A little note in advance: I’m about to rant. I may rant at some length. I’m ranting about something other people have ranted about, as well. So be warned.
So here’s what happened. Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about the Kindle and how many Kindle owners are now buying more books than they used to. The end of the article contained the following paragraphs:
Ms. Englin has linked her Kindle to the Amazon account of some nearby friends, allowing all of them to read books like “The Lost Symbol” at the same time — while paying for them only once.
“I read much more, I tend to read faster for some reason, and I read a greater variety of things,” said Ms. Englin, adding that this is nearly the same as lending a physical book to friends. “We haven’t really looked closely at Amazon’s terms of service. But I do suspect we are breaking the rules.”
Now. I read the original NYT article because it was linked to in Publisher’s marketplace, in the daily emails I get from them. I saw that last paragraph and, I admit, had a twinge. A moment of “Hey, that doesn’t seem quite right.” But then almost immediately after I thought two things:
1. That this was clearly just a couple of friends sharing books
2. That this is in essence no different from, say, a group of friends with low incomes or little disposable cash, who pool their money and buy books together to share. I did this a few times as a teen; mostly for hardcovers, but sometimes to get three books instead of one or whatever.
And that was basically it. I closed the article and went about my day.
Too bad some other authors didn’t do the same. I’m not going to name any names here. You can find them if you really want. But a few other authors also saw that article, either through PM like I did or because they get the Times or whatever. Those authors went on Twitter and began what I can only describe as a witch hunt, a name-and-shame campaign where they not only scolded Ms. Englin and called her a thief, but actually listed her Twitter identity in their tweets–her Twitter identity, which appears to be her professional identity, as her Twitter seems to be used almost exclusively for business (she’s in marketing or consulting or something like that).
No, I’m not kidding. These people actually felt perfectly justified in naming and publicly scolding this woman, and in encouraging others to retweet their rants and join in berating her as well, in public, in front of her friends, family, clients, and potential clients.
There are so many problems with this I don’t even know where to begin. The first one, but in my opinion not the biggest one, is that what Ms. Englin is doing is in fact allowed by the Kindle Terms of Service. She’s not committing piracy. To infer piracy from sharing a few books with friends is a breathtaking leap in logic.
The second one is even if she was committing piracy, even if she was committing a crime, the idea that it’s somehow okay to start calling her names in a public place, and encouraging others to do the same, is wrong. So wrong. Disgustingly wrong. I was literally made ill when I saw this. I used to follow one of the authors who participated in this lynching, and I say “used to” because, sadly, I unfollowed her due to this. I’m shocked that anyone would think this is okay. This woman wasn’t convicted of raping children or of breaking into the Louvre and destroying the Mona Lisa. She shared some books with her friends. She now reads MORE books than she used to.
Even more upsetting is that when it was pointed out to some of these Upholders Of The Law authors, they had the nerve to issue half-assed apologies. (Some are here in Ms. Englin’s blog post about the incident.) One or two of them even tried to lay the blame at the feet of the original writer of the NYT article, claiming it was his fault because the wording of the article was misleading or because he included the quote about how Ms. Englin had a sneaking suspicion they were bending the rules. Excuse me? NO. Your hideous behavior is your fault. I don’t give a fuck what the NYT writer made it sound like. YOU chose to go on Twitter and start shouting this woman’s name, branding her a thief. YOU chose to encourage other people to do the same. The NYT writer didn’t do that and he’s not to blame. YOU ARE.
Let me ask you a question. If your child was beaten up, and the child who did the beating tried to claim it was little Joe’s fault, because little Joe said your kid said something mean about the kid who did the beating, would you then say, “Oh, of course,” and go after little Joe? Or would you rightly call bullshit, because it doesn’t fucking matter what little Joe said, that shithead who beat up your kid was the one who made the decision to beat up your kid and followed through on it? Exactly. All of your “the article was misleading and so we’re victims too” crap is exactly that–crap. You’re not a victim here, you’re a bully, and you’ve behaved abominably, and I am horrified by it.
But even worse is how this incident has called to light something that’s been bothering me for some time, and that is what seems to be some sort of war between writers and readers.
I don’t understand how it happened, or why. But it seems like I see this sort of thing more and more lately; readers demanding things, and authors responding as though readers are supposed to care about the minutiae of their day and never, ever buy used books or check out books from the library or whatever because they’re supposed to keep first and foremost in their minds the Writer’s Need To Make A Living. Yes, we want to make money from this; I certainly do. But vilifying readers who share books or buy used isn’t the way to go about it. It’s not really their problem, and I’m tired of hearing about it.
I personally have shared ebooks. I’ve bought ebooks for people. I give away my ebooks fairly regularly, for any number of reasons but often just because it’s fun. I’m totally excited about Barnes & Noble’s upcoming Nook, which will allow ebook sharing; finally!! It’s about time! I can’t wait to see what changes this will bring and think it’s awful that we haven’t found a way to do this before. I can’t wait for it to come out and for readers who prefer ebooks to have that function available, and as I said above, I was pretty pleased to see that there is a way for readers to share books on Kindle. I think lending or sharing books is a good thing for all of us, and I think most writers agree, and most readers do too.
But why is it that it seems everywhere I look these days there are writers and readers arguing? Why does it seem that although in theory we both want the same things, it also seems that neither of us can speak without the other getting angry? Why are there writers out there who feel justified in yelling at reviewers or readers for bad reviews, or publicly berating readers, or screaming about how when you buy books used they don’t make any money, or whatever? Some of the bad behavior by authors, directed at readers, that I’ve seen over the last few years has been enough to almost make me cry. But on the same token, why are there readers out there getting angry with authors for things about which we have absolutely no control, or accusing us of hating them or looking down on them or thinking they’re evil thieves?
