Before I begin, I’m just going to warn you: you’ve probably read this post before. Not this exact post, but a post very much like it. Or a tweet. Or a status update. Maybe from a musician. Maybe from a graphic artist, or a cartoonist, or another author. I’m pretty sure, though, it won’t be new to you. But I’m writing it, again, as I can’t help but feel it bears repeating.
I got an e-mail today from a reader this morning (well, I got an e-mail notification of a message). It was mostly a gushing “I loved your book!” e-mail about Light.
Yesterday, I sent off my edits on Triad Blood, and this morning got the notification that they were now “in the pipeline.” I was having an odd reaction to that news. I’m not sure how many authors feel that up/down mix when stages of book writing pass, but it seems to be fairly common (at least among my author friends). So, the timing of a positive message about my first novel was pretty well received on my part.
And then, at the end of the e-mail, was the sentence declaring how happy the reader was to have found my book on the torrent site where they downloaded it.
There was still joy to be had in this e-mail. I’m not denying that. I’m glad the reader enjoyed Light. It’s always an awesome thing when you find a book that synchs up with you in the right place and the right time, and you come out of it so happy you just want to tell the author how much things clicked for you. I’ve written so many of those e-mails, I can’t tell you. In fact, one of those emails pretty much began my writing career. It made a connection that turned into an opportunity, and I wouldn’t be where I am right now had I not done so.
I also bought the book.
Recently, Jeffrey Ricker (who I adore and who I think of as a big brother when it comes to writing) wrote a pretty darn brave blog entry about writing and income in his family, and I think it might be on point to preface the rest of this post with something similar.
I could not possibly make a living on my writing at this point. Were it not for my husband being willing to support us both, I could in no way have turned my focus to writing so completely. Light took me over three years to write. Triad Blood took less than a year, and I also managed to continue to produce short fiction, some essays, and boost the signal on other authors I adore. I can be a writer because my husband makes it possible. I’m a husband-slash-dog-walker-slash-housekeeper-slash-errand runner-slash-author. I value my contribution to our home. But from a monetary standpoint? That contribution isn’t much.
Now, I do earn money for my writing. But as I have one novel and one novella under my belt, that’s not a massive source of revenue. I’m basically selling two products. One of the reasons I left my job (among many) was that I could produce more products to sell if I did so. This is the goal. This is the new life. Make no mistake: I love it.
But that e-mail. Wow.
Now, I generally approach life through the lens of amusement. Basically, when something less-than-pleasant lands at my feet, I try to crack a joke. I’d rather be laughing at my woes than just woeful about them. I posted about the e-mail and had a good chuckle with some friends (authors and otherwise). The suggestions were amusing. Maybe I could send an invoice? Cover quote “Best book I ever stole!” for the next printing? How special it was to get a rave review from a thief. Huzzahs! It’s by no means a unique experience, and in some ways, these moments feel like little “hey, at least you know you’re being taken seriously as a writer if…” affirmations. As always, my friends made me grin through it, and gave me time to think about the situation.
So. Here are my thoughts, even though I’m sure others have already said these thoughts, posted these thoughts, and you’ve probably even read them before.
However, I’m going to start somewhere a bit different than you might expect.
I Can’t Buy Your Book.
First, I want to speak to a very particular audience: those who can’t. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean those who don’t want to. I don’t mean those who’d rather not, or those who might, if they feel like it, but really do prefer free things. I’m speaking of those who truly cannot get the book.
Who are they?
Well, one scenario that immediately springs to mind are those who were like myself: youth who knew damned well that if they were caught with a gay book, it was game over. I got a letter once from a town I had to Google. It was in Illinois. I wrote a short fiction piece for an anthology called I Do Two! and the reader e-mailed me to say that story clicked with him. It was the first gay story where he saw someone trying to make a family work, where there were two dads and a stepdaughter and it was messy and awkward, but they were obviously in a good place together. He told me he’d had to get the book as a download (I’m not sure if he bought it or not, he just said ‘download’) because he couldn’t let his parents see him read a book like that. One of the reasons he’d chosen the book was it wasn’t a naked-torso cover, so if it ended up on his screen, it didn’t immediately ring bells and whistles. It was safe to read that book.
