Price and Privilege

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that book piracy is bad. It’s something that I never spent much time thinking about: It’s illegal (some people like to argue it’s in a legal grey zone), it’s harmful towards authors (and publishing houses), it’s stealing and that’s the overall narrative. I can’t remember how many times I have read posts by authors, tired from the many times they have seen their work uploaded on piracy sites, begging readers not to download these stolen copies. It’s exhausting, I get it. And I would definitely hate it too if I found my assignments for uni online for everyone to download without my consent.

Then something interesting happened a few weeks ago. I had just signed up for Scribd to download an audiobook for my book club when one person in my book club’s group chat sent a link to a website where you could download many books for free. Intrigued, I clicked on the link & nothing stood out as suspicious to me. Yet nothing in the world comes for free, so I googled the site…turns out it was a book piracy site. Horrified, I quickly sent a message to the group chat that we as a book club can NOT support book piracy. A day later, another person sent a link to another book piracy site, and this time, enraged, I announced that we have a zero-tolerance policy for book piracy, and should people continue promoting piracy sites, it would lead to their immediate suspension.

Let’s be honest though. Hasn’t anyone done some sort of pirating at some point in their life too, intentionally or unintentionally? What about movies you really wanted to watch upon their release but couldn’t because going to the cinema is helluva expensive, or TV shows you might not even have access to because they don’t show them in your country?

Being able to read books is a privilege. Even as a young student who grew up comfortably in Europe and who had never had to complain about lacking support from her parents (especially when it comes to books), I get it. I can’t just buy the latest edition of an anatomy textbook, or the latest 700-page Kaplan Step 2 Guide for internal medicine because it would instantly wipe my bank account. Sometimes these book don’t even ship to Germany (where I live), so I honestly don’t know what it must be like for someone who lives in an even more hidden corner of the world. Book Depository for example didn’t even ship to Columbia until a few months ago which I personally found shocking because naive-me thought that worldwide delivery means worldwide delivery.

Of course there are free or at least cheaper resources such as your local library or online library services such as Scribd or Libby, but they also only provide temporary solutions. What if your library doesn’t carry the book you want to read (which is very likely if you’re from a non-English-speaking country)? What if there are legitimate reasons you can’t have access to these online services? What if you have to rationalise your income and books are a luxury you can only afford every once in a while? You can’t just ask your parents for book money all the time either. Another argument — that ebooks are often cheaper than physical books — is partially a myth too. In fact, they are often sold at a similar price as their physical counterpart and only one or two bucks cheaper. Another dead-end.

Book piracy is so easy. It’s anonymous, it’s quick, and most importantly, you have immediate access to something which you otherwise would miss out on. But looking from this other point of view, which is that books are a matter of price and privilege, it almost feels as if I can understand why people would feel the urge to do it, even though I don’t support these types of actions.

Should you be proud of or pirating? Heck no. It’s still illegal, it’s harmful to the authors who poured so much work into it, and harmful to the publishing industry. Here’s some quick maths: If the book doesn’t sell well, there will be no future books by the author period. Publishers are financial monsters too, after all. But you shouldn’t feel ashamed of owning too little books either, or not being able to read the latest release because you feel pressured by other people to own the book. Most importantly, it’s also the publishers’ responsibility to make sure that books are accessible to readers from all over the world so they will find a reason not to do piracy and find legitimate ways to read an author’s work. Of course the publishing industry will always argue that the making of books is expensive, hence the high prices, but they need to be held accountable too. As for books for university for example, how about just being more liberal with giving out campus licenses so more students can have access to them? Not having access to books equals to missed opportunities.
There are some positive examples too though. Simon & Schuster for example provides a handful of books for free every month for their email subscribers, however that’s still a very unusual project. I wished more publishers would follow suit.

For now, our book club has agreed on picking books only that have been around for some time so it’s more likely for people to find a copy of it at their local library, or will at least have enough time to find other decent resources. For now we have also suspended our “zero tolerance policy” because, let’s be honest, it’s really not our business to find out where a person got their book from. It’s a chapter not closed yet though and I am curious to see what the future will hold (sorry for this cheesy ending, I seriously couldn’t come up with a good ending to this post).

Lastly, here’s a blog post that Jamilex @colorfullybookish made at the beginning of this month where she shares some resources for affordable books. I found it to be very helpful! 🙂

What are your thoughts on book piracy? Have you walked into an uncomfortable situation before?

