Ahoy! Pirates!

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join in the discussion of when darkness is inspirational and when enough is just enough.  Then set sail with me and Alan as we move into the troubled waters of piracy.

ALAN: I was watching some DVDs today, all legitimately purchased. Some were American and some were British. The American-produced ones all start with a (VERY LOUD) advert along the lines of “You wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal…” and go on to point out that pirating DVDs is punishable by death, dismemberment, and life in prison (OK, I’m exaggerating a little there).

Treasure Island

Treasure Island

JANE: I’ll admit, it’s a long time since I bought a new DVD, other than anime.  I’m familiar with the written FBI warning, but I hadn’t encountered this particular approach.  You’re educating me again!

That said, as someone who makes her living through intellectual properties, I’ve got to say that pirating is not a good thing.

ALAN: Oh, it definitely isn’t a good thing at all, and the British DVDs are concerned to get the same message across. But they all start with a very short and not very loud advert which simply says (and I quote directly): “By purchasing this DVD you are protecting the British film and television industry. Thank you.”

Two very different approaches which are essentially saying the same thing. I know which one I prefer. I’d much rather be thanked than threatened.

JANE: I absolutely agree.  I like the British approach very much.  For one thing, it’s educational.  I honestly believe that if more people realized how writers – for one – are paid, they wouldn’t be as inclined to pirate.  It’s viewed as one of those “victimless crimes.”  The British approach gives a name to the victims.

I know a couple of people who have written for Hollywood.  Would you like me to ask them if piracy hits the writer or just the Big Studio?

ALAN: Yes please – I really don’t know very much about how screenwriting works. I’ve never met anyone who does it.

JANE: Okay…  I’m back. Debbie Lynn Smith, who wrote for several popular T.V. shows, and is now working on the soon-to-be released comic Gates of Midnight, said: “Both freelance and staff writers get residuals. Residuals work on a sliding scale. So the first rerun gets about half the script payment. Then each subsequent rerun gets a percentage less. I’m still receiving residuals on Murder, She Wrote, Touched By An Angel, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

“There are also foreign sales, which pay much less. DVD is even less. Streaming – I don’t know anything about as I never dealt with that.”

Then I checked with Melinda Snodgrass, who in addition to writing novels and short fiction has written both for television (Star Trek: TNG) and film.  She added some details about how screenwriters are hurt by piracy: “…we don’t get money on a movie unless somebody buys that DVD… yes, piracy hurts us worse [than it does television writers], but we also get money when Netflix is streaming a film.”

ALAN: That’s interesting. I had no idea that individual writers were affected like this. I thought it was only the big, faceless, greedy companies who got hit in their bottomless corporate pockets. If I thought about it at all, I suppose I just assumed that the small creators got an upfront payment for their work. Obviously I was wrong…

JANE: Oh, they do get an upfront payment, but pirates are keeping them from getting paid for continued use of their work.

Speaking of small creators…  One thing that surprises me is how few people know how print writers make money from their books.  Just the other day, we had some friends over.  They were talking about selling some of their books to a used bookstore.  I mentioned that used bookstores – especially now that most have their stock listed on the internet – were one of the things that were killing professional writers.

ALAN: I’d never really thought of second-hand bookstores as being harmful to a writer’s income. I know you don’t receive any money from second-hand sales of your books, but I’m surprised that the impact is that large. Furniture manufacturers don’t receive any money from the sale of second-hand furniture, but they show no signs of going out of business!

JANE: Ah…  But second-hand furniture sellers are not likely to sell outside of their immediate market.  After all, furniture is expensive to ship.  However, many second-hand booksellers now have an on-line store.  That’s changed everything.

Once upon a time, second hand bookstores were very useful to both readers and writers.  Readers could try a new writer or series at a discount.  If they liked what they found, then they would probably turn to a seller of new books to feed their habit – after all, a used bookstore would be unlikely to have a complete run of a series or everything an author had written.  Now, that’s changed.  A reader can go on-line and buy from a huge variety of used bookstores, often at an astonishing discount.

A writer receives nothing from the sale of used books.  Since sometimes “used” books show up almost as quickly as “new” – a result of reviewers selling sample copies – not even the newest of the new works will earn a writer income.

ALAN: But doesn’t the publisher pay you in advance for your book?

JANE: Yes.  However, the term is “advance against royalties” for a reason.  If enough copies sell for the writer to “earn out” the advance, more income is forthcoming.  Unless you’re a super-duper bestseller, used bookstores make earning out the advance less likely than before – and, even before the Internet, earning out an advance was far from certain.

Moreover, publishers estimate the advance based on how many copies sell.  If copies don’t sell (because readers are buying used), then advances go down, fewer copies are printed, and the nasty downward spiral that has forced many formerly solidly selling “midlist” writers out of business continues.

ALAN: I’d have thought libraries would be more of a worry. After all, lots and lots of people borrow library books. That’s a lot of potential customers to lose. For a long time authors got no money at all from this, but a few years ago we got something called the Public Lending Right which does give authors a tiny income from borrowed library books. Do you have anything like that?

JANE: No.  American writers get nothing but the original sale for library circulations.  That’s why it’s a sort of backhanded compliment when a reader comes up to a writer and says, “I love your books so much!  I’ve taken all of them out of the library five times!”

Also, after a while, libraries aren’t likely to have a full set of a series or all the works by an author.  This used to lead to readers seeking out the rest, a demand for reprints, and other good things for the writer.  These days…  Not so much.

