The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, to which I belong, recently e-mailed its members a poll about Amazon’s “look within the book” feature, about how they felt about it and whether they’d want to let Amazon browsers check out their books online — and how much of the book they’d want to let people read. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, and I think that it should be up to the writers and publishers to make that decision. But whomever it is that wrote the poll (I assume Andrew Burt, as it’s hosted on his site) is apparently so paranoid about piracy that they’ve felt it was perfectly fine to add editorial comment in the poll itself warning about the dangers of Amazon-borne piracy.
For example, one questions asking how much of a work one would want to have accessible to Amazon browsers is phrased this way: “What percent would you want blocked of your work to prevent piracy?” I’m not a professional pollster, but I know a push poll question when I see it, and I don’t like it any more when it comes from SFWA than when it comes from a political party.
My response to the poll, incidentally, was that I wanted all of the book available for Amazon shoppers to browse. I want this for many reasons, not the least of which is simply parity of shopping experience to bookstores, where one can go up to the bookshelves, crack open a book, and read as much of it as one wants to see if one is interested in making a purchase. As it happens, I don’t buy very many books online because I can’t open the book and see the text, and with new writers especially, I’m not going to buy without checking out the book first.
Now, flip this over: I’m a new writer and I know for a fact that a rather substantial percentage of my sales have been online sales, thanks to the fact that so many purchases of Old Man’s War have been driven by bloggers, and because for various reasons the book has been damned hard to find in actual bookstores (there’s never been a single copy in my local bookstore, for example). Why would I shoot my sales in the foot by not letting readers browse my book, just as much as they’d like to browse, just like they would be able to do in a brick and mortar store?
The quick and obvious answer to this — if one is paranoid about piracy — is that in a brick and mortar store, someone can’t take a screen capture of your book, run it through software and make a readable text file of your book that they then post on Kazaa, arrrrrr, for all their scurvy friends to read for free. And the answer to this is: Well, jeez, people. As if that very same would be pirate couldn’t check out my book from the library and do the same damn thing with a scanner. I’m not terribly convinced that doing a screen capture of every single page of my book on Amazon is any less work than scanning in every single page of a print copy.
Banning people from reading my book on Amazon is unlikely to deter someone who is truly motivated to pirate my book, and to scan every single friggin’ page — however one does it — you have to be pretty goddamn motivated. You’d also have to pretty motivated to read my entire book through Amazon’s less-than-entirely-user-friendly text preview tool. Most people just aren’t going to do that, and the ones that are, I’m not going to sell to anyway. I’m not going to punish the people who are likely to buy my book on the off chance that I might temporarily inconvenience someone who won’t. That’s just stupid. So: I’ll let Amazon show off the entire book. I don’t see how it can hurt me, and I see lots of ways it can help me.
Does this mean I run the risk of being pirated? Well, clearly it does. But let take a nice cold shower and look at this logically, shall we?
Let’s ask: Who are pirates? They are people who won’t pay for things (i.e., dickheads), or they’re people who can’t pay for things (i.e., cash-strapped college students and others). The dickheads have ever been with us; they wouldn’t pay even if they had the money. I don’t worry about them, I just hope they fall down an abandoned well, break their legs and die of gangrene after several excruciatingly painful days of misery and dehydration, and then I hope the rats chew the marrow from their bones and shit back down the hollows. And that’s that for them.
As for the people who can’t pay for things, well, look. I grew up poor and made music tapes off the radio; my entire music collection from ages 11 to 14 consisted of tapes that had songs missing their first ten seconds and whose final ten seconds had DJ chatter on them; from 14 to 18, I taped off my friends; from 18 to 22 I reviewed music so I could get it for free. And then after that, once I had money, I bought my music. Because I could. As for books, I bought secondhand paperbacks through my teen and college years. Now I buy hardbacks. Again, because I can. Now, being a writer, you can argue that I’m more self-interested in paying for creative work than others, but I have to honestly say that I don’t know anyone who can pay for a book or a CD or a DVD or whatever who doesn’t, far more often than not.
I don’t see the people who can’t pay as pirates. I see them as people who will pay, once they can. Until then, I think of it as I’m floating them a loan. Nor is it an entirely selfless act. I’m cultivating a reader — someone who thinks of books as a legitimate form of entertainment — and since I want to be a writer until I croak, that’s a good investment for me. More specifically, I’m cultivating a reader of me, someone who will at some point in the future see a book of mine of the shelf, go “Scalzi! I love that dude!” and then take the book off the shelf and take it to the register.
Yes, there’s an investment risk — the cash-strapped reader might in fact turn out to be a full-bore dickhead, in which case we already know what I think should happen to him — but it’s a chance I’m willing to take.
It’s a chance I’m willing to take because I believe that fundamentally, most people aren’t thieving dickheads; they’re people who if they like your writing will want to support your career, so long as you don’t treat them like you’re a mall security guard, and they’re Winona Ryder. Treat readers like they can’t be trusted and there’s no reason for them not to live down to your expectations. Make it clear to them that they’re integral to your continued success, and they will help you succeed. Treat them like human beings, for God’s sake.
Here’s another reason I don’t worry about piracy. As most of you who read here regularly know, I recently announced that I and Tor would give free electronic copies of Old Man’s War to service people stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I took the very minimal precaution of asking that deployed soldiers make their request from the “.mil” e-mail addresses, but other than that, I simply asked people who are not “over there” not to request a book.
It worked: I haven’t gotten people misrepresenting themselves for a free book, and I haven’t found one of those “over there” editions floating around aimlessly on the Web. I treated people like they were honorable adults, and so far it’s worked. Until it becomes clear to me that it’s not working anymore, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. If SFWA persists in wasting its time fighting an overblown battle with piracy on Amazon, it’ll do it without me. It’s not a battle I see worth fighting.