The Fine Art of Literary Theft

I had an absolute blast this past weekend at the Emerald City Writers' Conference -- the friendliest conference you'll ever attend! For some reason, they let me have access to a microphone and a slide projector, so I was able to subject a room-semi-full of people to a presentation on genre tropes, mash-ups, and ethical artistic stealing. The slides are very pretty (thanks, Slidevana!), and some bits of it may in fact be intelligent as well! So I thought I might post it on Slideshare and on this here blog, for those who couldn't attend the conference in person. There's audio somewhere, and when that is available I'll see about posting that as well (or at least letting you know how to find it elsewhere).

{Edited to add this one single slide, as a reference link and teaser.}

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 1.43.10 PM


Now That You Mention It, The Internet Is Totally A Speakeasy

{Background: people have been saying -- on Techdirt, more recently on Techdirt, and now in a thorough 57-page paper that I haven't finished reading yet -- that copyright enforcement is 'our generation's Prohibition'. I'll have more thoughts once I've finished the paper, but for now this is immediately where my mind leapt. Metaphors are powerful, yo.} Mickey pulled his hat down lower over his face before heading into the alley. It was an unpromising canyon of a shadows with a single rivet-bound door at the end. For a moment his heart stuttered and fell to its knees, trying to convince him this was all a terrible mistake.

Anne tugged on his elbow, her smile like a slash in the dim light, as bloody red as her dress. "Come on," she said. "It's only frightening the first time."

Mickey pulled his heart up to its feet and followed.

Anne's heels staccattoed the concrete as she strode to the door. At her knock, a window slid open just wide enough to reveal a pair of thoughtful brown eyes. Said the man, "Weather's bad tonight. Looks like rain."

"They say it's going to come down in torrents," Anne replied.

The window snicked shut, then the whole door creaked open. The thoughtful brown eyes belonged to a pale man with wild, astonishing hair and a self-effacing smile. "Hurry up," he said.

Anne pulled Mickey inside and the doorman pulled the door closed once more. A long hallway led left, then right, then down, then through a dusty cellar. A tuxedo-clad man took Mickey's hat and politely opened a second thick door.

Mickey stepped into a swirl of music and color and noise.

He stopped to try and get his bearings. Straight ahead was a dance floor, crammed with bodies gyrating to bootlegs of live concerts, lost tracks, and illicit mash-ups—all of which were available upon request from the cat-eared DJ in the front of the room. In velvet-lined booths to the right people were trading reproductions of famous paintings, fan art, and celebrity photos. One girl proudly displayed a sketch where Disney's Belle and her Beast had been transformed into Chewbacca and Han Solo: Belle's blue skirt and white apron had changed into a white shirt, blue vest and pants, and the Beast sported a bandolier across his broad chest. The caption read: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere."

On Mickey's left were a row of glass-walled rooms with flickering screens that displayed the latest smash hit movie, classic decade-long television shows, and forgotten classics that were rarely seen outside art houses and film schools in the nation's two largest cities. Above was a balcony studded with couches and chairs, each of which held someone curled up for comfort, balancing the slender weight of an e-reader in their hands.

And everywhere people were talking, squealing, laughing, fighting, creating, comparing, emjoying. It was lunacy—and it was infectious.

Anne encompassed the whole room with one regal gesture. "Where should we start?" she asked.

Mickey's face split in a wide grin. "The music," he said.

Within an hour, Mickey had procured albums by Tom Waits and Otis Redding, things he'd purchased years ago and had since lost. Someone told him about some band called the Avett Brothers, and gave him a copy of Four Thieves Gone. He found a set of headphones and hit play.

Thanks to the high volume of the music and the excellent quality of the headphones, Mickey only noticed the police had arrived when they yanked out the jack. "You're under arrest," said the detective. His white trenchcoat fit his broad shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.

Mickey blinked in surprise. Blue-clad street cops moved somberly through the room, but everyone else had vanished, even Anne. CDs and mixtapes, videos and Blu-rays lay scattered and crushed on the caramel wood floor. As he watched, one cop lifted an axe and brought it crashing down on a screen showing a gifset from The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Mickey's detective was examining his list of titles. He pursed his lips and whistled. "The Avett Brothers?" he said. "You son of a bitch."

