This originally started as a comment over on KJ Charles’ site, but it got a bit of a teal deer infestation. Hence sticking it here instead.

So, to recap.

A few days ago, KJ made an entry about dealing with the piracy of her new book, Think of England. The comments generated a fair bit of discussion, mostly of an anti-piracy bent, until a commenter calling themselves O. showed up to make a counterargument.

O., a self-confessed pirate, started talking about traditional pricing models, e.g. per-unit sales, not working in digital environments, and discussed and alternate methods for creators to monetise content online. Before we continue, y’all should go read the resulting thread, because without the context, the rest of this might not make much sense (ref. this post’s Original Life as a comment).

Done that? Okay. Cool. Moving on.

Basically, while I agree with some of O.’s starting points around piracy being a kind of digital reality and not necessarily as provably harmful as Certain Unnamed Content Industries would like us to believe, something about O.’s arguments in general and their examples in particular rubbed me wrong. In the course of the comment thread, a bunch of names got thrown around as proof that creators can successfully monetise digital content. If you’ve been on the internet for, oh. Ever, you’ll probably already be able to list off some, if not all, of the names dropped: Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Cory Doctorow’s novels, Welcome to Night Vale, and E.L. James’ 50 Shades books. All of these were implied to be proof of the profitability of giving digital content away–I assume on the assumption that you can’t pirate what’s distributed freely–and monetising other avenues.

Except, here’s the kicker. With the arguable exception of Welcome to Night Vale (which I’ll discuss), every single one of these were, in some way, funded by “traditional”, non-digital models of monetisation.




Let’s look, shall we?

50 shades of fandom

E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey was, it’s true, originally fanfic and thus originally distributed for free. But it was fanfic of a traditionally sold and purchased novel and movie franchise and wouldn’t exist if not for the engagement already bought and paid for by Stephenie Meyer. (Fanfic, for the record, is not piracy. Even if you’re not personally of the school who believes fanfic falls under fair use, it’s still not piracy.)

There’s enough to unpack around James’ series to fill its own blog, not the least of which is that the fandom version of 50 Shades‘ rise and the non-fandom understanding of it can look very, very different. The take home here, however, is that 50 Shades wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for traditional payment models, as applied to both itself and to Twilight. When James moved to monetise her work, she did it by the exact same channels that were applied to Twilight before her. No digital innovations in evidence here.

It’s also worth noting, because it’s relevant to another point of O.’s I’ll discuss later (and is the reason KJ introduced the title into the discussion), that there’s still a lot of… resentment over James’ capitalising on the emotional connections she built while a ficcer in the Twilight fandom. This resentment is a constant problem with “pull-to-publish” (p2p) fanfic in general, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that, post-James, no other fanfic author will be able to replicate the same success in the same way.1 Fandom communities have grown much more wary of p2p, even as the phenomenon has risen in prominence. Basically, fandom’s relationship to ficcers-turned-pro isn’t as readily exploitable as it can sometimes seem from the outside, and more than one author has been burned badly in the past by assuming otherwise.

Dr. Horrible’s legacy fanbase

In an even more blatant example than the above, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog traded on the Hollywood establishment star power of Joss Whedon (and its actors, for that matter). So if you are as famous as Joss Whedon, feel free to monetise your projects however you want.

Cool. Glad we got that sorted.

… Wait. You want the argument unpacked a little more than that? Fine.

Whedon garnered his fanbase while getting paid–in a much more stable way than tradpub authors get paid, if I understand how TV production works–to do Buffy long before he made a jump to the web. And even Dr. Horrible was financed traditionally, i.e. up-front, by Whedon himself, to the tune of $200,000, which says… something about the kind of cash he already had on hand for the project. Cash that was, again, earned “traditionally”.

I’m sure Whedon was banking on Dr. Horrible being successful thanks to the dedication of his multitude of very, very loyal fans. This paid off pretty well, but it was hardly a risky bet and Whedon was hardly going to starve if it flopped. The man’s fandom gold, Firefly or no Firefly.

The point being that the model used for Dr. Horrible is more like traditional TV production, that just happened to be on the web, than anything relevant to authors worrying about ebook piracy. And while its delivery method may have been innovative at the time, it’s become more and more mainstream as online video and streaming technologies have matured. Remember, Dr. Horrible was released in 2008; only the same year Netflix introduced unlimited digital streaming. Digital video content then was significantly riskier than it is now, and thus less likely to attract outside investors. Point being, if Whedon re-made Dr. Horrible in 2014, I sincerely doubt he’d be funding it out of his own pocket.

All of that means the question here becomes, “Would Dr. Horrible have been as commercially successful as it was if it were made by, literally, anyone other than Joss Whedon?”

Yeah. Thought so.

