‘Am I Screwing Over the Book Industry By Releasing My Work for Free?’ and Other Existential Questions

Over the weekend Maggie Stiefvater wrote about the implications of book piracy and, when the Internet told her off, told a story about dealing with book piracy. You can read them both at your leisure (the story is worth five minutes of your time for its sneaky genius alone). Today I want to talk about the questions it threw up for me both as a reader and as someone who posts writing on the Internet for free.

First off, I work at a literary consultancy a day a week so I know a minuscule amount about publishing. I know a little more about writing and way more about reading. But I do know that publishing fiction in 2017 is not the easiest of things. Books are luxuries and household incomes are not always at luxury-buying levels. Savvy publishers will buy a book whose content or author has a reasonable chance of making them a profit before they consider some left-field niche wee book from a new author. My Everyday Acts of Murder series, currently available for everyone on my stories blog, probably won’t get an ISBN-d print edition until I have 8 million Twitter followers or have been to the Olympics or something. So yeah, books are hard to produce and expensive to buy. People are broke. So let’s think outside the metaphor and share art and make money in other ways?

Enter: me, using Patreon to offer readers an early release of my stories, plus some other little perks I can feasibly create with no budget, from one US dollar per month. You guys get free content, I get money from those of you who care enough to pay me, everyone is fulfilled!

Except.

Maggie points out that ‘if you take away a paying-for-art model, you end up only getting art from people who can afford to work in their spare time or art that is supported by patrons — both models that we have seen before, both models that end up giving you art produced by and for a homogeneous and upper class group’. But Francesca, you’re thinking, you aren’t upper class and homogeneous, we aren’t upper class and homogeneous and we know you can’t afford to give your work away for free! True. I had to double-check what ‘homogeneous’ means, for one thing, and for another I don’t give any other type of my work away for free – not my marketing services, not the stationery I design on Etsy (or not since I made my watermark uncroppable, anyway). So why did I go for the free-content-with-paid-perks-available model?

Before I opened up my story blog I spent several deeply unsatisfying years trying to find a job that allowed me to say ‘I’m a writer’. Eventually I decided to just go and be a writer. Running my own blog gives me the freedom to make what I want and when. I’m always working on something, because a blog can go on indefinitely, and I can interact with my readers in real time. No one directs me (I do have a critique partner, though, I’m not a complete heathen) and it’s my space, just like this blog is. Although you can have a character named after you for a dollar (one dollar!) or suggest a story prompt, I choose what I do with your name and your prompt. F r e e d o m!

Except.

Am I removing piracy’s power by putting everything online myself for free, like Maggie did by flooding the Internet with her own book, or am I ripping myself off and lowing my own standards? If  individuals personally gave me hundreds of dollars of their own money, could I still claim to be completely independent? Would I feel beholden to them and their ideas? When someone throws a tantrum on this blog or Twitter, I can comfortably tell them to fuck off. What happens when that person is paying for my car insurance? Were I to publish a full-length novel, would anyone buy it or would they assume I should post that for free, too? I could conceivably follow the route of never charging up front and rely on people buying perks on Patreon forever, but there’s an economic theory I can’t remember the name of which stipulates that people will pay what they think an item is worth. If your price is low or non-existent, as I have learnt with my Etsy, people will assume it’s not worth paying for. If you demand money, they know that what you’ve got to offer is worth money. I feel like that applies to the book industry as a whole – if I offer my work for free and a person who happens to be a fan of The Raven Cycle likes it, will they resent Maggie for not releasing her work for free as well? Am I devaluing books everywhere? Will I become exclusive and homogeneous? Am I ripping myself off? And is it a new level of narcissism on my part that I read about a New York Times bestselling author’s experience with piracy and immediately worried about my own work, which as an audience of about a dozen people, being pirated?

(Yes.)

This is the bit where I tell you I once read a pirated copy of The Dream Thieves. I could offer the excuse that I was in a bad state mentally at the time, which I was, or that I had the book on order from my library, which it was. But I know better and I could have exercised restraint. I just didn’t. Sorry, Maggie, it was a dick move on my part.

Book piracy is easy and free and right there. It’s not going away unless a lot of people grow a conscience, which isn’t likely, or until enough authors or publishers or agents find ways to beat pirates (ha) at their own game. At the moment, me sharing stories on a blog is also easy, free and right there. I like it. I feel like I’m working hard to create fiction I’m proud of, and I know I can be proud that I’ve tried another way of making money from something I enjoy and am good at. Karma probably exists after all, because I earn one dollar a month on Patreon and will realistically one day have to send a cease and desist to a shitbag on Etsy who thinks they can copy and paste my designs. I haven’t even talked about second hand books today, because unless they’re advanced reader copies someone paid for them originally, but would publishers be less inclined to cut a series due to low sales if they knew how many second hand copies were in circulation? Should second hand sales count in sales figures given that most people who can’t afford a new book will go to their library and/or favourite second hand bookseller before looking for a pirated copy? Would less people pirate books if we had more libraries?

I don’t have the answers – I barely have coherent questions – but I feel like the only way any of us are going to keep seeing books in shops is if we keep talking about what books are worth, and what writers are worth, to us as readers. Some people will never place value on other people’s art, and instead of debating whether piracy is inevitable, we should probably just concentrate on making it really, really difficult. So tell me your thoughts on free art versus paid art and all of that versus piracy. Tell me how you would end pirated books. Have you ever confronted someone you know is pirating books? I’m kind of done with repeating the word ‘pirate’ even if it is Halloween…

(If I ever show signs of becoming remotely homogeneous, you have my permission to punch me in the face.)

PS I remembered I had photographed my dogeared shitheap partially second hand copies of TRC but I seem to have lost ‘Blue Lily’. How appropriate.
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