That kid? That kid is not the person I’m talking to. That kid is absolutely welcome to find my stuff however he’d like, and I hope to hell that by now he’s also found a way away from parents who would be that angry over him daring to read a book with characters like himself. I tried to check in with him again, later, to offer to send him digital copies of other books I thought he might like, but the e-mail bounced. I have no idea where he is now, but I have hope he’s moved somewhere better.
There’s also another group I’m not talking about, and that’s those who are so freaking broke it’s crazy. I’ve been there. And while I truly hope you’ve got access to a library for access to the entertainment of books, if you don’t—if you truly don’t—I don’t care if you’re finding reading however the heck you can.
Dirt poor is awful. When you’re juggling “how in the world can I make this much money turn into two weeks of food?” the last thing on your mind is entertainment. I get it.
Those situations aside, though…
The Price of Coffee.
One of the first things I generally see is the price-point debate. “Books cost too much.” The usual rejoinder I also see is “how much do you spend on coffee?” In my case, that would be tea, but you get the idea: it takes very little time for someone to make that cup of coffee, you fork over the money for it without a thought, and then that cup of coffee is gone in the space of a half-hour or so. There were farmers, and delivery and distribution networks involved. If you’re in a chain, there was also an entire series of departments involved: marketing, HR, management (to train the employee making the drink), and so on.
Most obviously value that coffee enough to not think twice about paying for it. Why is that? Or, from the angle of this discussion: why isn’t that the thought about a book?
I often wonder if people just aren’t aware of the many layers of time and effort that go into a book. Like I said earlier, my first novel took three years. Obviously, that wasn’t non-stop work (I was working 45+ hours a week at my 37.5 hour a week job throughout that timeline, for one thing, and did occasionally sleep) but with my second novel I can fairly accurately say that it took me roughly 15 to 20 hours a week of writing for, say, ten solid months of the year (there were weeks where I was away, or couldn’t work on it for other reasons). So low-ball that to about six hundred hours as a minimum. Six hundred hours of work for a draft I hand in to my publisher.
But it doesn’t stop there, or with me. The support network that comes next are the unsung rock-stars of publishing. An editor, line-editor, copy-editor (sometimes three people, sometimes one) look at it; a cover artist works with me to figure out what the book should look like; typesetting; the publisher handles the legal bits: getting an ISBN, release dates, production scheduling, distribution, and the small matter of letting the bookstores know the book even exists. By the time my second book is an actual object, at least half a dozen people have worked on it in some way or another before it’s boxed up and handed to delivery people who then hand it to booksellers (or warehouse people who stock the book for online e-tailers). And it wouldn’t be at all what it was without the aid of each and every one of them. If we’re talking an e-book, some of those steps become digital, and there’s a new crew of folk involved in formatting the book the four or five times it takes to make it work for the various e-reader formats, synchronizing the uploads, making sure there are no errors, etc.
All of that has value. So, honestly, when the justification is, ‘Books are too expensive,’ all I really hear is, ‘I don’t value this entertainment enough to pay. I want it free.’
Okay. How about I meet you there.
If You Want it Free, then Go Get it Free.
Go to the library.
No, seriously. Go there. They have books you don’t have to pay for. Many of them even have e-books you don’t have to pay for. Now, okay, some require a membership fee. And, yeah, it’s not quite the same as sitting in your house and downloading it for free in your underwear, but with e-books it’s pretty darn close. One visit to set up an account, and then you’re golden. Ta-da. Free books. If you’ve been torrenting, you’ve already got some sort of internet access, no?
The library analogy also comes up quite a bit with torrenting e-books: “If this is stealing, then so is a library.”
Nope. There are some awesome things about using a library that a reader might not know. One of them is—in some countries at least—there’s the Public Lending Right Program. It, or other animals like it in other countries, basically offsets to some degree the money “lost” by people borrowing the book from the library. I took part in this program (in Canada, you sign up every year with any new titles you’ve released) and honestly the year after Light became eligible I made more money through the PLR program than I did from straightforward sales of the book. For a lot of Canadian authors, the PLR program is huge. I’m no different.
