The Bandits of Broadband
by Javier Marias, August 14, 2014
Each Kindle or electronic e-book owner in France buys an average of 4.6 books a year. In Italy, a country with a reputation of not being very honest, 4.4 is the average number for the legal acquisition of books per user. In Spain, the percentage is 0.6. Each individual with one of these reading devices pays for about half a book in twelve months. Does this mean that the Spanish people who have bought an e-book (or whatever they wind up being called) keep it as a decoration in their houses and do not employ it to read books? Absolutely not: it means that almost everything they read on it is pirated, stolen with total impunity and with the vindictive consent of our government.
The toy arrived here and became truly popular around Christmas of 2011. The result has been a brutal decline in the sale of paper books. I have a report that compares the sales of the most recent books and the penultimate books of writers of best sellers like Dan Brown, Ken Follett, Paulo Coelho, as well as several Spanish authors whose names I will omit so as not to give them bad publicity. Their most recent books have sold 52%, 62%, even 70% fewer copies than their anterior books. To be sure, no two books are alike, even if the author is the same: some books will be better received than others; the public gets tired easily (“I’ve already read two of these; a third would be tiring”); popularity is ephemeral. And of course there’s the crisis, but this had been around years before Christmas of 2011. Ultimately, editors, agents, book store owners — independent or from large chains, including some authors, all assure me that the savage fall in sales is due more to piracy than to the economic situation that the government makes worse for us daily.
I apologize for using myself as an example and for being didactic, although in Spain the later is always a good idea. Within a few months I expect to finish a new novel that will wind up, I calculate, with about 500 pages. I will have devoted more than two years of my life to this project, with twenty months of very intense work (in the beginning there’s a lot of trial and error). What I will earn will depend on its sales exclusively. If its price is twenty euros, I wind up with two euros for each volume sold. That’s for paper books. E-books will cost eight euros and later I’ll see about 0.80 euros for each copy bought legally. So, if 10,000 paper copies are sold, my work of two long years will bring me about 20,000 euros. If 100,000 paper copies are sold, multiply by ten. Everything depends on the interest of the readers; nobody gives us anything for free: if the readers decide not to show up, we don’t get paid. Every individual who decides to pirate that future novel of mine is robbing me or depriving me of the right to earn between 0.80 and 2 euros, according to the format. If 5,000 people decide to do this, they’ve deprived me of between 4,000 and 8,000 euros. And they’ve cheated the publishers and bookstore owners too.
Imagine yourselves, however you earn a living, having this much money taken out of your salaries or earnings simply because those who benefit from your work are able to do so without any consequences. They can enjoy the fruit of your labor for free. Well, not entirely; they have to pay a tidy sum to the telephone companies that provide access to the broad band that allow them to download what you produce.
The writer in Spain cannot do business with this arrangement; he gets nothing out of it (remember: 0.6 books for each electronic device). But the telephone companies are doing very well and make a lot of money tacitly selling permission to enjoy the product of someone else’s work. What they don’t tell the user, but what they insinuate is: “If you buy an electronic reader and acquire broad band service, you will be able to read whatever you want for free. You will not pay the author or the publisher, nor will we. You will pay us for the mechanism that will allow you to steal without even worrying about it. To hell with the author, the publisher, and the bookseller.”
I don’t know to what extent people are aware that what’s going on, with the secret connivance of the phone companies. These companies are the ones cashing in on my two long years in front of a word processor (the talent involved is another matter and I’m not going to presume to possess it, but it merits consideration in those instances where it is clearly present). Every book has its own destiny as I mentioned. However, if when the novel I’ve almost finished is published (no earlier than September, if I approve), its sales compared to those of my previous book decline by around 70%, I’ll have to ask myself whether it's worth the effort to continue knowing that my possible earnings will be declining drastically. Imagine a teacher who is not paid for all his hours in the classroom; a banker who must offer some of his services for free; an employee who is only paid for five of the eight hours he works daily; a shoemaker who is obliged to give away a percent of the footwear he produces; a minister who is not compensated for his knowledge and his services. And so on with any profession.
I repeat: I am only paid if the readers want to read what I write. If they want to read my work, but don’t pay for it, what kind of fool would I be if I continue bound to my chair burning up my limited brainpower to fill, line by line, 500 pages that are supposedly interesting, provocative, or pleasurable. People should not hurt those they respect. There are enough other people to do that.
(Translated by Louis Bedrock.)