Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy

Publishers Weekly had a story today about Paulo Coelho reaching an agreement with his publisher, HarperCollins, to reduce the price of the e-book edition of his titles to  99 cents for an unspecified length of time. Coelho has been a very vocal advocate of  book piracy for many years now. It’s a position I have trouble understanding, particularly when it is  being espoused by a writer and an intellectual.

PW allows for comments on its articles. So I got involved in a rather long and colorful thread about the virtues and  vices of intellectual property theft.  When you think about it, the issues in this conversation are fundamental, touching on the ontological nature of work and its value to the worker and to society. In the case of intellectual property, it goes to the heart of the question of whether intellectual activity and creativity is “work” and whether it is worthy of being compensated.

According to a February, 2012 article in The Guardian, Coelho has long been a supporter of the illegal downloading of his own writing.  Of course, if an author chooses to allow his books to be downloaded for free (assuming he controls the copyright to those books free and clear), this isn’t piracy. It’s a gift. But that isn’t really the situation with Coelho. His books are published in the United States by HarperCollins and they have been translated, published, and sold in almost every country in the world.  (The Alchemist has sold over 35,000,000 copies worldwide, probably the best selling title in the world by a living author).  Coelho has a contractual relationship with his publishers. Most book contracts give the publisher the exclusive right to sell the book for a given period of time, in exchange for which the author is compensated.  Coelho is enabling the free and unauthorized downloading of his books when he has already licensed those rights to another party.  This is very clearly piracy.

What is more troubling is that Coelho goes beyond advocating that people should steal his  books. He has joined up with the notorious file sharing site, Pirate Bay, to facilitate downloading his own books and by implication supporting the illegal free downloading of millions of  books, movies, music, and software that is being done daily on Pirate Bay.

He seems to raise piracy to a kind of moral imperative. Here is what he says:

“The good old days, when each idea had an owner, are gone forever. First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey. Second, because all writers want what they write to be read, whether in a newspaper, blog, pamphlet, or on a wall….The more often we hear a song on the radio, the keener we are to buy the CD. It’s the same with literature. The more people ‘pirate’ a book, the better. If they like the beginning, they’ll buy the whole book the next day, because there’s nothing more tiring than reading long screeds of text on a computer screen.”

Coelho’s assertions are wrong and pernicious. He begins by positing that there is a kind of paradigm shift going on, and that the old models are dead. I see this a lot, usually coming from technology gurus  or Amazon.com fan boys. When I hear the term “old business model”, I can usually predict where the discussion is headed. Coelho is saying  that under the new business model ideas belong to us all. What that means  to me is that the writer ought not to be compensated for his writing, which is to say that the work that goes into artistic creation has no value. A curious insight from a writer who has made tens of millions of dollars from his own creative work.

He elaborates on this idea  by saying that all creative writing is simply the recycling of 4 themes. I suppose what he means to say is that creative writing isn’t really all that creative.  Let’s see now….how shall I respond?…….Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce, Melville, Flaubert, Cervantes, Dante. A veritable Salvation Army of recycled ideas.

Coelho then argues that piracy is good because it is good for business. Kind of like radio. It exposes people to creative work that they might not otherwise know about, and this will induce the reader to go out and buy more of the artist’s stuff.  Well, this might be true. Or maybe  not. But it certainly is an article of faith amongst the “new paradigm” types.  This is quite beside the point. The copyright holder may  decide, out of ignorance or folly, that he simply doesn’t want to give away his product. Apparently Coelho feels that he is in a better position than the artist to dictate the conditions under which the artist’s or anyone else’s  book will be disseminated.

Moving along to the thread of conversation in the PW article, we see more of the “new business model” argument.  It usually revolves around the idea that traditional  commercial (often referred condescendingly as “legacy”) publishers are simply ripping off the consumer and making millions of dollars by charging unjustified and inflated prices. The idea is that if we get rid of these greedy middle men, we will arrive at a fair price for a book, which is usually about 99 cents. The Internet gurus  call it “disintermediation”. It’s a fancy term for a business model that cuts out the middle men. A lot of people seem to believe that because there are no manufacturing and delivery costs to an e-book, 99 cents is a fair price. But in the eyes of Pirate Bay and its apologists even charging 99 cents for a book is highway robbery. The  concept de jour coming from the “new business model” gurus is: “information wants to be free”.

I believe that intellectual work has value and deserves compensation. I believe that the work that goes into writing a book is at least as important and as valuable as the work that goes into flipping burgers at McDonalds.

It’s astounding to me that this conversation about piracy gets serious discussion at all. Piracy is theft. Theft is not a “new business model”. It’s the oldest one in the book.

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9 Responses to “Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy”

  1. Women's Fiction Writer Says:

    Thank you for the sane and smart post. I think it’s great that established, wealthy authors want their work stolen…they’re only building their brand, not trying make a living. If Coehlo was a debut author, like me, he’s want full-price for each book. He wouldn’t want 99 cents either. I know I don’t. Ego is part of the creation of all kinds of art, but this seems unreasonable to me.