Granted, that latter accusation is certainly more understandable, when we have incidents like what happened Wednesday. But it seems to go so much further than that, and I don’t understand why. Only a few authors participated in the public lynching, nowhere near all of us. But it feels–it can feel–as though we’re all being tarred with the same brush, much as I guess many readers feel tarred with the same brush simply for expressing an opinion or sharing a book or whatever.
Yes, I think the vast majority of authors should shut the fuck up about how they earn their money. Explaining exactly how piracy effects us is one thing, because I do believe there are people out there who genuinely don’t know. And because piracy effects our ability to deliver books to readers, I would hope it’s an issue readers would be concerned with. And you know what? They are! I have never seen a genuine. publicly enthusiastic reader actually defend piracy. What I have seen are readers condemning it, over and over again. And it upsets me when I see those same readers being accused or yelled at or whatever. It upsets me to hear that those same readers feel they are being looked at askance because they buy ebooks.
But at the same time, it upsets me when authors are looked at as greedy or bad because, for example, we only sell North American rights to our books rather than World. Here’s the thing; my publishers didn’t offer for world rights. And even if they had, and even if I’d agreed to it, that is absolutely no guarantee that they would have used those rights. As things stand now, UK and Australian readers will be getting the Downside books two days after they release here, because Harper UK wants to get those books out so UK/Aus readers don’t buy the US editions from Amazon or whatever. Had I sold world rights to Del Rey? I absolutely love Del Rey but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’d decided to hold on to those rights until they see how the book performs here. Why not? If UK or Aussie readers bought it from Amazon, the US company would be making the money. (Let’s not even get into the fact that Random House UK and Random House US are not the same company with the same catalogues and release calenders [they’re simply two separate houses under one umbrella], and do not answer to each other in terms of production schedules, and how the foreign branches of all the big houses are not the same, so how that would even work.) The fact is, UK/Aus readers are getting the Downside books precisely because Harper Voyager bought those rights separately, and having bought them now have incentive to use them.
Now, I totally understand the frustrations of readers in other countries who want books but can’t get them (I lived in England for three and a half years, remember?) I totally understand the frustrations of readers who want ebooks to release the same day as print. I don’t understand why that doesn’t happen. It frustrates me too. So why can’t we work together on it? Why are writers the enemy, or readers the enemy, when we all want the same thing–good books, released in a timely fashion, in a convenient format?
For the record, here is a list of things authors have NO control over. Absolutely none. There is no point getting angry or upset with us over these issues, or telling us we should be doing something about them, because we have zero say in them:
Formats (i.e. Kindle, paperback, etc. This may change when it comes to hardcover but I don’t know; what I do know is nobody has ever consulted me about format and had I offered an opinion they wouldn’t have cared)
What countries our books are released in
Pricing of either print or ebook editions
where our books are sold
I understand that some of these are hot button issues for readers. You know what? It bugs me too. I hate that ebooks cost more and don’t understand why at all. I hate that ebook readers have to wait and think it’s silly. I hate that DRM means you can’t use your book on more than one device you own. I hate that I have to wait for someone to buy or choose to exploit foreign rights before I can see editions of my book in French or German or whatever.
But again, I can’t do anything about it. To be perfectly honest, in those situations I have less power than readers do. They can write letters to publishing companies in their countries asking for those publishers to acquire certain books. They can write letter to publishers complaining about delayed releases or ebook prices or formats not available or just about anything else. I can’t.
At the same time, I understand that being made to feel like thieves, or being deprived, is a big deal for readers. I understand that when you feel like you’re being kicked around the last thing you need is some author whining about not getting paid for used books. Quite frankly, it’s not your problem, and you shouldn’t be expected to give a shit about it. Why the hell should you? It’s the height of arrogance to expect you to somehow put your financial worries above mine. I too get tired of seeing writers bitch about this, especially when–sorry, the gorge just rose in my throat–they use it as fucking justification for their own decision to terrorize a reader online (and I assure you, “terrorized” is probably a mild word for what Ms. Englin must have been feeling at one point). When your apology for your hideous behavior includes anything like, “But you have to understand, people steal from us and so that’s why we jumped to conclusions,” you need a class in how to properly apologize and probably some therapy too.
I just find it upsetting, all of it. When I see discussions like this one at Dear Author, where it seems everyone is speaking at cross-purposes, it upsets me. It seems to me we had a perfect opportunity, in the Case of the Harassment of An Innocent Reader, to come together as one, readers and writers, and maybe find some new common ground. To reach a place where we could all agree; to act as one. We have power together, writers and readers. We can perhaps accomplish some things together we couldn’t as lone entities. We can be a community. But the comments seemed to quickly degenerate into an Us vs. Them, and it’s heartbreaking, and I find myself wondering what if anything can be done about it. I don’t want to be afraid of readers, or of expressing an opinion. Especially not when I am always, always, a reader first and on the side of readers first. Not when I go out of my way to make my blog, especially, a place where anyone and everyone can feel welcome and wanted, regardless of their politics or religion or color or anything else. But neither do I want to be vilified simply for trying to entertain people or having my own concerns.
When did we all start to feel so entitled? When did we start to feel that instead of being people who loved books and reading that we were separate entities, and that it was our right to condemn the other and order them around?
We need to work together. Yes, without readers I–and other writers like me–would be out of a job. But without writers I–and other readers like me–wouldn’t have anything to read.
And that would be the saddest thing of all.