"I'm starting to really dig that album," Mickey protested.

"Then why would you take money away from hard-working young artists?" The cop kicked over a stack of copies of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. "It's one thing to steal a dead man's tunes," he said. "But a small band struggling to make good?"

"I didn't know I would like it until I heard it," Mickey said weakly. "Aren't they coming to town next month? I'm sure I've seen the poster somewhere. I'd love to hear them play in person."

"Why not just download a bootleg of that concert, too?" the detective snarled.

"Well," said Mickey, "because concerts are fun."

"You won't be able to afford concert tickets for a long while, buddy," the detective replied. "The last guy we caught with this many MP3s got a six-figure fine and community service."

"Six figures!" Mickey cried. "You've got to be joking."

"It's piracy that's the real joke," said the detective. "Like the proverbial bad penny, you criminals keep turning up." He sighed and waved one hand to his subordinates. As the police hauled Mickey away, he craned his head over his shoulder to see that the DJ had already crept back into his booth and the readers were back in their chairs up above. (Had they ever really left?)

Lounging in one of those overhead chairs was Anne, her long legs stretched out easily before her. She smiled and blew Mickey a kiss.

The riveted door slammed shut.

{The inevitable disclaimer: I believe that copyright is vitally important, but that enforcement of copyright has taken some ludicrous turns in the course of developing a practical law. Piracy's overlap with fair use, international law, and fan culture is still a murky, ill-defined territory. The metaphor of copyright-enforcement-as-Prohibition is initially intriguing -- we'll see if the historical argument holds up -- especially since it implies that popular culture is intoxicating, vital, and impossible to quash. But it also implies that popular culture is vulgar, morally dodgy, and may provide a financial building ground for organized crime. And I'm not just talking about bootleg Sopranos episodes. I'll have more coherent thoughts about this in future.

Also if anyone wants to draw me a picture of Belle and the Beast as Han and Chewy that would be spectacular.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive!}

Belle and Beast as Han and Chewy -iPad sketch

Leap Day Birthdays And Other Calendrical Shenanigans

When we here at Olivia Waite hear that Leap Day is coming up, surely we're not alone in thinking, "Frederic finally gets a birthday!" Because if anything is always culturally relevant, it's the nonstop patter-filled story of an uptight young British man finding true love after being mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in his youth. Poor Frederic won't be free of the indenture until he turns 21—since he was born on February 29, it will take him about six decades. Pity the poor soul with a Leap Day Birthday!

A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) titled "Jerry's Sweet Sixteen" was based on the same premise: perennial joke-butt Jerry Gurgitch was born on February 29, so from a very technical standpoint he's only had sixteen birthdays.

Of course, the Leap Day Birthday does not mean Jerry has not spent sixty-four years on this planet as it revolves around the sun. The Leap Day Birthday is an aberration that reveals the way we culturally build the idea birthdays: you can live however long you want, but the anniversary of the date you were born is the important day, and if that day comes around only once in four years then those years somehow don't count toward your total age. Like dog years, but in reverse and for people.

Annual birthdays of course were invented by the ancient Romans. This is quite true: according to Denis Feeney's wonderful and mind-bending Caesar's Calendar, the fact that Ovid shares a birthday (and a calendar day) with his brother is the first documented instance of the same date occurring with precisely 365 days between. This was made possible by the recent invention of the Julian calendar (which included leap days, and eventually fell to the Gregorian calendar). Before then, the ancient Greeks would celebrate the date of their birth every month, which sounds like a pretty transparent justification to have symposia all the time with your friends. Hey, οινοχορος! Βring me more birthday wine! It's the 15th again!

Before the Romans began to standardize the calendar, each nation, region, or city-state kept its own history on its own time, with its own reckoning. This sounds terrifyingly chaotic—but it bears pointing out that after the Gregorian calendar was contrived in the 16th century, it took centuries for other nations to adopt its use. Which is to say the date varied from country to country during the periods we like to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment (don't forget the French Republican Calendar!), and Industrial Revolution. The US adopted the current calendar just in time to screw with George Washington's birthday, and Greece only changed calendars in—wait for it—1923.

