It’s now official. According to my editor and Macmillan Company, the parent of Tor Books, every single one of my titles has now appeared somewhere as pirated edition, in some form or another. I’d almost like to claim this as a singular distinction. I can’t. Macmillan also believes that every single book they’ve published in recent years – something like the last three decades – has appeared in pirated editions of some sort.
I can’t say I’m surprised. Every time I attempt to check up on how my books are doing, I discover website after website offering free downloads of everything I’ve ever written, including versions of titles that never were issued in electronic format and even those that haven’t been in print in those particular editions offered in more than twenty years. I could spend every minute of every day trying to chase them down… without much success. So I grit my teeth and bear it.
Ah… the wonders of the electronic age.
Coincidentally, and unsurprisingly, the sales of paperback mass-market fiction books have also begun to decline. Part of this is likely due in part to the collapse of a section of the wholesale distribution system, but that shrinkage doesn’t account for most of it, because it’s also occurring in the case of titles and authors who were never distributed widely on a wholesale basis, and whose books were largely sold only through bookstores. This hasn’t been so obvious in the F&SF field, because, while the average paperback print run has decreased, the number of paperback titles has increased slightly, but according to knowledgeable editors, the decrease is happening pretty much across the board, and some very big name authors – far bigger names than mine – have seen significant decreases in paperback book sales… and that’s without a corresponding increase in e-book sales. Obviously, this isn’t true for every single author, and it’s impossible to determine for newly published authors because, if they haven’t published a book before, how can one accurately determine if their paperback sales are falling off from those of their previous book?
Despite all the talk, it appears that the popular mantra that information and entertainment need to be free remains in force for a small but significant fraction of former book buyers – even if such “free editions” reduce authors’ incomes and result in publishers eliminating yet more mid-list authors because declining sales have made them unprofitable, or even money-losing.
The other day I came across an outraged comment about the price of an e-book version of my own Imager’s Challenge. The would-be reader was outraged that the electronic version was “only” a few dollars less than the hard-cover edition, especially since the paperback edition won’t be out for four months or so. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to penetrate that while paper may be the single largest component of “physical” publishing costs, it still only amounts to something like 10-15% of the publisher’s cost of producing a book, i.e., a few dollars. Even without paper, the other costs remain, and they’re substantial – and publishing remains, as I have written, time and time again, a very low margin business. That’s why publishers really don’t want to cannibalize their hardcover revenues by undercutting the hardcover prices before the paperback version is on the shelves, especially given the decline in paperback sales.
There are many problems with piracy, including the fact that authors essentially get screwed, but the biggest one for readers seems to be overlooked. The more piracy exists and the wider-spread it becomes, the less the choice readers will have in finding well-written, well-edited books, and especially of books that are not popular best-sellers. The multi-million selling popular books – and the “popcorn books,” as my wife calls them – will survive piracy. The well-written books for smaller audiences won’t. So readers could very well be left with dwindling choices… and scrambling through thousands of self-published e-volumes, most of which are and will be poorly written and unedited in search of that rare “gem” – a good and different book that doesn’t appeal to everyone.
But… after all, information and entertainment want to be free.