypassing any IP block or user address log, attempt to chase one download provider offline (since another always crops up), and find DRM-cracked versions of whatever you’re selling. And the more you try to stop them, the more of a game you make of getting round it. Trying to stop these people pirating your stuff is akin to stopping people taking drugs by making them illegal. They don’t, frankly, give enough of a shit to care.

Most of the time.

This here is where our responsibility and education kick makes its return. There’s an assumed entitlement among some internet users - the (a) types, mostly - that because information should be free, so should any and all data and content. We already know how widespread the assumption of the cheap production value of an ebook versus a print book is, and how inaccurate it is. When people can see how great the human effort, time and passion put into a digital product is, they are more than willing, if they like what you’re doing, to throw money at it. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you never, ever visit Kickstarter because it’ll blow your mind.

Professional authors, by and large, do a good job of this. We blog, tweet, write at great length about the time and effort that goes into what we do. But we’re hampered because a lot of other authors do it for nothing (or at least nothing more than a hope and a dream). The difference between both types and what they do is very small if anything; after all, we were all unpaid and unpublished once. The difference is the input from publishers, and publishers don’t, to my mind, do anything like as good a job of explaining their part of the process. A handful of editors and PR people tweet, a smaller handful blog, but there’s a distinct corporate whiff about a lot of it - how often do you see your publicist enthusing about a book from a different publisher they’ve read and loved? - and it does little to explain the chain in human terms.

My last book, for instance, had one writer (yo!), one editor to fix it, one PA to that editor to handle a lot of the chatter between me and her, one freelance copy-editor, four professional proofreaders, one graphic designer, an unknown number of typesetters and layout and formatting cleverpeople, an unknown number of printers for the hardcopy version, and a further unknown number of other people who handled it from one part of the chain to the other, and one publicist to help sell it. Some of these people probably didn’t know much, if anything, about my book specifically, but some/many/all of them love writing, love books, and are both passionate about what they do, what they give to the reader, and also rely on that passion to continue to eat and pay the bills. But, with some exceptions, publishers rarely push that to the fore and humanise the job they do. They present as a brand, a corporate entity, and frankly, who gives two shits about one of those? I wonder how much education for our category (a) types in this regard £196,000 per year would buy you.

The answer to piracy beyond education is simple in my opinion. I’m going to borrow a quote from Jonathan Coulton, though I’m tempted just to mass paste half that entire blog post because it makes a massive amount of sense. It’s this:

Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan.

While (a) needs reminding that the makers of stuff are people too, and that either will or won’t work on them, (b) can’t afford it (easily), (c) isn’t sure they’d like it, and (d) can’t get it. You make your stuff affordable, make it readily and easily sample-able, and you make it available as widely as possible (and then don’t complain when people outside the catchment area you’ve given it acquire it illegally), and you sweep away a lot of the reasons for people to yoink stuff off the net.

Stop treating your regular customers like criminals - and doing that is a lousy incentive to bring people back into the legitimate fold, let me tell you - and making bullshit statements in support of easily-circumvented blanket legal measures which only make the tech-savvy types they’re targeted against more determined to give you the finger. Acting like your readers are hiring your books, not owning them, makes you - as a publisher, or a distributor - look like a tool.

For comparison, I downloaded a non-fiction tech guide from O’Reilly (OREILLY? YA REILLY! oh ho ho) a week or so ago. (For free, in this case.) As with all their books, I can download it in a bunch of different formats, as much (IIRC) as I like, and swap it between devices however I fancy. It’s also had an update and I’ve been emailed to say if I want to read the amended version I can download it again. Go me! (I’ve not actually done it because it’s too much hassle for my purposes and I’m not too worried by whatever changes there are; but it’s nice to know the service exists.) While I was aware of O’Reilly before this is the first time I’ve downloaded something from them, but I would happily do so - and pay for whatever it was - again in future because, hey, that’s good.