I’m not saying I don’t use the library or used bookstores.  I do.  Avidly.  But when there are writers who I want to see able to keep writing, then I go out and buy their books new.

There’s a creative impact, too.  Can you guess what it is?

ALAN: That’s a tricky one. Let me think about it and maybe we can discuss it next time.


12 Responses to “Ahoy! Pirates!”

  1. Melissa Osburn Says:

    I loved reading this post, it was both very interesting and enlightening! Thank you for shedding some light on the issue of pirating and its effect on writers.

  2. Debbie Says:

    Very interesting reading. I didn’t stop and think about used books stores hurting a writer either. But of course they would. One other area where piracy really hurts me is in the audio drama world. Like novel authors, I got paid and up front fee for my Dark Shadows audio dramas with a residual after they earn out. However, there are so many sites where you can download the CD for free that there’s no chance of earning out. It’s rather frustrating.

  3. Paul Says:

    Most of the used bookstores from the ’70s and earlier within an 80-mile radius of where I live have long since gone out of business. But on-line used-book sales have probably replaced them and, as you indicated, probably make things even worse for working writers. The only possible benefit I see for authors might be, if a reader liked a used book purchase enough, h/she might buy the author’s next “real” book.

    • Peter Says:

      Much the same holds true for checking books out of a library, or borrowing them from a friend, or even downloading them from the Internet – it isn’t necessarily a “lost sale”. A lot of people who buy used books, or check out from the library, or borrow from friends, or download are using these things as inexpensive means of discovery – trying a new author for free, or for a dollar or two is a lot easier on the budget than putting down 10 dollars (or more) on spec for a new paperback, and eliminating that low-cost discovery option is likely to result in a lot more lost sales down the road.

      It’s a tricky situation.

  4. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Then there are the stone-broke readers, for whom it’s used, or nothing. Not losing a sale that woudn’t happen anyway, at leat not that year. I know I’ll buy new when I can again, till then, it’s the only way to keep even close to the loop.

  5. Peter Says:

    There’s also the question of availability. In TV the poster child for this is the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones, which has been wildly profitable in DVD sales in markets where the show was never broadcast, and so widely downloaded, since downloading the show was the only way people could watch it. (I have absolutely no idea what the residuals situation is for writers on box sales vs. broadcast residuals, granted.)

    In the case of books it’s more complex, of course, since that alternate revenue stream doesn’t exist, but it’s a real issue. Having paper books shipped internationally can easily double or triple the cover cost (and none of that extra money goes to the author), resulting in a lot of lost sales since my book buying budget, sadly, isn’t that elastic, and buying ebooks isn’t an option because of geographical restrictions (and using methods to get around those restrictions is, in a lot of places, a far more serious crime than infringing copyright by downloading a copy of the book from a file-sharing site).

    Personally I’m a hairy-eyed anarchist scofflaw, so come March I’ll hoist the skull-and-crossbones flag, clench my cutlass between my teeth, ignite the slowmatch in my beard, raise a glass of rum, buy a copy of Artemis Awakening from Amazon, and sneer at the law-abiding types who’ll download it from The Pirate Bay, but that’s just me.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    There’s also the problem of geography. For arcane and largely obsolete reasons, the world is divided up between the various providers of goodies, and there are strict regulations about who can sell which goodies to whom. Time after time I have found myself in the position of saying, “Here I am. I want to give you lots of money. Please sell me X” only to be told, “No! I WON’T sell you X, I’m not allowed to. You can’t have it. So there! Go away and stop bothering me.”

    If nobody will sell me what I want to buy, if they all tell me they don’t want my money, what do I do next?


    • Peter Says:

      Quite. Reading a library book, or a borrowed book, or a downloaded book may or may not translate into a loss of one sale (and may translate into many future sales).

      Refusing to sell customers a book they want to buy is always a lost sale.

  7. Heteromeles Says:

    I’d point out the other problem: how do you sell the used books you no longer want? A decade ago, it was easy: put ’em in a box, go over to the used book store, sell them for a pittance (often store credit), and find something else to read. It was fun, because you never knew what you’d find in the store, and you got to free up shelf space for something interesting.

    Now you’ve got the choice of donating them to the local library so they can sell them on the internet, or doing it yourself. Similarly, if you want to buy a book on the internet, you’ve got to pay the shipping on the stupid thing. Moreover, you don’t get to page through it, see if it smells like stale cigarette smoke or exudate of cat, find out whether all the pages are there, and so forth: you’re depending on a sentence on a computer screen to tell you what the item is, and if you don’t want it, so wonderful, you get to ship it back and argue with the seller.

    Note that used bookstores aren’t perfect recyclers: the unsellable books always build up, because they can’t find someone willing to buy them locally (or at all). Still, turnover was possible. Amazon’s put a big ol’ kink in the system. It might be good for them, but it’s not so good for me. I know: I’m buying a lot fewer books than I used to.

    Worse, I’m looking at a couple of aging relatives, each of whom has a lot of books, and my shelves are full too. I guess I’ll have to open my own used bookstore online (uncle’s gently used books, perhaps?) to sell what I can. What fun. I suppose it’s better than renting the dumpster, but not by much.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I knew a used bookstore owner who admitted that she sold surplus romance novels to a company that recycled them into roofing felt.

      Open that bookstore… I’ll come browse. Can I have your Arthur Upfield novels?

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