Let me say that again, because it kind of blows my mind: Greece has not been using the Gregorian calendar for a full century yet.

Maybe it's that I'm always kind of obsessed with the nature of time, or maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but thinking too hard about calendar changes and moving dates and adding/vanishing days is starting to make me fundamentally nervous. Wednesday doesn't exist, not really! It's all just a vast conspiracy by popes and world leaders and elite historians and astronomers and, um, people who enjoy being able to make plans in advance, I guess.

Therefore, as a pleasing distraction, and since we've been talking about time and Romans and Doctor Who, here is a picture of Rory Williams as the Last Centurion. Because nothing is more comforting than a devoted geek in Roman garb.

Ah, that's better ...

My Very First Pirate! And Why I'm Still Anti-SOPA and -PIPA

We here at Olivia Waite would love to introduce you to an anonymous internet denizen known as ioedpee on Dailybooth. If that first link does not work, it is because the account has been removed as a violation not only of Dailybooth's terms of service, but also as a violation of my own personal copyright. My publisher has sent them a cease-and-desist notice, but as of this posting they are not only still up, but still updating. You see, ioedpee is the first person to pirate one of my digital books.

Time was, I used to wonder if being pirated would change my views on ebook piracy—and so far, no, I feel pretty much the same about it now as I did then. I'm gently anti-piracy and vociferously anti-DRM; I'm pro-digital lending (even more so now that I've come to enjoy the digital collections of my local library); I'm even anti-SOPA (unlike the RWA) because it seems to cause far more problems than it will supposedly fix.

So it's nice that this new world where my books are being sold on the sly has not turned my opinions upside down.

Speaking of SOPA and PIPA ... This blog will not be going black tomorrow, only because I do not have quite the level of technical expertise to accomplish this fact. The best I can do is switch my posting schedule so I'm not actually posting on the protest day.

As for why I'm still against SOPA and PIPA, the best breakdown I've seen is from the eternal Sarah at Smart Bitches:

For me specifically, under PIPA, it would be my responsibility to check the provenance of every site I link to, making sure that that URL, or any other page at that domain, did not contain any content that was copyright protected or possibly pirated. If I did link to a site that, for example, contained a scanned copy of a Fabio-festooned book cover from 1993, I could be seen as encouraging piracy and could therefore be blocked, my finances could be frozen, and my domains could be confiscated. If I linked to a site that someone felt was infringing on copyright by including an excerpt of a book, I could be blocked, frozen and in a heap of trouble. The interpretations of PIPA are too broad for my comfort, and the penalties too severe.

These bills are essentially trying to use a hand grenade to kill a horsefly. The overly broad language penalizes individuals and trusts far too much in corporate goodwill to prevent abuses. This law is a terrible, terrible idea.

But! Back to the fun part of this post: my own personal pirate. It turns out that I am far from the only author that ioedpee is attempting to circumvent.

Here are a few intriguing selections on offer from my pirate (who obviously has excellent if eccentric literary taste). Important note: The links will not lead you to the pirate site. Instead, they point toward Powell's Books in Portland. Powell's has long been among my favorite bookstores in the world, and to my vast delight they recently added Damned If You Do to their ebook catalogue.

Some of these books sound really excellent, and I do hope you check them out.

{Disclaimer: because I am a member in Powell's Partner Program, actions you may take via the above links may prove beneficial to me personally. In other words, clicking those links helps me buy more books from Powell's. Click—click for your lives!}

Winging It

You may remember an earlier post where I talked about how making jewelry is similar to making a book: plans go awry, and accidents are revealed as miracles—or vice versa. Recently, I had another opportunity to consider this theory of mine. My sister was getting married, and her wedding theme was Pirate Formal. I've been working on her wedding necklace for months—buying four colors of crystal, learning to work with new materials and techniques, and mostly just keeping my fingers crossed that my ideas would look like a real thing and not Amateur Hour at Lulu's Jewelry Shack. Her dress had been described to me, roughly, but mostly I was flying blind.