Let’s borrow from another ebook piracy post with a better title than this one that’s also worth reading:

Let’s talk about video games for a minute. In the last decade or so, game industry giants have implemented increasingly ridiculous DRMs to protect against piracy. This, of course, doesn’t work even if the DRM in question is a good bit harder to crack than the pathetic worthless shit that comes with ebooks (so you can imagine just how effective ebook DRM is, which is not at all: the average end-user can remove it without hassle). There are times when the DRM becomes so ridiculous that a game may be boycotted. EA and Ubisoft are especially notorious for this.

EA and Ubisoft have both removed DRM from some of their games. Why? Because, unlike the publishing industry–which appears to be populated mostly by tech-illiterate fact-phobic baboons (who often can’t even keep their ebooks free of formatting and typographical errors)–they realize the crucial, simple fact that they need their customers more than their customers need them. They need the goodwill of gamers. No matter how high-budget and hyped your AAA blockbuster title is, there will be other high-budget AAA titles… or even lower-profile but polished indie titles. Or free-to-play MMOs. Gamers are spoiled for choice and much of the mainstream stuff is fairly interchangeable, in much the same way that Voinov’s output is interchangeable with other sweaty sagas of identikit men who rape other men into true love, and likewise with all the paranormal romance, all the Dan Brown-esque “thrillers”, all the gritty grimdark fantasy. Readers have options. Writers are nothing if not disposable. Stop writing and only a handful of hardcore fans will give a shit. The rest of the world will move on to whatever it is that they want to read. There are so very many books released every month, a great deal more than games.

We are not, as writers, and consequently as publishers, entitled to earn money for what we do, any more than anyone else, especially in arty fields where worth is measured not in terms of raw materials and necessity (because in arty fields, necessity hovers around zero) but in terms of enjoyment. We’d like to, and I sure hope I can continue to do so myself, but the world doesn’t owe me or you or anyone else in publishing just because. It so happens we do pay, traditionally, but traditions change and tradition is a lousy argument for the retention of any practice. But while we’re certainly not entitled to reward, we can do what we can to make those who like what we do feel like we’ve earned that reward.

And that starts, not in the courts, but by not treating the very people you want to like you as though they’re crooks or cattle.

The most thunderous argument in Amazon’s favour is that the market has spoken, and demands cheaper product. This one I find utterly bizarre. We know very well, in this post-crash age, that the market can be an idiot.
@Harkaway talks sense on Amazon (via @stevemosby)

If you ask legacy publishing’s defenders, “Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?”, you’ll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it’s the latter.

Further to the last, Barry Eisler continues to give Amazon a reach-around with a succession of bizarre leaps of logic.

The answer to the above question, incidentally, is “neither option is relevant to the first part of the question”. It’s like asking “which is the monopoly: the company whose boss drives a blue car, or the one whose boss drives a red car?”

The correct answer is, of course, the one which is the only supplier (or, stretching the strict definition for practical reasons) more or less the only supplier, of a particular commodity. Which in this case is ebooks, and if Amazon regains the market share lost when Apple offered a sweeter deal to publishers, it’ll almost certainly be them.

In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today.

No, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day paying its suppliers less to keep prices low with the risk of putting those suppliers - the publishers - out of business, the establishment has to try to stop the slide to bargain basement price demands and deals based thereon (though as the maths I did the other day suggest, they have more room for wiggle than they sometimes let on).

Amazon, as Charlie Stross correctly points out, is also on its way to being a monopsony, exactly like Tesco (and the other top few supermarkets) as Nick Harkaway says.

Whether Amazon’s monopoly or near-monopoly and monopsony position, should it regain it (and eyeing the DOJ lawsuit and grumblings in the EU it seems quite possible they will) will lead to exactly the sort of supplier-squeezing fuck-you demands supermarkets routinely make “because people expect low prices” is a matter of opinion and conjecture, and Barry’s entitled to that as much as the next person. He’s right that publishing has been, and largely continues to be, slow to innovate. Right, too, that DRM is bad - though as Stross points out, Amazon has been by far the biggest winner on that score - and right that industries change over time.