Welcome to the live show

Radiohead’s album falls into a similar “bucket” as Dr. Horrible, above, in that it was released by a group that’d already risen to prominence in the pre-digital age, with a pre-digital loyal fanbase to boot. They’re also not the only group to experiment with this; NIN did something similar with Ghosts I-IV, for example, and threw in content tiering to boot. So, again, same caveat as above: if you’re already as famous as Radiohead and Trent Reznor, then knock yourself out.2

I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not, so we’ll move on to Welcome to Night Vale. WTNV is, I think, the only example given by O. in their comments that represents a truly “digitally native”, “free-first-monetise-later” model. They’ve also got something in common with both Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, and something the vast, vast majority of authors will never be able to capitalise on:

Live shows.

WTNV do live shows. A lot of live shows, which, unlike the podcast, are not free. People pay to go to a WTNV show, not just for the show, but for the experience. Of getting to be near the actors, of engaging with the energy of the crowd, of getting to say they were there, or just having a fun night out with friends. The same reasons, in fact, that people go to concerts and to the cinema.

Night Vale also sell subscriptions and merchandise, two avenues that are open to authors. I have no idea what their revenue breakdown looks like, but it’d be interesting to know in order to make this comparison viable. (Under the caveat that WTNV own a lot more of the IP and branding around their show than the average tradpub author does over their own books…)

The physical cross-subsidisation of digital “innovation”

Moving on, to Cory Doctorow and to a bunch of themes that should be familiar by now. Basially, while it’s true Doctorow releases his books under Creative Commons for non-commercial digital distribution, he also, a) sells physical units, and b) has a day job.

Doctorow’s first novel came out in 2003. Again, like the other creators listed above, Doctorow benefits from a model that uses non-digital revenue to, in effect, cross-subsidise free digital distribution. This is great if you can do it but, let’s be honest; the ebook market in 2003 wasn’t huge, given the Amazon Kindle, the first device to really popularise ebook reading, wouldn’t be seen for another four years. Certainly, “digital-first” publishing imprints like KJ’s Samhein (and my own Hydra) didn’t exist in any noteworthy way. Would a similar strategy work for authors debuing in the market now? I have no idea. I’d suspect not, but if anyone knows of any case studies, throw them my way.

Doctorow has something else in common with KJ (and yours truly) in that he has a day job; he’s an editor at Boing Boing, hardly a low-profile position. Again, this is essentially using both the money–and, in Doctorow’s case, the fame–provided by a traditionally remunerated industry in order to support the shitty wages of a fiction writer. Because that’s the thing about stable income streams; they allow for greater risk-taking in other areas. Someone who doesn’t rely on selling books to pay rent has the flexibility to experiment with innovative payment and marketing models. Sometimes, in doing so, they hit it big.

Mostly, they don’t.

Ready detour one

We’re nearly to the end of the examples, I promise, but there’s just one more: software. In their comments on KJ’s post, O. mentioned they deal with the software and games industry where alternate digital monetisation strategies do “seem to work in some cases.”

Putting aside the fact that videogames are a very, very different beast to ebooks for a variety of reasons (and also O.’s hardly reassuring caveats), the reality is most digital games are either monetised with up-front payments, or in-game purchase models. Kickstarters are also becoming popular… and have something like a 60-70% bomb-out rate, even from some extremely popular brands. And, even in cases where Kickstarted games do succeed, they then usually go on to a commercial per-unit sale model via platforms like Steam and… whatever consoles are using nowadays.

While we’re here, see also smartphone apps. See also the current woeful state of developers in that market. And see also one notable difference: this is in a place where piracy is almost non-existent (iOS apps), which to me points to something broader going on re. attitudes to paying for digital content. Piracy may be a symptom of this, but it certainly isn’t the disease. This relates to some more of O.’s arguments, around user reluctance to value non-tangible goods on par with physical goods. To which I say: bullshit. World of Warcraft can sell in-game mounts for $30. Thirty freakin’ dollars! That’s, like, ten times the cost of an ebook, all for a single imaginary dragon. So yes, consumer relationships to digital goods are complex. But “complex” does not equal “devalued” (how much money have you sent buying K-stars in Kim Kardashian Hollywood recently?).

Asides from up-front sale price and in-app purchases, the third biggest way the software industry monetises is by datamining and onselling, a.k.a. which we tend to tactfully refer to as “advertising”. Again, relating back to ebooks, it’s difficult to see how these strategies apply, at least in the current market. Ereaders with embedded advertising revenue (that gets shared to content creators, not just gobbled up by the platform)? I suspect these aren’t too far off, but we’re not there yet. In-app purchases… of what, exactly? The audiobook version? Which, a) not everyone has, and, b) adds a non-trivial overhead to produce? Hm.

Honestly, I think that, of all the examples looked at so far, this is probably the most promising as far as providing alternate revenue to authors in particular. But–and this is a very, very big but–it’s worth noting that these are not new models and they are not that simple.