The night before we were to head across the border, I finished putting all the bits together and sent my sister this picture:

Wood-grain background, on which sits a multi-strand necklace of red, yellow, blue, white, and green crystal, with silver winged skulls and a skeleton lady cameo as centerpiece.

Those curves of red crystal holding the skeleton cameo's lower edge were the last things I attached, and until then I had not realized that I was arranging things in proper Roy G. Biv order. I'd thought I was making something chaotic and unpredictable, when in reality it was practically scientific. All at once the necklace became a unified thing—but precisely what kind of thing? I couldn't seem to make sense of my own creation: all I could see were the flaws and the wires and the individual bits as I'd put them together. I couldn't get the impact of the whole.

This is also how I feel about the first drafts of my manuscripts. But those I can fix; those can take criticism and come out better; those have no stakes for anyone but me (well, and my publisher, but that's a little less emotionally immediate).

The bride had to like this necklace, because she was going to be the one wearing it in all her wedding photos and in front of everyone she knows and loves.

She loved it. All at once I could breathe again, though I still felt nervous. But that tenuous instinct that had gotten me through had proved true.

When the bride put on her wedding dress—which I'd never seen—and another bridesmaid draped the necklace around her neck and we shortened it to rest on her collarbone … it was perfect. And so, we danced. And toasted. And feasted. And made everyone's grandmother take shots of the worst rum I have ever tasted in my life.

Hopefully in future I can continue to trust my instincts when flying blind.

The Myth of the Lost Sale

{This is Part 3 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here. This post was originally scheduled to go up on Friday, but due to an unexpected visit from the Migraine Fairy it had to be postponed.}

I have been talking a lot about entitlement from a publisher/reader perspective, and in this final installment it is time to turn to entitlement as it appears in authors.

This is probably a bad idea. There is all kinds of trouble I can get into by even trying to talk about this—not least, the possibility of offending other readers and authors. But some of these ideas have been buzzing around in my bonnet for some time, and they're getting quite loud. So if I get something wrong, please chime in and tell me what I've screwed up.

By critiquing the notion of lost sales, I do not mean to imply that piracy is not a real issue. But the dialogue surrounding piracy often seems to get in the way of making things better, for authors and readers and publishers.

Pirates are Thieves

Author Tobias Buckell has a must-read article on book piracy that deals with a familiar hypothetical:

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

In the terms I've been using in this series, the author who feels that all piracy is money stolen from instead of money never received feels entitled to those revenues. But those revenues are imaginary: many of the people who downloaded that book for free would never have touched it if there had been a price tag. Bucknell again:

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. *They were not going to be sales to begin with.* They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

Those sales are not "lost"; they have not been misplaced; they did not drop down into the couch cushions with those quarters and that lint-covered cherry Mike and Ike. They would never have happened.

I get very uneasy when people get furious—really furious—about piracy, especially when they assume that as an author I naturally do too. Yes, you should absolutely report violations of your copyright to your publisher. Yes, you should send a professionally-worded email asking the site to take down the file(s) in question. Those are your rights as an author and copyright holder. But to claim that a measurable financial loss has taken place seems a little too facile to me.

Maybe I'll change my tune when my own books start showing up on those pirate sites. (So far, not yet!)

An engraved image of famous female pirate Anne Bonny, in men's clothing, firing a pistol and looking dashing while a galleon sails away in the background.
"Arr—give me all yer Harry Potters!"

Piracy Boosts Sales

This video by Neil Gaiman has already gone everywhere and back again, so you don't need me to tell you that Gaiman feels piracy can be leveraged into book sales. This kind of piracy functions as a discovery mechanism. Isn't this why we do giveaways and contests and sample reads and the like?

But like the author who claims piracy as lost sales, there's something facile in the way Gaiman equates book lending between friends and library checkouts with pirated downloads. One small part of this is the difference between print books and ebooks: though I believe ebooks should be lendable, sellable, and transferable like print books, so far the industry does not treat those two products as equivalent objects.