    Amy Sue Nathan

  2. Eugene Says:

    As an aspiring writer (who is additionally unpublished, I might add, so I have no vested interests here), I try to be as objective as possible, but I am struggling to see how this 99-cent phenomenon is a positive development for the writer. Yes, times, formats, mediums and profit models change, but the idea of a “profit” remains the same. I have spent almost two years writing a novel that I am now trying to publish. That’s two years of work, work for which I’d like to get compensated – I am not looking for six- or seven-figure eye-popping numbers, but I’d certainly like to earn enough to sustain me as I embark on my second novel. The cultivation of the notion that books are worth less than a dollar tend to make even the more modest aspirations extremely difficult. As a writer, I certainly don’t want obscurity, but penury is hardly more appealing. Another commentator here had it right. If writers can’t make enough money from writing, they will devote less time to the craft (true writers, I think, won’t stop writing anyway), as they will have to do something else to make ends meet. I do not believe in the misguided dogma that writers need to starve and be kept lean to churn out quality work – what they really need is time and the ability to spend all of their efforts on their métier.

    In my conversations with some people who download books for free, I hear a common refrain to the effect that “you can’t buy all the books under the sun anyway.” I agree with that; the problem is that the “I can’t buy all the books out there” argument has in practice somehow evolved into “I am not buying any books.” When you have the luxury to get just about any book for free, why pay for it? The practice of freebies encourages sloth and breeds a sense of entitlement among the “consumers”. If you download a pirated book and then – if you like it – actually go to your nearest bookstore to pick up another title to reward the writer, okay – but how many people have the good conscience to do it? I also don’t understand the “there will always be people who wouldn’t mind paying for a book” argument expressed in some of the comments. If every reader embraces that view, nobody will pay for a book at all. Yes, there will be a conscientious minority that will want to support writers, but it will be a slim one; anybody who thinks otherwise has an overly Panglossian take on the human race.

    What’s worse, the free-for-all dissemination of information is deleterious to its quality. For those who refuse to see the correlation, I offer you the vivid example of the press. The pernicious effects of these giveaways are visible to all. There was a day when people paid for news by buying newspapers, and that was the day when you could see high-quality analysis and editorials. The advent of free digital news media forced media companies to lay off journalists, etc., with the attendant downgrades in news quality. For example, the excellent and venerable Financial Times offers only limited free content online; I believe it limits the reader to a maximum of eight free articles a month. The quality of the newspaper is exceptionally high; their FT Weekend is a delight unto itself. By way of comparison, the major newspapers in my city, which are now often given away for free on the streets as part of promotion efforts, have assumed a somewhat tabloid quality (the oxymoron is not lost on me). Want a good newspaper? Shell out about three bucks for a copy of the FT. Want a freebie? Pick up the Metro to devour during your train commute – lots of pictures, atrophied content – in other words, perfect for a mind that doesn’t like to be taxed too much. I fear, with some justification, I think, that literary fiction is heading in the same direction. Fine literature will be squeezed out of the market, with non-fiction and low-level commercial fiction dominating. Someone has mentioned above that Coelho “gets” the 21st century. What’s there to “get” about degradation?

    Some have expressed their glee at the imminent demise of the industry that’s “killing” the artists. Yes, literary agents and publishers make the industry less open. As a writer desperately trying to break into the industry, I know all about it. But I also know something else. We’ve had this “closed” industry for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and although they could present great barriers to beginning authors, the literary world also benefitted from filters and quality control. We’ve had some fine writing in this epoch of middle men “exploiting” artists. Paradoxically, the more open we get, the less quality of the grub that we are getting for our aesthetic diet.

    Much was said about stealing vs. sharing. It seems there are a few nuances lost on the commentators here. Folks, there is a big difference between BUYING a book and PASSING IT ON to your friends, and obtaining it illicitly for free. In the former, it really is sharing, because you’ve already paid for the book at the store (or online). However, when you “help” the book leave the store without a stopover at the cash register, you are, yes, stealing. Downloading stuff for free is no different, unless the author has authorized that – which, in this case, he (Coelho) appears to have done. Whether it is right or not is between him and the party that owns the license (i.e. the publisher or whoever). What he chooses to do with his literature is subject to his will and the legal agreements that he is bound by. This does not, however, extend to other writers, nor does it legitimize the nefarious practice of piracy.

    I do not intend to play Cassandra here, pointing to the falling sky and the end that is nigh. I think literary fiction will continue to exist, in one mutated form or another. In fact, there might very well be some kind of a renaissance, a swing back towards quality. But to see the roots of this renaissance in 99-cent promos on a piracy site challenges credulity. Seeing the trends and reading about such announcements, I can’t muster the inclination to get out my party horns and cheap sparkling wine to celebrate this innovative “brave new world” just yet.

  3. andyrossagency Says:

    Eugene, thank you so much for this very thoughtful comment. I can’t agree more and only wish I could have said it half so well. There is a lot of talk going around about how pirated books create sales. This is unproven, probably unprovable, but also irrelevant. The artist owns his product. It is up to him to decide whether and how much to charge for it. If he chooses for whatever reason to put a price on the product (excuse the expression), than anyone who finds a way to download it for free is simply stealing. And your point about the distinction between piracy and sharing books is very well taken. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Eugene Says:

    Hello Andy,

    Thank you for your reply. I’d wanted to post it on the other site, but was having some technical difficulties, so I decided to post it here on yours, as that is where I’d come across the whole thing.

    Kind regards,
    Eugene
    solitaire_litteraire@hotmail.com

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