9 thoughts on “Price and Privilege

  1. I honestly love how you’re not trying to doom people as bad human beings who have used some (dodgy) pages to download some books. It’s very important to open up this conversation about how to make books more accessible (especially for younger generations) without taking the author’s income away.
    I also find it quite interesting how pages like Scribd own the function where any user can upload some files and books. And simply because it’s “official” it doesn’t get quite as much attention, even though I believe it to be rather questionable as well.

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    • Thank you so much for your thoughts! I agree on Scribd. While I generally enjoy their services, I have noticed too that there are a lot of hidden/sketchy parts that no one talks about. I’m kind of surprised how much Scribd has expanded since their early days too though because I honestly didn’t know how ‘professional’ they have become until recently. I still know them from a few years ago where it was basically a platform for indie books, random documents and fan fiction. I guess they have grown very quickly since then but I ished they would pay more attention to copyrights too!

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  2. Great post, Tess! I know that conversation must have been difficult for all parties. For me, I can’t say that book piracy is intolerable because then I would be a hypocrite. While I have never pirated a book, I certainly have with movies and tv shows. It’s a difficult situation because it is hard to find a person who has not pirated something before. Yes it is wrong, yes it takes money away from authors. If the author is marginalized this is even worse. But is it the worst thing you can do? No. Unfortunately the world isn’t perfect, and not everyone has equal access to resources. I just feel like there are worse things that one could do.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Emily 💕 book piracy is a very very layered topic and it’s so easy to judge people for doing it. In reality everyone has probably had some contact to illegal downloading in their life & even the privileged ones do it but it’s also the “production companies” (publishers, movie companies etc) to make it equally accessible to everyone. It’s easier said than done though but it’s still a vision I like to think about

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  3. I loved this post. I don’t think book piracy is black and white. It’s wrong and we all know it is, authors are reasonably annoyed for it, but then I’ve seen authors keep screenshots on drives of MINORS who pirate their books. Is there a line crossed when you think a 15 year old might not have the money to spend on books or a library they can access? I think it’s very easy to judge. There’s definitely a double standard because I don’t think I’ve ever hesitated to watch an episode of a TV show online if I knew the UK wouldn’t get it for another six months, but books seem different somehow? Overall, most of us are in a privileged position to say we can afford books or even as a book blogger, we have access to a lot of wonderful ARCs in exchange for reviews. It also needs to be considered not all books are translated into someone’s language if they aren’t popular. Having books available in your language, available at your library, available to buy on your phone is something a lot of people overlook when we’re lucky if we have that. I’m not sure what the best alternative would be, piracy has been around for so long, but telling someone to get a library card isn’t the answer all the time either. I hope we find something that works for authors and underprivileged readers in the future.

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    • Double standard! That’s the word I was probably looking for and it’s so important to see that we’re all ‘part of the system’. I honestly don’t believe there is a solution to it — piracy has been around for way too long after all, but it’s important to recognise that it’s all about accessibility and privilege. again I’m hoping that there will be more ‘free options’ by publishers in the future but we will see where it goes!

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  4. I agree with every points you made here! Piracy is not as black and white as many people think, especially if you live in third world country where one book probably costs you two to three days meal. Do I think piracy is bad? Yes, it’s harmful to the authors, considering that most BIPOC & queer authors don’t get the same amount of money as white authors. It bothers me that people would go in legth to judge and bully those who read epubs without giving them a real solution. I agree that publisher (and the country’s goverment) are responsible to make books accesible to everyone, but, in meantime we–as fellow readers–are also responsible to be mindful about this. Should we try to educate other readers about this? Yes. Should we cancel them for this? No. Understand their reason & where they come from, and you’ll realize that buying & collecting books are privilege.

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    • Exactly! Also love how you bring the term ‘cancelling’ into this conversation! I think the problem with talking about book piracy within the book blogging community is that we are too often exposed to too one-sided opinions only because those who are very vocal on this subject are mostly authors, so we end up just parroting their words. There are no official statistics of course but I doubt that the majority of pirating people are the privileged ones (as in those who have any sort of access to new books), and just saying we should ‘check out the library’ isn’t a good enough answer either. It’s really frustrating to talk about this topic because there simply is no easy solution to it and the only thing we can do is trying to be more understanding to people who don’t hold the same privileges as us & boosting marginalised voices.

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  5. Pingback: Lately With Lila | August 2020 Wrap Up + 1000 Follower Q&A Announcement! – Hardcover Haven

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