Digital Publishing

The Internet, Piracy, and Amanda Palmer

That the internet has had a profound effect on our world is so obvious that it barely needs stating. In terms of its ability to create long-term social change it’s on a par with the printing press, or indeed just about any major technological and scientific development you care to mention. But what effect will all of this have on the arts, and on literature specifically?

The internet has, possibly, changed the old buyer-seller dynamic forever, though the impact on certain industries has been greater than on others. Those selling straightforwardly physical objects, such as socks or furniture, have perhaps been less affected (such, at least, is my guess). Others, such as the music or film industries, have been deeply (some would say mortally) wounded by these developments. Piracy and file-sharing are rampant, with many consumers reluctant to pay for an album or film that they can get for free.

Pirates, back in the days when pirates had such style. Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons
Pirates, back in the days when pirates had such style. Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons

And, where the film and music industries now tread, there too the publishing industry may soon follow. As books have increasingly moved off paper and onto e-readers, so piracy has flourished. There are probably enough pirated eBooks on the internet to keep the most avid reader going for years. How does this, and will this, affect writers? Are we slowly moving into an era in which writers had better write for love, because money will not be forthcoming? (All of this feeds into some more general, if rather fanciful, speculation: what if the buyer-seller model imploded altogether? What would happen to art? Would it wither and die, or become ever more vigorous and interesting? But I digress…)

As regards pirated books specifically, I’m largely in agreement with Joe Konrath that piracy is only a major concern if we let it be. To my mind, there are basically two types of reader: one is willing to pay a fair price for a book, and the other isn’t. The first type will; the second type wouldn’t in any case, so little has been lost. That, at least, is how I see the situation at the moment. But as technology enables information and content to be shared ever more quickly and efficiently, and as piracy becomes ever more acceptable, might there come a day when paying an artist for his or her art seems as quaint and outmoded as the patronage system of old?

I recently came across this talk by musician Amanda Palmer, in which she turns the whole question of piracy on its head. It’s worth viewing, if you can spare the time. (The only really awkward moment comes when Palmer mentions that she set her crowd funding target at $100,000 and ended up with over $1 million, at which point the entire audience bursts into spontaneous applause. It’s as if, in their minds, everything she’s been saying up to that point has merely been a prelude to the announcement of this figure. Filthy lucre indeed!)

Palmer is interesting because, in a music industry that is reeling from the knock-on effects of the internet, she actually encourages people to share her music freely. She doesn’t demand money for her music, which is in line with the more traditional model; she asks for it. A few examples: she makes her album available to download on a “pay what you want” basis (“if you’re broke – take it,” she writes, winningly), and openly encourages people to share and copy it. She cuts costs during her tours by sleeping on people’s couches. People turning up at her live gigs are encouraged to donate money, but only if they want to – a little like a church collection, though I’m not sure whether Palmer would welcome the comparison. Her past job as a street artist may perhaps have had a hand in her outlook: everyone walking down a given street can stop to gawp at a living statue, or listen to the same group of buskers. It’s up to them to decide whether they’re sufficiently impressed to dig into their pockets and throw some money into the upturned hat.

Image credit: Raul654 | Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, Palmer is not to everyone’s taste, and has attracted adoration and opprobrium in roughly equal measure. Her fundraising practices wouldn’t work for everyone (in fact, they’d probably only work for a small minority of people), because she’s an unashamed extrovert. She’s not afraid to turn up at a complete stranger’s house and give a little impromptu concert. (The thought of me turning up on your doorstep strumming a ukulele is bearable only because you can be sure that it will never, ever happen.) She had a traditional record deal before she went her own way, which probably helped to win her the support she now enjoys. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, which probably doesn’t do any harm.

Still, Palmer offers an interesting example in these times, when many of the long-term repercussions of the internet are just beginning to make themselves felt. A traditional rock star – sweeping around behind the darkened windows of a limo, avoiding the very people who made her famous – Palmer is not. She encourages direct contact with fans, in large part through the social media that has been such a game-changer for all of us.