The larger part of this is the context in which the actions occur: lending, library lending, or pirating. When you borrow a book from a friend, we can presume you have been talking about the kind of books you both like, and that the lending will help further this conversation. When you borrow a book from a library, that is also part of a larger engagement with the reading ecosystem. Additionally, even though you yourself have not made the purchase, both those copies have been paid for: the former by your friend, and the latter by the library budget.

But the context of pirate sites is not one of literary engagement: instead, of the many sites I have seen, the context is one of protest, rebellion, and a trollish quality that I find untrustworthy in the extreme. You may recall the comic book authors who claimed being pirated on 4chan was a huge boost to sales—they posted this image, which I have borrowed for commentary and have not altered:


Part of a graph showing a tiny bump labeled "reviewed at BoingBoing" and a much larger spike labeled "bootlegged at 4chan."
How big is your bump again?

Notice anything missing? For instance, the entire left side of the graph? We have no idea what the scale is here, and it makes a big difference whether each of those units represents 1, or 10, or 100 books sold. That giant spike could represent as few as 10 or 50 books, or as many as 1000. Without knowing those numbers, we have no way of knowing how great an impact 4chan's piracy had on book sales.

Additionally, we have no way of knowing how many of those downloads were actually read, and how many of those were enjoyed, and how many of those went on to recommend the book to others. And this strategy is going to be very dependent on genre and outlet—if you tried to replicate this experiment on 4chan with, say, an erotic historical romance about the invention of the vibrator during Victorian times, you might get wildly different results.

(Not that trollishness is limited to the pro-piracy groups: witness this site, which I find equally unsettling, particularly for the sense of long-simmering outrage, the flirtation with invasion of privacy, and the creepy demands that Google ban searches on words like torrent.)

You Lost My Sale

In the course of this post series, I've found all kinds of new-to-me corners of the internet—including Lost Book Sales (sponsored, you will notice at the very bottom of the page, by Dear Author). These are stories submitted by readers, about experiences that prevented them from buying the book of their choice.

Here is one of the recent submissions:

Text explaining why a certain customer refused to buy a digital copy of China Mieville's The City and the City.

This is a pretty typical response, in that the poster:

  1. was looking for a specific digital book
  2. objected to the digital price being as high/higher than the print price
  3. when thwarted, chose to buy another book instead

It is clear when looking through this site that by far the most common reasons customers turned away from a specific book are that the price was viewed as too high, or that the digital version was not available in their geographic region. The most common response was to buy another book, followed closely by borrowing the book from the library, or reading something else, or surfing the web generally, with only a few scattered instances of self-reported piracy taking place.

It becomes equally clear that these readers care deeply about what they read, and are very well-versed in the industry's current trends and happenings (as evidenced by the number of responses that mentioned HarperCollins' 26-checkout limit, or who protested agency pricing or other recent changes).

These only count as 'lost sales' if you are the author whose book they did not buy. Many of these are high-volume names: Mieville, Stieg Larsson, Bill Bryson. And again, many of the reasons the reader switched titles are beyond an author's control: there are valid and legally complicated reasons why a smaller publisher might not be able to sell digital books in New Zealand, Greece, or the Czech Republic. As an author, reaching out to these readers is somewhat beyond your control, because we are not quite as global a culture as we like to imagine we are.

Too Long; Didn't Read

The one thing above all that I took away after spending most of an afternoon cruising around Lost Book Sales is this: there are a lot of readers out there, and they are looking for books. They may not necessarily buy yours, especially if there are geographic restrictions or DRM to take into account. But you can only control so much of that.

In the same way, any single author can only spend so much time responding to piracy, especially since there are plenty of folks out there who pirate for the sake of protest, and who were never going to become your customers anyway. Arguing with people whose minds you cannot change is a one-way ticket to chronic exhaustion.

There is a sea of readers out there, and they will not turn into pirates the second you stop writing angry emails to torrent sites. Leave piracy to the pirates, and go out to tea with your readers and fellow authors, who are much more delightful to be around.

