The prize-winning Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria has, apparently, decided to pack in her career writing books after having discovered that more copies of it had been illegally downloaded than had actually been sold.
“Given that I’ve seen today that more illegal copies of my novel have been downloaded than purchased, I offiically announce that I won’t return to publish another book for a very long time, not at least until this situation is regulated in some way. I don’t want to spend three years working like a black for this [trabajando como una negra]“
The declaration brought about, to date, 315 facebook comments – many of them angry and aggresive – discussing the intersections between art and commerce, and the new era of digital publishing.
It makes for a great headline, and indeed it’s probably the first time for many non-hispanic newspapers that Etxebarria gets a mention (as far as I know none of her work has been translated into English). It fits in perfectly with the hot topic of the day ‘the death of the book’, and the perennial ‘death of the author’, but before getting into a tizzy about piracy killing culture and calling for copyright-protecting legislation, let’s take a closer look.
The central premise Ms Etxebarria has is that her latest book isn”t selling because people are illegally downloading it. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but is it? You can’t draw the simple conclusion that because someone has downloaded your book, they would have bought/read the book otherwise; in a culture where increasingly file downloading is seen as legitimate and normal, which is presumably the case in Spain given the various legal pronouncements supporting file-sharing for personal use, people often download files as they would browse in a bookshop or listen to the radio – as a way of sampling work.
Falling sales in Spain are easy enough to explain, without laying the blame on file-sharing, given that the country is going through a huge economic downturn (and in 2010 reported a an overall 6.2% drop in the value of book sales), and youth unemployment stands at a staggering 46% (source: the economist). Add to that the fact that Ms Etxebarria’s book costs €20 to buy, and the picture is getting clearer.
Equally to the point, while blaming digital copies for her lack of income, she and her publishers decided at the outset , in a vain attempt to foil piracy, not to publish an ebook of the novel. My sympathy would go out to her much more had she moved with the times and attempted to sell the reading public her book in whatever format they wanted, rather than dictating the choice to them.
In Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson, Apple’s founder explained part of his reasoning behind setting up i-tunes to sell legal downloads of music:
“We believe that 80% of the people stealing stuff don’t want to be, there’s just no legal alternative,” he told Andy Langer of Esquire. “So we said, ‘Let’s create a legal alternative to this.’ Everybody wins. Music companies win. The artists win. Apple wins. And the user wins, because he gets a better service and doesn’t have to be a thief.”
Sure, there’s that 20% (though how these things get quantified is beyond me) who will continue to search for your stuff for free, but there will always be a certain amount of people reading your work for free in any case (people can borrow physical books as well, you know) – the wisest approach is to presume that the more people who read your work, one way or another, the better.
None of this is to say that online piracy isn’t a growing problem for publishers and authors – it is, and can certainly account for some fall in sales. The problem though won’t be solved by legislation – as we’ve repeatedly seen with failed attempts on behalf of the recording industry. It’ll be solved, if at all, by innovative publishers, quality content, and fairer pricing.
But for some writers, for better or for worse, it will simply be a case of throwing the towel in.