But he’s wrong to couch arguments in terms of the money paid for or from ebooks, with Amazon existing as a glimmering beacon of hope in an expensive, poorly-paid authorial wilderness, with everyone else the grasping, greedy claws of the grey-suited “establishment”, because even ignoring the fact that he - and plenty of others who’ve done very well out of Amazon - have become shiny-eyed evangelical mouthpieces for the Great New Way and the language reflects that, those terms are often irrelevant (unless you’re asking “who will currently pay you the most royalties and generally charge the lowest prices (if you accept their weird-ass contract)?” in which case, rock on).

Amazon’s undoing, or the source for most competition, might prove for instance to be its own KDP offerings. To borrow from Stross’s remarks to Macmillan on DRM, “Amazon’s inclusion of masses of self-published material in the Kindle store has made it impossible for heavy consumers to browse it effectively.”

And that lack, just as everything else - monopoly position, author squeeze, more books, fewer books, etc. - could or could not happen regardless of which company pays the most and charges least, or which one sprays liquid customer service from every golden orifice, or which one tickles your private bits with a delicate feather while you shop.

Dear @Natwest_Help -

Your bank has a system whereby if post sent to an account’s address is returned for any reason, a “return to branch” marker is put on it and no more post is sent. This is very sensible. Kudos!

What is not sensible is:

  • No message is sent to the account holder - bearing in mind you have my two phone numbers and my email address so it shouldn’t be bloody hard - to inform them that it’s happened. (Hell, you could write to the blocked address saying “if you are the account holder and this has happened in error then please…” without breaching security since in order to get the marker removed you need to go to the branch in person, with photo ID, your card and PIN etc., to have the marker removed.) This is insane.

  • Calling it a “return to branch” marker when as far as I can tell, post isn’t then stored at the branch to be reclaimed when the account holder uses their psychic powers to realise what has happened and comes to have it put back to normal. Instead, everything needs to be sent again. Which if the reason you realised something was up because you had reached the end of a chequebook with no auto-mailed replacement arriving and you have wedding stuff to pay for, and because your bank card expires in a fortnight and shouldn’t the replacement have arrived by now, is a real pain in the arse.

  • … particularly when, as now, you discover that what the computer system in branch told the CSA when you wanted to double check everything would be arriving (“No, the most recent card we have listed is the one that’s going to expire, so there should be no problem. Contact us if it’s not arrived by the 25th so it can still arrive by the month’s end if there’s an issue.”) is completely different to what the computer system for the helpline then says when you call because it has yet again failed to appear (“One was sent on the 10th. Oh, and it says here it’s been activated.” - cue lots of hunting through transactions since then to check no one’s spending my cash). (There is, as yet, still no sign of that chequebook either.)

  • Requiring the account holder to use photo ID in addition to card and PIN to remove the marker to have stuff sent to the account address again (note that this wasn’t a change of address; the listed one was correct and I haven’t moved in a good while) when, if I were a thief with just the card and PIN, and a couple of weeks left in the month to do it, I could empty the account of all its contents. This is total security theatre. Speaking as an account holder - one who thought “nah, why would they need that when I’m not trying to change any details?” and consequently had a self-imposed walk in the rain for nothing - the ‘cleaning out my account’ effect is a lot more serious to me than the ‘having post sent to an address on file a thief might have access to’ effect, since the first renders the second void.

  • Not informing the account holder when post is stopped. I know it was the first one on the list, but this is so mind-blowingly stupid I felt it needed mentioning again. Your customers are not telepathic. At least post a message after login to your online system; that would work nicely. Send a carrier pigeon. A cryptic series of puzzles, each more fiendish than the last. Anything.

Yours, etc. etc.


Update: 26/4: The phone CSA didn’t just cancel the missing and apparently activated bank card (if she did), but also the soon-to-be-expired one that I do still have. The only way I can now access the account is to walk into town carrying a hundred forms of ID and a pint of my blood in order to carry vast amounts of cash around on my person. Or else abandon the idea entirely and switch to a barter economy and give people turnips in exchange for goods. I’ll need to grow the turnips first, but that should be a quicker process than waiting for the bank to fix things.