Basically, I hope you already have money. Because to make it, you’ll need some.3

The work we don’t see

One more before I get to the point. In their posts, O. states that:

The only way to get the buyer to pay for something that he feels should be “free” since the marginal cost of creating his copy is 0, is to create engagement and an emotional connection between the user and the creator, or to offer some additional value that the user could pay for without feeling like he’s giving money for nothing.

So… yeah. About that.

Building emotional relationships with fans is work. It’s a kind of work, called emotional labour, that’s traditionally devalued, in no small part because it’s associated with feminised labour markets like nursing, teaching, and (in particular) the service industry. Non-remuneration for emotional labour–or, rather, the cultural expectation that this sort of work isn’t, in fact, “work” and therefore doesn’t deserve remuneration–is heavily gendered and very classist. White collar4 office workers–and blue collar workers in traditionally “masculine” roles like construction–for example, very rarely have to perform the sort of always-on emotional labour in the way service workers have to. (Or, when we do have to do it, we’re compensated for it at a fairer rate.)

This isn’t to say a lot of authors don’t enjoy interacting with fans, but… why is this an excuse for us not to expect to be remunerated for it? I like programming, too, but I still get paid six-figures a year to do it. So why is it only in creative industries where content producers are expected to work for free? (Also noting that, in other industries where this sort of “working for exposure” is A Thing, it’s hardly uncontroversial.)

(Also, related personal pet peeve: O. asserts that “waiters, bartenders and other service professions get paid in tips, according to the service they provide”. Which, like. C’mon. This is hardly universal. In Australia, service personnel get paid award wages; about $15-20+/hour. Also, US-style tipping is a generally shitty broken, exploitative system that really shouldn’t be a model for any sort of professional work anywhere ever. I will honest-to-god happily take mediocre service in restaurants if it means I can rest easy knowing some poor waitress’ own dinner isn’t held at the mercy of asshole customers. She’s doing work, she should get paid for it. End of story.)5

Confessions of a sometimes pirate

Time to wrap this monster up, don’t you think? Except… wrap it up how? What the hell were we even talking about again?

Oh yeah. Priacy. We were talking about ebook piracy.

So, like, here’s the thing: sometimes, in the past, I have, in fact, been known to pirate things. Sometimes. Sometimes a lot of the sometimes, though, admittedly, less and less of the sometimes as the years have rolled on and as content has become cheaper, easier to access, and proportionately less compared to my own income.

Currently, all the software I run, I bought. All the books I read, I bought (sometimes in multiple formats). All the music I listen to–

Well, if I’ve bought it recently, I’ve bought it. Stuff I’ve had hanging around on my hard drive since I was in high school? Ee-ee-ee-eh maybe not so much.

So I admit it, I’m guilty.6 And what that guilt means is I can function as a kind of case-study-of-one on why people pirate stuff.

So. Alis’ Reasons Why She May Have Maybe Pirated Things In The Past Sometimes Perhaps Maybe No Guarantees:

  1. The Thing, whatever it is, is not available legally in my region. I live in Australia. This happens a lot because apparently media companies forgot to shut the door on 1995. Ironically, ebooks are particularly bad for this; I can grey import a physical copy of a book from the US but can’t buy the digital version? C’mon, man!7
  2. I do not have money for The Thing. When I was an unemployed student, I used to pirate a lot of software, including games. Back in those days, Steam didn’t exist and games retailed at between about $90 and $110 a pop; way out of my budget. So I’d pirate stuff. If I really, really enjoyed it, I’d pay for it later though, admittedly, probably not as much as my conscience would maybe like to pretend I did. Maybe. This is one I legitimately haven’t done for years, partly because I really like MMOs, which don’t lend themselves well to piracy, and partly because digital distribution has made buying games outright more affordable. In fact, I think the day I installed Steam was the day I stopped pirating games. The risk-reward–dealing with malware, mostly–was just no longer worth it compared to throwing down $20 for a legit copy.
  3. I do not want to financially support the creators of The Thing. This is the dodgy moral argument but, yes, I admit it; occasionally I’ve pirated something because I wanted to hate-read/-watch/-whatever it without giving the creators the benefit of their royalty.
  4. I just goddamn felt like it. Well.. sometimes a girl’s gotta watch the world burn, y’know?

So. Call me conceited, but I don’t think I’m a particularly non-standard example of an Internet Citizen in regards to my rationales for piracy. And, if you’ve been reading closely, something pretty damn glaring should be apparent to you at this point.

Basically, none of the alternate monetisation avenues discussed above and proposed by O. address the root causes of piracy.

None. Zero. Not a one.

