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Friday, May 21, 2010

The new technology giveth and the new technology taketh away...

Today, we're really going to look at the part of the publishing industry that's reminiscent of sausage-making.  How does one go about making money from intellectual property?

This is on my mind today, because I learned this morning that someone has uploaded one of my stories and one of my books to a site called  Which is an interesting name, since I understand the site is pulling in $65,000 a day in subscriptions (a rumor I cannot substantiate), but no one is sharing any of that with me.

I was not surprised to see the story Mouse House there.  I recently published it as an ebook.  I believe I included that mysterious DRM copy-protection technology in the upload, but I could have made an error.  Or some enterprising criminal has found a way to hack it.  Or some enterprising criminal in a country where labor is cheap has employed people to take screenshots of each individual page.

I am surprised to see Floodgates offered for free to people who have bought a subscription to this den of iniquity.  It's my latest book.  It's not even out in paperback.  I do not believe that electronic copies are flying around the internet from any source I know about.  Judging from the published profiles of the people who "shared" my work, these are not enthusiastic kids anxious to share a book they loved while remaining totally ignorant of copyright law.  My guess is that someone in the aforementioned cheap labor countries is standing over a scanner, stealing books page-by-page.

For those of you hoping for a publishing career, or for those of you who are just curious, know that when you write anything, even a term paper, the copyright is yours as soon as the words leave your brain.  (I'm not a lawyer, so I'm paraphrasing and interpreting.  Don't make business decisions based on the opinions of any amateur, including me, please.)  With the exception of situations like work-for-hire, a publishing house does not buy your copyright.  It buys specific rights to use your work.  For example, my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has the right to print my books in English and distribute them in the US, the UK, Canada, and the Philippines.  I have also granted them permission to publish them as ebooks and audiobooks and large-print editions, which they have done and I love them for it. 

Like any other business contract, there are responsibilities on both sides, and one of their responsibilities is to keep track of how many they sell and then pay me an agreed-upon percentage of the cover price.  The more books they sell, the higher my percentage becomes.  Yay!  There are also provisions in the contract that specify how the relationship can be severed, after which I'm free to sell those rights elsewhere...because they belong to me.

Prior to the invention of the Internet and scanners and even photocopiers, it was harder for people like me to participate actively in the marketing of their work.  But it also would have been much more difficult to infringe on their rights.  (Which is not to say that it didn't happen regularly, I'm sure.)

I am certain that people who pay for a membership in feel like they're paying for the books they're reading.  I'm sure they're unaware that their money is going to people who did nothing but build a website that makes it easy to steal from people who are already are not making much profit from their intellectual property. 

Most people think that piles of money magically appear in your bank account when you sell your book, but no.  I had several surreal encounters with a nurse at my doctor's office who kept demanding that I bring in a book so they could all read it.  I'm too nice to say, "Even I have to pay for my books.  I can't afford to give them away.  And I don't notice any free medical services being offered," so I just kept demurring until she quit.  The truth is that it is very, very hard to get people to pay for intellectual property, and they tend to pay slowly.  There can be a delay of a year between the time a happy reader buys my book and the time that a small fraction of that money gets to me.  It is not okay for someone to decide that they're going to give it away online without paying me for the privilege.

I've sent emails to the people who uploaded my work, requesting that they take it down.  And I've filed complaints with the website.  I received a form letter from them asking me to provide information that I'd already provided and which smelled something like a stonewall.  In my second email, I mentioned that I was prepared to hire a lawyer.  We'll see what happens.

It's like making sausage.  Sometimes you really don't want to know the details of how the publishing business works...

Frustratedly yours,
Mary Anna


  1. Mary Anna,
    So sorry to read this. This electronic thing is so difficult because all countries don't have the same copyright laws. Throw in the factor that crooks don't care and you have this mess.
    Bootlegging at its finest.
    Please keep us posted.
    Thanks for sharing. I know you must be angry.
    Giggles and Guns

  2. Well, Maribeth, at the moment, it looks like they've actually only posted the cover of FLOODGATES and a review that can be read for free on the web in many locations. You can click through to Amazon and order the book, and they'll get a cut. This is actually an improper use of the *reviewer's* work to promote mine, I'd say. It's not clear to me what the situation with "Mouse House" is. Rather than join the site so that I can download whatever it is they're offering, I've alerted my publisher, who is pursuing this vigorously because I am not the only Poisoned Pen Press author who has been affected. At the moment, the situation doesn't look as serious as I'd feared, but it's sobering to think of what could happen to people who make their living from intellectual property in a world where people increasingly expect content for free. We'll see where all this goes.