Posted in Book publishers, Writing books

What writers need to know about literary piracy and copyright infringement in the digital age

pirateI was surfing the net the other day and happened upon one of my books – I mean that in the truest sense.  I actually happened upon one of my books – in its entirety, cover scan included, every page in a PDF file posted for all to access.  I immediately copied the URL and emailed my publisher in London.  The rights editor got back to me very quickly indicating that this “piracy” would be uploaded to their “infringement portal” and that a take-down notice would be sent immediately.

Unbeknownst to me, my publisher (and presumably others) has this portal that identifies sites like this that pirate copyrighted material, and they are proliferating as we speak.  This one was a new one to them, not already identified (BTW it was www.gendocs.ru – if you have a book out there, you might want to check it).   So I started to do a little research about the current state of online piracy.

Remember when the music industry clamped down and put Napster out of business?  It seems that some of the same activities have been happening in the literary world, but these sites continue to proliferate.  Here are the things that I learned from doing a bit of research.

  1. Your book may well be pirated.
  2. Even if your book is available only in hard copy, it may still be pirated. Literary pirates can procure book-scanning software easily. The book that I stumbled on is available also as an eBook, but this looked like a scan of the hard copy.
  3. There has been an exponential growth in online literary piracy since 2009.
  4. Although there is now a well-established anti-literary-piracy movement on the part of publishers, as fast as one site is shut down, another one pops up.
  5. Piracy sites may have no ethical concerns about ‘stealing’ your book, but evidently they are very concerned about being sued. This means that when approached to cease and desist, they usually do, taking down the identified book.
  6. If you are published by a traditional publisher, they will have an on-going anti-piracy effort (something you should probably ask them about – I didn’t), although some new sites get by as in the case where I identified a previously unknown one for my publisher.
  7. If you are self-published, you can search for your book regularly or better yet set up an on-going Google search for it. If it pops up on a pirate site, you can prepare and send your own take-down letter by identifying the site’s “copyright officer.”

It always saddens me that people think there is something different about stealing intellectual property – music, writing, choreography – than in stealing your cell phone, your car, your wallet.  But there is no difference.  I like to protect my work, and I hope you think enough of your own work to protect it too.

Posted in Book publishers

Do publishers really care about a writer’s life on Twitter?

I’ve been doing a bit of research lately on book marketing.  This will come as no surprise to my blog readers who have been with me through various book launches.  At every such juncture, I dig out my research skills to see if there is any actual hard evidence on what really works to sell books.  Lately j0316779there’s been an inordinate amount of material on the need for a (huge) social media presence.  Indeed, it seems to be the collective wisdom that publishers won’t touch you with a ten-foot pole if you don’t have thousands of Twitter followers, huge numbers of Facebook ‘friends’ or ‘likes,’ and more than a foot in the door of Google+.  And it’s not only the traditional route to publication that seems to beg for this: there are more blog posts for indie authors on this topic than perhaps any other single current issue.  But now, as it was the last time I tried to find real numbers, there doesn’t seem to be any data.  I need data, people!

This search for evidence comes at the juncture of three events in my life: the release of my most recent business-related book Beyond Persuasion by the University of Toronto Press, my search for a new agent, and my foray into fiction.  Add that to a media story I read last week (tweeted by a fellow academic) about the usefulness (or more specifically the uselessness) of current Twitter metrics, and I’m seriously doubting the collective wisdom.

Since publishers don’t seem to have the data, let’s start with an industry that has done their homework here.  The story tweeted by my colleague focuses on a study of the use of social media by charities.  Facebook users give their ‘likes’ — but not their dollars — to charities: study reports gives me some evidence.

A PhD student at the University of British Columbia studied the correlation between someone ‘liking’ a charity and actually being moved to volunteer or donate.  What he found might come as something of a surprise to the more naïve among us.  The more likely someone is to click like, the less likely that person is to actually give money.  The researchers characterize these people as slactvitists – a new breed of individual who likes the feeling of publicly supporting a good cause but then feels no need to actually do something about it.  So, if this is the case in the non-profit industry, can we not extrapolate to the book buying industry to theorize that the more likely someone is to follow you on Twitter, the less likely that person is to buy your book?  It’s an interesting argument.

Okay, let’s take this argument a step further.  Wait a minute, you say, even if that’s true (and maybe the book’s not for them), if they are active tweeps, then at the very least they’re more likely to tweet it.  This is actually unlikely if they follow more than a few hundred people (studies do show that if you follow numerous peeps on Twitter, you cannot possibly follow their tweets with any degree of regularity), but for the sake of argument, let’s say they do tweet it, and then someone else re-tweets it and on and on.  If our original premise is correct, none of this matters.  Your book will be tweeted all over cyberspace and still not a single person might buy your book.  Indeed, many indie authors would be millionaires (or at least making a luxurious, regular wage) if this were true.  So, we’re back where we started.

It seems to me that the notion of a platform and a social media platform are two different but related concepts that need differentiation.

Just as I’ve always thought, a non-fiction author still needs a platform – and that doesn’t necessarily mean thousands of Twitter followers.  That means the credentials and expertise to actually write the book.  You can rest assured that neither the UTP editors nor the reviewers cared a bit about my online presence for the new book mentioned above.  What they did care about was my background, education and experiential credentials, and my ability to write authentically, clearly and correctly.

