Coming home from an enjoyable trip is even nicer when you find you have more money than you had when you left. My homecoming from Dallas and A-Kon 21 was made happier by a royalty statement from one of my publishers.
Royalties are defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary ( a very handy resource for fast, free look-up) as “a sum of money that is paid to somebody who has written a book, piece of music, etc. each time that it is sold or performed.”
Traditionally, royalties have been the backbone of a writer’s income. On commissioning a book, the publishers pay the author an advance against royalties, usually in stages as the final text is delivered. Once the book goes on sale, a percentage of the income from each copy is due to the author and is offset against the advance until it’s been repaid. After that, the same percentage per copy is paid to the author in arrears, usually twice a year.
Essentially, publishers gamble that any book will sell well enough to recoup all its costs, including the advance payments made to the author. That doesn’t always happen. Many books never earn royalties. But as long as enough books do earn money, the publisher can keep going. And some books earn massively for both author and publisher, enabling publishers to take chances on less commercial work. The J.K. Rowlings, China Miévilles and Barack Obamas of this world not only make money for themselves and their publishers, but also enable a legion of less popular authors to get their work into print.
This traditional model is now breaking down under the double impact of economic upheaval and piracy. The problems in the economy can’t be avoided: many good and useful businesses will collapse, not necessarily because they’re inflexible or unprepared but merely because they’re unlucky.
Piracy is a different matter. The popular terminology romanticises theft, while the widespread public view that entertainment should be free to the end user creates a sense of entitlement. It began with ‘free’ TV channels, and if we’re not careful it will lead us to a world where the only publishing is the mass-market celebrity-promoted advertising-linked kind sponsored by media channels and major corporations.
Piracy isn’t a new problem. The work of Osamu Tezuka was extensively pirated in the 1940s and 1950s. However , the combination of fast broadband access and US Government support for Internet service providers over authors and publishers is making it even more widespread and harder to combat. In July 2007 a Chinese translation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared free online weeks before the official Chinese language version reached bookshops.
Defenders of Internet piracy argue that free dissemination of works helps an author to become better known and thus creates a demand for his or her work. That happens – indeed, it was happening long before the Internet. In 1701 a satirical poem by Daniel Defoe was pirated and became a best-seller, with 80,000 copies in print. That’s an impressive total sale that would rack up a goodly sum in royalties even today. Defoe didn’t see a penny for all those copies, but he did become famous, able to command the attention of the top publishers. In the preface to a later edition he recorded his gratitude to the ‘pirates’, coining the term by which intellectual property theft is still known.
More recently, in 2009, British teenager Abigail Gibbs posted her vampire novel online. To date it’s been read by over four and a half million people. The majority of print-published authors never achieve ten per cent of that readership. Yet Abigail has her “fingers crossed for getting published” and her online portal contains a clear and unambiguous copyright statement.
It’s one thing for the author to decide to give his or her work away for free. It’s another for someone to steal it. Authors quite often decide to give their work away, for the exposure, or as a thank-you to fans – like Stephen King, who doesn’t need the Internet to bolster his fame and fortune. King has also been pirated alongside many other authors; in 2007 the Bookyards blog provided links to a Hungarian site where King and Asimov could be read for free.
The Bookyards blogger is a classic example of the doublethink inherent in piracy. Reporting the Asimov/King link he said “I am usually relunctant (sic) to spread this type of information, but I am doing so to make the point that enforcing copyright laws will continue to grow as the technology to make such works freely available spread. Like music, new business models will have to be looked at in order to insure (sic) that writers be properly compensated for their works.” This is right below the banner proclaiming that he “knows where all the books on the Internet are buried” and hopes to “make “Bookyards The Library” a commercial success.”
Would that be a commercial success which also renders a return to writers, I wonder? If so it would be very, very rare. Many Internet sites make an income from stealing the work of others – stealing books, comics and animation, offering them for free ‘to benefit the fans’ and reaping advertising income, kudos or influence. Some have created saleable corporations on the basis of this theft. Few ever make any attempt to pay royalties to the original creators.
Recently I wrote about mangaka Yukio Tamai, a Japanese creator whose worldwide success is unlikely because his most commercial works have been pirated. He hasn’t earned anything from those downloads, and nor has his publisher. There are many more like him. In some cases, Western anime distributors have not licensed fan-favourite titles because those titles have been so extensively pirated as to make it impossible to make a profit. With profits in free-fall and Japanese publishers and studios facing a choice between cutting staff to the bone or going to the wall, fans continue to pirate current titles that could potentially earn licensing money overseas, often protesting their devotion to anime and manga and claiming that only their work keeps it pure and valid as the creators intended. Well, the creators intended to earn a living from it, and theft isn’t helping them.
Writers and artists are the creative engine that generates the entertainment industry’s wealth. Yet we are expected to be grateful and see opportunity when others steal the product on which our income is based in order to create wealth for themselves. Instead of reaping our royalties as the proper reward for our work, we’re being treated like royalty – French royalty. Many of us will not survive the new Terror.
When criticised, Internet pirates and their supporters tend to knee-jerk reactions. There are torrents of responses to artists’ protests about piracy urging them to move into the new era, find new ways to monetise, accept reality. Yet even the most enthusiastic and successful of thieves must surely acknowledge that killing the geese that lay the golden eggs is a stupid move.
It’s not just down to the authors, the publishers, or the legislators. Readers – both legal and illegal – and pirates are part of this problem. It’s in their interest to be part of the solution. We all need to find new ways to ensure that a diverse creative community can survive. Otherwise, pirates will have to fill their Internet libraries and build their business plans with celebrity bios, cookbooks and whatever they can find in another online library. A host of quirky, original, dynamic authors will have vanished along with their publishers.
Evolution, revolution, larceny – whatever we call it, we all have to live with the consequences.