scribd pirates

You may have noticed that I have some links to short stories and essays in the right hand column.  I put them up at Scribd, as it seemed a good way to keep bits of writing I wanted to share in one place. If the links aren’t there, keep reading and you’ll find out why.

The other day I had coffee with two novelists, and the discussion turned to plagarism and copyright. The name Scribd came up, and I learned, to my horror, that Scribd is one of the most egregious sinners when it comes to distributing copyrighted material for free (this practice is often called ‘pirating’).  Just today I had the time to have a look, and I didn’t have to go far. I found whole books available for download, books that are still in copyright. Jennifer Crusie, Christina Dodd, Lisa Kleypas, John Sandford, Lee Child … the list goes on and on.

This means that you can wander over to Scribd and download whole novels that you otherwise would have to pay for. The bottom line: it cuts the author (the publisher, the agent, the typesetters, the editors…) out of the loop. It is, in fact, stealing.

If Scribd had a way to flag such abuses so that they’d be taken down immediately that would go a long way, but as it is, there’s no way to do that. The author him/herself has to fill out a long form, which will be sent back for correction multiple times if you don’t get every detail right. After this long process, the document will be taken down.

This is just not good enough.

Most authors — something like 95 percent of all published authors — do not earn enough from royalties to live. They supplement their income with day jobs, because they need to pay the rent and put food on the table.  It’s a constant struggle  and harder every day to get anything into print. Publishers live and die by sales figures, and every single sale counts.

This whole thing reminds me of an exchange I had some years ago with an acquaintance.  These are very, very wealthy people with investments in real estate and the stock market, but they built their business from the ground up, and they earned their money.  Then one day they came back after a long trip to Asia, and offered me software. Windows, Photoshop, all kinds of very expensive software, and announced with glee that they had bought all of it at about ten percent of what they’d pay in the States. That is, the software was pirated.  Here’s the funny part: these people own a lot of stock in Microsoft. They were taking money out of their own pockets. Either they didn’t realize this, or the thrill of getting something for almost-free was too much to resist. I was shocked, I have to admit, and they could see it on my face. We didn’t see much of them socially after that.

So while the Scribd pirates don’t have a direct impact on me, I am still taking down everything I have posted there. I will make them available through this website, though it may take a couple weeks to get organized.  If you happen to use Scribd and you feel about this issue as I do, you might write a note sometime to the management, who seems very lackadaisical about this problem.

I’m just sayin.

the midlist/midlife crisis

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

an idea whose time I don’t have

This came to me in the shower. Many ideas come to me in the shower but most of them have to do with grocery shopping and social obligations.

If you aren’t familiar with the online versions of Pepys’ Diary or Martha Ballard’s Diary, you should really have a look. Or let’s say, you should have a look if you’re at all interested in history and historical fiction.

English: Author: Guy de la Bedoyere. Letter by...

Each of these diaries takes on the job of annotating an older historical document or set of documents for modern readers who aren’t familiar with the cultural context. In the case of Pepys’ Diary, there’s a large community of people who participate by annotating entries. If somebody happens to know the background of a particularly obtuse usage, or a place where it was used in another way, or anything relevant to understanding the passage, they can submit an annotation.

Reading the annotations are as much fun as reading the diaries.

Okay, yes. I’m a history geek. But mostly I’m interested in the stories that are buried in the diaries and that come out, bit by bit. Martha Ballard’s diary contains some tremendously surprising stories of things that happened in her small Maine village where she was a midwife in the late 18th century. Pepys had a much wider view of the world, and so his stories are different in tone.

I know, I’m taking a long time to get to the point. Here it is: any book that is out of copyright could get this treatment, and the list of out of copyright books is very, very long. If one person got the ball rolling with a well loved novel, and the process took off, it might be the beginning of a whole new way of reading, and certainly a new way to discuss the books we read.

I nominate Pride & Prejudice as an excellent starting point. There are so many people who love this novel, I think it would have a much better chance of succeeding than say, Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s possible that the Pepys’ people might be open to an adaptation of their software, which would make everything so much easier.

So there. I’ve put down the idea. It will be a huge amount of work, lots of fun, very satisfying. Not a penny’s profit to be made.

Who’s game? That’s what I thought.

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regarding the book trailer

I’ve had a few emails, so let me say briefly:

Book trailers are a fairly new approach to advertising forthcoming novels. There are a lot of them out there, all you have to do is search on Google Video or YouTube. The quality is pretty uneven. Some of the best ones are (as is to be expected) the professional book trailers done by, or paid for by, publishers.

A couple I like a lot:

Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Malkani’s Londonstani

I’m not so enthusiastic about the trailer for Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but that’s just my taste.

Generally I prefer book trailers that are collage-like with music/audio backgrounds. The ones I’ve seen that are live action with dialog … well, let’s just say that they don’t work for me. At all.

Brenda Coulter has a post about how she created her trailer for A Season of Forgiveness. If I have time I’ll put together a summary of how I did mine. Brenda works in the world of Windows and I’m on a Mac, so my approach was different.

If you look at book trailers on YouTube, you’ll see that some of them aren’t too fussy about where they get their images and/or music and audio. Most do take copyright seriously (as we are, after all, authors and make our living from royalties), but a few don’t. I bought the rights to some of the royalty-free images I used, but most of them were made available for use under the Creative Commons license. Ditto for the music. Full credits at the end of the Tied to the Tracks trailer, in case anybody is interested.

In a comment, Anne reminded me about Cory Doctorow‘s work on behalf of Creative Commons and the principles behind it. Cory releases the full texts of his novels in electronic format on the day the hard copy is released for sale in bookstores. Sometime I’ll have to find out how he and his publisher worked out the details of this.

Finally, a note: if you have time to go over to YouTube to have a look at the Tied to the Tracks trailer, please do. And while you are there, if you’d care to rate the trailer, that would be kind of you. The trolls are already out and active, in force.