And even if your country doesn’t have a PLR program or the equivalent, the books put into the library (and e-books) are still purchased. It’s a sale. It’s also something the publisher sees: if an author is often borrowed from a library, the librarians will make sure to order more copies of the next book the author puts out. This becomes a pre-order the publisher can see, and gives that publisher more confidence in the potential of the author.
Librarians and libraries have value. They’re awesome.
I’ve also heard, however, the argument that the library doesn’t have the title you want (or there’s a waiting list). In the case of the former, ask for the title. Librarians, those awesome champions of books, listen to that feedback. If there’s a waiting list, or if the book might have to be brought in from another branch, or if the book needs to be picked up the next time there’s room in the purchasing budget, it’s true: you might have to be patient to get your book for free from the library (which still supports the author).
If you’re not willing to do that, and you want the book free right now and to hell with the author, well, own it. Be honest. It’s not that you can’t get the book for free, it’s that you don’t want to wait.
Another free option, if you’re a faithful reviewer, is to check out NetGalley. You can get books for free there, too, and all you have to do is review them. You can even get them early.
This one I find a bit trickier to explain. I’ve heard it come up a few times: Someone wants to pay the author directly, not the publisher and all the other middle-men. The artist. There are digital options for this, and I do see them.
Speaking only for myself here, one of the very real reasons I did not self-publish anything was because I like, want, and—yes—need the framework of traditional publishing. Yes, that was a choice I made, absolutely. But here’s the thing: all those people I mentioned back there in the support network that went into writing my novels? I want them to get paid for the product they worked on.
Yes, Light is my book. Yes, Triad Blood will be my book. But no, they’re not only my book. I know that without my editors, the graphic design team, and every one else the publishing company brings to the table, Light would not have been the book it was. Nowhere close. Yes, I worked my butt off to write these books. So does my publisher and all the people who work there.
Or, if we pull the analogy further, tips are something added on to the price, not used to replace it. You don’t go to a restaurant, eat the meal, and then leave a tip for the waitstaff without paying for the food, the cook, and everyone else involved in the making of the meal. If everyone only paid the waitstaff, the restaurant would close down pretty fast, as soon as the food bills came due. And now the waitstaff has no pay check.
That loonie in a hypothetical digital tip-jar doesn’t mean the same thing to me as a loonie on a royalty statement. Because I know when my publisher sees my successes, we all win. My doing well means the publisher can help me do even better next time.
That’s why I don’t have a digital tip-jar. If you want to make sure I’m fairly paid and support the future endeavour of writing, the best thing you can do for me is buy the book, be that through the publisher website, a local brick-and-mortar, or your e-tailer of choice.
People will Totally Still Download Your Book Illegally.
Yeah, I know. It’s going to happen. There will always be people who decide that the least effort and a zero cost are the two things that matter the most in getting a book, and to heck with the author. Phrased in whatever ideology they’d like (intellectual property should be free to all, or publishers are evil, capitalism shouldn’t apply to art, or whatever else), they’re going to do it.
And maybe that’s you.
If it is, and you do think the end product—the book you’ve read—was a worthwhile thing, then the only thing I can think to ask is that you say so. Not in a private e-mail to the author (as much as that’s a pick-me-up), but out loud, in public. Post a review. Give the book a starred rating somewhere. Tell a friend. Heck, tell many friends, and a librarian, too. Make noise. It doesn’t have to be a well-crafted personal essay on how much you loved the book. A simple review can be three phrases long and still help other people to decide to buy the book. Finding a positive review is an awesome feeling.
But the one thing I’d like personally is for you not to tell me you torrented my book. Even if you did. I’d just rather not know.
But, Seriously, Thank You.
To the writer of that e-mail though? Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to let me know you liked the book. Thank you for the giddy phrasing and the feeling I got seeing it in my in-box. Thank you for enjoying the characters, the setting (I agree, too few books take place in Ottawa!), and for your honesty about not liking the brother character much. Feedback is useful, especially when it’s constructive like yours was.
I’m glad you enjoyed Light.
I really am.