On Libraries, Theft, and Entitlement

{Note: this post ran a little long, but I liked where it was going, so I have split it into two parts. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 will be up tomorrow.} Recently, and coincidentally with National Library Week, Our Idol Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See blog wrote an excellent piece on how, in all the fuss about ebook versus paper book pricing and sales, public libraries had slipped her mind. So she went in, got a library card, and took home a bunch of books and DVDs, which made her feel like she'd "committed a heist."

It's a telling phrase. Of course, she hadn't stolen anything—she had merely borrowed a few things, and would return them within three weeks or face financial consequences, small though those might be. She was also financially liable for any damage done to the materials in her care—as I was in high school when a teething puppy ate one entire corner of my local library's paperback copy of the Finnish national epic. If she lost any of those books or DVDs, she would have to pay to replace them.

An image of the spines of several hardback books with spine tags identifying them as library books.

Linda Holmes also linked to this recent article by Lynn Neary on the new challenges libraries face in the digital age, which includes another implied connection between library borrowing and lost corporate revenue.

"I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model in perpetuity," says [HarperCollins senior vice president Leslie] Hulse. "And what that would mean is everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time, and that's not a commercially viable solution."

Which: no. No, "everyone in the country" could not check out that book. For one thing, we don't really have "one national library" in the way this "extreme" example assumes. We have a patchwork of library networks at various levels, which are more or less interwoven with one another—public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, industry libraries, Interlibrary Loan, the WorldCat catalogue, my beloved JSTOR, the Library of Congress, and so on. It means that you can find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much immediately, but that obscure book on the philosophical implications of editing in film will take you months to track down, if you can find it at all.

For another thing, since our hypothetical free-to-everyone book is an ebook, there's an initial financial investment in hardware that not everyone will be privileged enough to make—a fancy way of saying that to read ebooks you have to have a computer, or a smartphone, or an ereader, or a tablet device. Maybe everyone in Leslie Hulce's social circle has one or more of those things. But everyone in America certainly does not. To say that making an ebook infinitely lendable is like giving a free copy to every person in the country is a false equivalence.

Specifically, it equates librarians and library patrons to book pirates.

Which brings me to the question of entitlement.

Nothing can get me diving into a comments war faster than someone saying that library patrons and pirates share the same sense of entitlement to free reading material. (Example: this Smart Bitches comment thread.) Books borrowed from a library are not read for free: they are purchased by the library with actual human money, whether the book is print or digital (licenses for digital books are hugely expensive, by the way, so libraries are actually paying more for many digital copies than the consumer does on their own). The actual human money in the library budget comes from actual humans: donors, taxpayers, philanthropists, Benjamin fucking Franklin, and so on. On a fundamental level, libraries work just like any other book retailer: money goes in, books come out.

But the money-goes-in part of the library system happens far away from the books-come-out part—and it is not proportionate as it is in, say, a brick-and-mortar bookstore or even on Amazon, where more money going in directly leads to more books coming out for a specific individual. Therefore it is easy to forget that those processes are connected. So we feel, like Linda Holmes, that we are getting something for free.

It means we as a culture are confused about what libraries do, and therefore it is easy to become confused about what libraries are for.

And that is a conversation we need to change, or we risk losing libraries altogether.

A ruined set of columns yielding to greenery and decay stretches toward a foreboding dark blue sky.

The history of libraries has never been a direct line; you can't go from monastic collections of illuminated works to the Bodleian to Victorian subscription libraries to the New York Public Library and expect the narrative to be clear and straightforward. This makes it nearly impossible to predict the way libraries need to adapt in even the very near future—do you think anyone in 1986 foresaw that libraries would soon be installing banks of computers for public use, or filling requests sent in electronically from locations outside the library's own campus? And yet they did, and they were, and libraries became even stronger for it, I think.

For the record, if the question is, What are libraries for?, I do not have a clear answer. Or rather, I have several answers that do not seem to add up to the One Big Answer we're all looking for. But if the question is, Are libraries necessary? then the answer is a thunderous, resounding, and multivocal YES.

And if we can agree on that, then everything else is just a question of sorting out the details.

{Part 2, which talks a little more about the idea of entitlement in the book world, will be up tomorrow.}