Those thousands of Twitter followers might also be impressive, but they are at the lower end of what’s needed at least initially.  According to one agent, this is the kind of platform you need for non-fiction and for fiction, well, it is just as I suspected, unnecessary.[1]   Interestingly, though, she does indicate that when she looks at a potential fiction client’s tweets, she’s looking for the unique voice.  She further considers blogging and what it might mean if you have a blog that is outdated and never used.

Literary agent Carly Watters says, “Twitter is a place for authors–who live a very solitary existence–to engage with other writers going through the same experience, follow industry veterans, follow writers they admire, and learn about how the book business works.”[2]

In her very good post A Definition of Author Platform, blogger Jane Friedman give us this useful advice: “Your platform should be as much of a creative exercise and project as the work you produce. While platform gives you power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by posting “Follow me!” on Twitter or “Like me!” on Facebook a few times a week.”

So what might your social media presence be good for?

  • Finding beta readers far afield.
  • Doing background research and getting tips.
  • Finding support from like-minded, unknown writers.

And as for this last bullet, I’m reminded of the phenomenon of co-dependency – next blog post.

Posted in Book publishers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Self, main, hybrid, co-op: Publishing may be publishing but you have to follow the money

booksI’ve come to the conclusion that the single most important defining feature of each of the publishing models that I’ve personally tried, or that I’ve explored, comes down to one important question: Who is paying?

Way back when vanity publishing was that icky, underbelly of the publishing world (at least that’s how mainstream publishers and many I-wouldn’t-stoop-that-low self-described literary writers thought), the main defining feature of the genre, if you will, was the question of who pays.  And of course, as we all know, in vanity publishing the author pays.  So, if it is vain for a writer to pay for his or her work to be published, and self-publishing smacks of the same defining feature, they are one and the same – we’ve just sanitized our vocabulary for the sake of appearances.  And the truth is if you begin to protest that there is a difference: availability of editing blah blah blah, you’re really missing the point.

Good ideas, followed by good writing, followed by good editing, followed by good marketing is the formula for a really great piece of writing and getting it into the hands of readers who might appreciate it/learn from it/ be entertained by it.  There is no reason at all why this formula can’t work – and work well – regardless of who is paying.  It’s just publishing snobbery.  The problem of course remains that many indescribably bad books are published by mainstream/traditional publishing models where the manuscript is acquired by a publisher who pays for the publishing (there is no guarantee that the publisher knows a good book from a bad one, nor is there any guarantee that the editing will be done well); just as many unspeakably ghastly volumes are published by authors who are paying out of their own pockets.  The digital age with its consequent ease of publication is what has contributed to the sheer volume of bad books regardless of who is paying.  So, I got to thinking about this notion of following the money.

Last month The National Post’s Mark Medley published an article “Words from their sponsors: Can authors cash in on crowd-sourced funding sites?”[1]  In it he explores the vast new world of online crowd-sourcing for funds for a variety of projects zeroing in on writing.  I had been peripherally aware of the phenomenon – evidently even the saintly and storied Margaret Atwood has used crowd-sourced funds – but I had never really taken the time to look closely.  I think that if you are the funder, there may just be a lot of money to be made on the backs of people with hair-brained ideas who can persuade others to give them seed money.

In general, here’s how it works: you, the writer sign up for one of these funders online (indiegogo, for example), describe your project in a way that entices others to believe that it’s a project that should see the light of day, and wait for the money to flow in.  You then use the money to make it happen.  You can hire an editor (if you want), hire a book designer (if you want), hire a book publicist (if you want), and if you have enough money.  I suppose you could also offer the money to a traditional publisher to defray the cost of publication – but of course since that would be like marrying traditional publishers with the author-pays, vanity approach (there’s a word in academic publishing for that: co-publishing), you’ll probably get an icky I’d-never-touch-that-project kind of response – unless, of course, the project is fantastic and the publisher can see past the end of his or her metaphorical nose.  But there’s another kind of crowd-sourced funding publishing model that I found more fascinating.

I’m talking about the UK online funder Unbound.  Here’s how they work:

“… instead of waiting for [writers] to publish their work, Unbound allows you to listen to their ideas for what they’d like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing (if the target isn’t met you can either get your pledge refunded in full or switch your pledge to another Unbound project)…”[2]

When a selected project is funded, the writer then completes it and Unbound designs, edits and prints the book.  The funders get copies and even sometime lunch with the author.  So, the author doesn’t pay.  So it’s not vanity publishing and it’s not self-publishing.  It’s a new model.   In my view it’s an innovative idea that adds to the richness of the publishing approaches.  But does it make for better books?

In the end, I doubt very much that it is the publishing model that has much to do with the success of a book project.   It has more to do with a book that resonates with its readers that is somehow is able to connect with.   Just look at 50 Shades of Grey and its story.  When it comes to commercial success in book publishing, sometimes the writing is fantastic, and other times it’s epically flawed.

But it’s really the writer who is at the heart of it in any case.  If the author pays, what difference does it make?