Because here’s that Niggling Thing that got to me, reading O.’s posts. All the examples they were giving were, indeed, showing ways in which digital content can be monetised in ways beyond up-front per unit costs. That’s true. But they still didn’t address piracy. Actually, most of them sidestepped the matter altogether, such as is arguably the case for things like Dr. Horrible, and is definitely the case with Welcome to Night Vale or Doctorow’s ebooks. And if O. can’t draw that connection, they they can’t possibly make any sort of argument that an author should adopt a more lenient attitude towards piracy in general. O. provides no evidence, after all, that someone who piates an ebook would in any way pursue any alternate remuneration strategy if such a thing were offered (disclaimer: I certainly wouldn’t’ve). The closest O. gets to this is the notion of donation buttons. Well… fine. But, firstly, if you’re motivated enough to pay an author by donation, why not just buy a copy of the book you pirated, even if you never subsequently re-read it?8 And secondly, donation buttons have their own logistical problems, particularly for tradpub authors (I want my editors and artists and marketing and PR people to get paid too, believe it or not).9

I think the harsh reality is that people who pirate stuff are going to pirate it no matter what a creator does. Because there is something fundamentally broken in our culture’s reaction to the value of creative works, both online and off, and piracy is merely a symptom of it. Subsequently, and more optimistically, someone who’s going to buy a thing is going to buy it. I’m certainly in favour of lowering the barriers to granting legitimate access to content–releasing de-DRM’d content across as many regions as possible simultaneously, releasing tiers of content at different price points, and experimenting with alternate revenue streams–but, ultimately, I do think O. is right in that it really all comes down to a consumer’s emotional attachment to a creator and their work.

We give our money to the things we like to give our money to. The problem is now–and has always been–that capturing and fostering that “like” is elusive and ephemeral. There’s no magic formula to it, no way of forcing the next E.L. James or Joss Whedon. For a content creator, whose livelihood relies on exactly that, the thought is terrifying.

That’s a lot of words with no particularly clear conclusion (this is why I have an editor for my books, natch), but… I guess my take-homes are thus:

  1. Yes, there are a lot of potential ways of monetising digital content. However, as with everything, money breeds money. Don’t mistake a strategy that works for someone with an already-established fanbase as being universally applicable to all us unwashed masses without.
  2. To content creators (particularly in genre fiction), accept that you can’t stop piracy. You don’t have to like it or endorse it, but you do just have to let it go. Instead, spend your energy cultivating relationships with the fans who do support you, both financially (e.g. that person who preorders every single thing you ever create) and socially (e.g. that other person who spent a zillion hours making cosplay of your protagonist to wear to her local con). How can you make them feel special and included? (Hint: if you’ve never been active in fandom, now’s the time to start lurking and learning, because this is very easy to fuck up.)
  3. To fans, you rock! Keep being awesome!
  4. To pirates, stop making up goddamn excuses to justify yourselves. Look, I get it. I do. But, seriously. Stop pretending what you’re doing is somehow justifiable (“it’s not available in my region!”), or activism (“[corporation] is evil and I won’t support them!”), or beneficial (“free advertising!”), or whatever. Just admit you want The Thing now and for free and fuck the creators. If you’re going to be a thief, at least have the courtesy of being an honest one.
  5. And, finally, for gods’ sakes pay waiters proper wages. As someone who makes (part of her) living relying on the judgement of others as to the commercial worth of her work, I can honestly say no one actually deserves living like that.

And that’s enough of that.

(Also, I’m sure KJ is glad I didn’t junk up her comments section with this one… Oy.)

  1. Not to mention that James herself is a successor of sorts to Cassandra Clare; another hugely successful author who still endures vitriol from fandom communities for things that happened over a decade ago. Yeah. Fandom keeps grduges. []
  2. Also… why are you reading my blog? []
  3. Same as it ever was, amirite? See also: Why I Signed With Tradpub, Reason #193. []
  4. With double emphasis on the “white” there, in most cases. []
  5. And, let me tell you, I know a hell of a lot of people who get paid a hell of a lot more for doing a hell of a lot less than your average waiter. []
  6. I will also entertain the argument that I pirate Hulu Plus in that I pay for the service, but watch it out-of-region thanks to Technological Trickery of a Not-Technically-Illegal-Right-Now Nature. According to the ads Hulu serves me, I live in Southern California. I suspect Hulu itself doesn’t care much about this–if it really did, there are technical and legal avenues it could use to crack down–but I imagine, say, Foxtel may have more of an interest… []
  7. Yes, I’m aware of the extra dose of irony here. Believe me, I’d fix it if I could. []
  8. We won’t mind, honest. []
  9. “What about in-content advertising?” you ask. And, it’s true; I’m making some assumptions about technology that doesn’t exist. But say embedded advertising in ereaders did become a thing, one assumes pirated works would still bypass this. In fact, given the usual reaction to advertising, I’d be willing to bet people would start to pirate works precisely to decouple them from irritating ads. No one likes ads. Not even the guy who invented the online ad-supported “free” model likes ads. []