1. Writers just want to be read.
I recently heard a young woman at a party say that writers don’t mind when their books are downloaded for free on the internet, because “writers just want to be read.”
As a working writer who pays my mortgage and buys groceries and sends my kid to summer camp with the proceeds from my books, I can tell you that this isn’t true. While I do want to be read, that isn’t my primary concern. My primary concern is making a living.
2. Writers don’t need to be paid for their work.
Let’s say you design and produce a T-shirt. Let’s say you sell the T-shirts for $20 each, and with the proceeds from these T-shirts, you pay your rent, buy coffee, pay off your student loans, pay the electric bill,go to the movies, buy a beer at the corner bar, etc.
Now, you may give your shirt to a few friends in order to drum up business. That’s called marketing, and it’s not much different from when publishers send out review copies of books to newspapers, magazines, and influential bloggers. You’re willing to give away a few shirts in the hopes that it will lead to sales.
Now, let’s say a bunch of people—a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, half a million—come to you and say, “Hey, you should give us that shirt, because we’ll wear it, and when we wear your shirt, it’s going to be good for you.” What would you say? You’d probably turn them down. You’d probably point out that creating the shirt took time, effort, and resources. Maybe you went to university to learn the skills that went into making that shirt. Maybe you worked at McDonald’s for a few dollars an hour while you were figuring out how to arrange your life in a way that would allow you to do more fulfilling work. You’d probably point out that you didn’t make that shirt just to give it away. You need to sell the shirt, because that’s how you make a living, and, no matter how good-looking or smart or self-contented these free-culture advocates are, the mere fact of them wearing your shirt does absolutely nothing for you. It’s good for them, maybe—free shirt—but it is most definitely not good for you.
Authors make a living by selling our books. We write books that we hope will be good, books that we hope will be meaningful, but we also write books that we hope people will buy. We do not go to the store and walk out with a new pair of shoes or a new baseball bat or an ice cream cone without paying for them. We don’t expect the taxi driver to drive us to the airport for free, and we don’t expect the tech guy to fix our computer for free, and we don’t expect the piano teacher to give our kids piano lessons for free. We understand that when a service is provided, it is good practice to pay for it. We hope that others will show us the same courtesy. When increasing numbers of readers decide they’re going to get our books for free by illegally downloading them, and when increasing numbers of libraries lobby for the “right” to lend digital copies of our books to anyone, anywhere, without paying author royalties, authors don’t make a living.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, The Slow Death of the American Author, Scott Turow points to the offshore pirate sites that offer illegal downloads of copyrighted works. Google and Bing serve ads to these pirate sites, and subscribers pay a fee to download content, so both the pirates and the mega-corporations are making big money off of the books they had no role in creating. Kim dot com gets another Rolls Royce, Google tops up the multi-billion dollar coffers, and PayPal gets a huge chunk of the pie. The prize goes to the middleman. Yay for them. The only ones who aren’t making money off of those books are the people who wrote them.
If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it, I’d be on my way to jail. And yet even while search engines sail under mottos like “Don’t be evil,” they do the same thing.
The only people who can legitimately say, “Authors shouldn’t be paid for their books,” are people who go to their job for free. I don’t know many people who do that. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t know any. There’s been a rallying cry among certain academics and librarians who say that copyright is anti-culture, that all books should be free to all people, but I don’t know a single professor or librarian who doesn’t get paid to show up to the university or to the library.
Traditionally, libraries purchase a hard copy of a book, which they then lend out to their patrons. I happen to be a longtime fan of libraries and the services they provide to the community. As an author, I have accepted the fact that I only receive a royalty on the copy the library purchases, not on the lending (although in Europe, authors do receive royalties each time their books are lent). Unlimited e-book lending is an entirely different ballgame; by effectively ensuring that no reader will have any incentive to purchase an e-book, ever, it erases a huge chunk of the author’s royalties.
If you happen to be a professor or librarian who believes that information, including copyrighted books, should flow freely with no compensation for the creators of that information, or that publishers should offer books to libraries for free or next to free, or that soft copyright laws are essential to democracy, I urge you to put your money where your mouth is: the next time you receive a paycheck, return it. You are just happy to be able to go to work, right? You don’t do it for the money. It also bears saying that libraries need content, and the content comes from somewhere, so when libraries lobby against fair payment to authors, they are lobbying against their own existence.
3. Writers make so much money, they shouldn’t mind if their books are illegally downloaded.
Advances for mid-list authors—that is, the vast majority of authors—are far from a living wage. The advance for my first book was $2,000. As I wrote the stories in the collection over a period of eight years, I wasn’t exactly raking it in. My second book, which took a much more reasonable three years to write, received an even smaller advance of $1,000—or about $333 per year. My third book, which took me more than four years to write, received an advance of $25,000, as did my fourth book, which, fortunately, only took one year to write. Obviously, during those years of writing I was making a living in other ways—from working at a tanning bed salon right out of college to selling credit processing machines all over New York City to teaching. For my next two books (neither of which has been published yet), I received a much bigger advance, but this only happened after I had proved myself by turning that $25,000 advance into a book that sold nearly half a million copies.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend $50,000 is the average advance for a book by a midlist author (in fact, the average midlist advance is rapidly declining). Let’s say the book for which you receive a $50,000 advance takes three years to write—which is fairly normal among writers. You receive your advance in increments—upon signing, upon delivery of the finished product, upon hardback publication, and upon paperback publication—so the advance is spread out not only over the years it takes to write the book, but also over the years when you are waiting for it to be published, and then waiting for the paperback release. So if it takes you three years to write the book, the advance is spread out over a period of about five years.
That makes the annual income for that book $10,000. With that, you need to pay for child care so you can write the book, pay your mortgage, buy the groceries, etc. In order to make this work, of course, you need another job, although that other job is the reason it takes you three years to write a book. It also helps to be married and to therefore be in a two-income family. If you’re a trust fund baby, like most successful writers were until fairly recently, you’ll be fine. (There’s a reason that only independently wealthy people wrote and published books before the mid-twentieth century.)
Only after you have earned out your advance do you begin earning royalties. For a $50,000 advance, you’ll have to sell close to 50,000 books to earn out the advance. If you don’t earn out the advance, you don’t get royalties. Also: if you don’t earn out the advance, the publisher doesn’t see you as a viable investment, and your next advance is a) much smaller or b) nonexistent.
The fact is, very few authors are making the big bucks. Stephen King is, of course, and so are Danielle Steele and J.K. Rowling (which is not to say that these authors are not also losing huge sums of money each year to illegal downloads), but the vast majority of authors make far less per hour than the barista at Starbucks or the person flipping those admittedly amazing burgers at In n’ Out. So when you say, “If I download this book for free, it doesn’t really hurt anybody,” you’re wrong. It hurts the person who made it.
I assume that most of the people who read this post do not illegally download books, music, or movies. But if you are a person who does that, I ask you to do one thing before you download the next book or song from a file sharing site: take a moment to visualize yourself reaching into that author’s purse, or that musician’s wallet, and stealing money. Are you comfortable with that image of yourself? If so, go ahead; download away.
Why this should matter to you. If you’ve read a good book in the past few years, if you’ve read a book that moved you, a book that enlarged your world-view, a book that changed you, if you have ever read a book that made you want to be a writer, then remember where that book came from: an author who lives in the same world in which you live, an author who cannot download lunch, blue jeans, or an apartment for free.