Thomm Quackenbush, author

On Piracy

"I've always thought of the pirates as lazy, single-cell amoeba pseudonym-hiding cowards who can't survive outside their parents' basement, can't get a date, and who steal whatever's easiest for them to get their hands on. Entitled, lazy little bastards..."

-An Author Left Anonymous

Before I stand at the pulpit, I have to confess my sins: I have pirated books. I think almost everyone can come clean about this if you get them in the right mood. We treat piracy as a venal and common sin, like masturbation. Of course, unlike masturbation, you are screwing other people.

The only books I have downloaded in the last few years I needed to teach the Common Core Curriculum. Do I want to photocopy the excerpts from a print edition every year? No, I would much rather just paste the text into a packet that I can save and reuse. Kindle, my preferred ebook reader, makes it nearly impossible to save sufficient excerpts from a purchased ebook-which is, of course, an anti-piracy measure. So I have done a minute's search and found that someone uploaded exactly what I needed to their teaching website (teachers are frequently ebook pirates, since we are told what we have to teach without being given the according materials). I have thereafter purchased and read in full those books that struck me as worth my time. As I have some control of the library budget at my day job, I have repeatedly requested hard copies of the books of which I have need. I have done wrong, but I try to make up for it in sales.

As an author, I have been on the other side of the equation far more often. One of the most memorable acts of piracy involved finding an incomplete version of We Shadows on a file sharing site. Given how that illicit version of my story flowed, it must have come from one of the publishers who solicited my book prior to Double Dragon Publishing signing me. It had been downloaded in the ten-thousands-it was certainly downloaded more than the legitimate and edited version has sold to date-and it was imperfect. Whoever read the version that some duplicitous publisher decided was worth sharing (with the final cover art!) but not contracting believes I am a much worse writer. A few of my reviews seem to be referencing this stolen version, dragging down my rating.

I am not rich. If I lived on my royalties from my publisher, I would not survive a day. If I added in my royalties from my self-published work on Kindle and Createspace, I would not survive a week. So, when people brag that they have stolen my book, I tend to take it personally.

Contractually, I get 8% of print and 30% of ebook (also 10% of any derivative work, but there has yet to be one) for my traditionally published books. That amounts to pennies and, given my sales, that doesn't give me a lot of clout to demand a bigger piece of the pie.

Double Dragon is not running a charity to benefit wayward books. If the books they publish are not being bought, they will cease to exist. If my books in particular are stolen more than they are purchased, they have no reason to bother publishing me. When you pirate my books, you are saying that you do not care about my future as an author. You don't care that I might not publish another book. You only care that you got something for free in this moment.

Publishers want authors who are guaranteed to sell. Too often, this ends up being Snooki or her ilk: someone of arguable literary talent who happens to be famous enough to move copies off shelves. When you pirate, you are voting that the author isn't worth your money. You are voting for a system where only celebrity "authors" can get published. You are voting for a world where expansive series never make it past the first book because the publisher couldn't break even on the author's advance.

It is not that I would not love to be paid handsomely for my work. I truly love my books in a paternal way. Oh, they may be a bit bucktoothed and I pretty sure that one has a lazy eye, but they are mine and I cherish them. When people illegally upload my book to a file sharing site-occasionally and rudely stripped of all attribution-I get huffy. It isn't about the money, but one the investment on future books. If one of my books suddenly began selling more than a few copies a month, I would have the power to ask for expanded distribution. I would be able to ask for an audiobook because my publisher would see evidence it would sell.

We writers are fragile creatures. If no one is buying our work, it doesn't motivate us to sequester ourselves and spend more of our lives to creating it. I have only so many hours in a day. I can spend some of those hours crafting new stories or I can spend them walking to get ice cream with my wife. If I knew that I wouldn't see another sale, I would feel like a fool sitting in my cold, basement studio and tapping out a hundred thousand words to be ignored but for pirates.

I frequently hear people complain that they don't see the sort of writing that would suit their demographic preferences, but that is because only people writing the most tepid flavor-of-the-week for one of the big conglomerates can survive the onslaught of unrepentant pirates. You won't get the stories you want if you don't offer something fair in trade.

People are willing to shell out extra to make sure that the cereal they buy was made by people who were treated well, but they think nothing of stealing books because authors (or any creative worker) don't register as people. It is nearly impossible to feel a similar level of sympathy for an underfed migrant picking fruit and a pasty author hunched over his keyboard. Their personal ethics do not extend to the rights of artists because they seem like a rarified concern.

With vanishingly rare exceptions, our society does not pay artists what their work is worth. There is a persistent belief that our work is a hobby and hobbies are not deserving of other people's money. If you write or draw because of your passionate devotion to the art form, doesn't that mean you should just be grateful someone gave it their momentary attention? No one expects a doctor or teacher to work for free, but they care about something other than the money. A lawyer shouldn't be earning pennies, so why should an author? They will perform best when they do not have to scramble for change to buy ramen.

As biblioklepts see it, writing has no inherent value. They wouldn't pocket a camera because the supply chain is obvious. In their hand, a camera has weight. It was made. They don't understand that creative work has its own labor attached to it, they cannot fathom the hundreds or thousands of hours implicit in every book they illicitly acquire.

I have heard the objection "Well, I can't afford to buy a copy. Don't I deserve to still read it?" Yes, by requesting it from your local library. You don't deserve to consume someone else's hard work without permission. I have happily sent people review copies of my books. I won't always do it and I promise I won't if I think someone is acting entitled, but I am not averse because I am being approached respectfully and offered something. I want all the loyal fans I can get. I wish I could believe that there can be more overlap between pirates and fans, but fans talk about things they love. Most pirates seem just to collect and trade.

I write because I want to have my voice heard, because I think I have something worth saying and the gift to get it heard. I write because this is my art and I will not be satisfied until it is shared, which does mean that people need to know my books exist. We cannot be the only ones to love our work, though I pity the artist who doesn't have a love affair with their art.

We need to revolutionize the paradigm, otherwise the people who make the things you love will be forced to spend more time as checkout clerks and pet groomers. We will all be lessened by that.


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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