And all of this can, of course, be viewed in the context of publishing. Piracy isn’t going away; as technology develops, it will only become bigger and better. The moment a book is available in a digital format, and distributed as such, it’s easily pirated. Does Palmer, with her “ask rather than demand” philosophy, offer a way forward? Or will the traditional buying and selling channels always find a way to keep the upper hand?

This post is reblogged from Authors Electric.

9 thoughts on “The Internet, Piracy, and Amanda Palmer

  1. A fascinating and insightful post, Mari. You’ve put into a coherent form vague thoughts that have been wandering about in my head. Now, interestingly, Kobo will let people have a book available for free indefinitely; not so amazon, I believe; a potential clash between amazon’s ethos and this new one there.
    Lol about you turning up on doorsteps playing a ukelele- I don’t know how to play one, sadly, but it does occur to me that as my singing voice is so bad, people might pay me to go away if I made the rounds singing ‘Ombra mai fu’ .

    1. Thanks, Lucinda! ‘Vague thoughts’ about this have been swirling around in my mind for a while, too. Obviously nobody knows exactly what the ultimate effects of the internet will be – it’s way too early to say – but I think this or a similar scenario is probably at least as likely as any other. I didn’t know that Kobo were doing this – is it some kind of lending library, similar to the Amazon one?

      Believe me, you wouldn’t be laughing if I actually did turn up playing a ukulele! My musical skills are pretty much nonexistent. Perhaps we could set up our own mafia-style extortion racket, tormenting people with our tuneless caterwauling until they pay up out of sheer desperation… 🙂

  2. I had seen this video before and was very intrigued by the concept. I had not realized, at the time, that Palmer was married Gaiman. As crass and insensitive as it sounds, I think it become much easier to adopt the attitude she has when the level of pressure involved to “make ends meet” may not be as critical.

    With that being said, I think that at the core of every creative being (artist, author, musician, etc), there is an irrepressible urge to create as a means of self-expression. Those that are doing it for wealth and fame will be exposed in due time. So, in my heart of hearts, I think that perhaps the quantity of art may potentially diminish over time due to piracy, but never the quality – or at least, I really hope so.

    Thanks, Mari, for bringing such a thought-provoking discussion and topic to light – well done 🙂

    1. Thank you, Dave – and thanks for commenting. I agree with you that creative people will probably create whether or not there’s much chance of financial reward. This is perhaps why I can see a positive side to piracy, though I’m aware that many people would disagree with me on that point…

      Thanks for the compliment. I’m always glad when I find something interesting and/or inspirational (like Palmer’s speech) to talk about here – writing posts like this is never a chore!

  3. Interesting, as always, Mari. It was Radiohead with ‘In Rainbows’ who kicked off the whole ‘pay what you want’ idea, nearly eight years ago, and a fine album it is too. The end of the paying model is perhaps the least of this writer’s worries – it’d be nice if people were interested enough in my writing that they wanted to steal it!

  4. I responded to this over at Author’s Electric, but since this is a wide-ranging and multifaceted topic, I’ll comment here, too.

    I think piracy is a symptom of how disconnected artists are from the community that seeks their works. It doesn’t feel “bad” to steal from a faceless entity in the same way it would feel morally repugnant to walk up and wrest something from a living, breathing person. What Amanda has done is invite would-be pirates into a relationship with her. She allows them to experience her art without insisting that it be repaid – which is the definition of a true gift. Artists produce gifts, and when the art is given as such, people respond with the natural tendency to return the gift, albeit in a transformed mode (money for art).

    As far as my experience can be trusted, it does seem take some sort of dark magic to reach even the people who would be pirates. Several factors play in Amanda’s favor that probably can’t work for all of us, and she’s a natural at engaging with people at a pace that would exhaust me. I can only hope that quieter voices will find a way to their communities, too.


    1. Amen to that, Aniko! I truly hope for the same, as (in my experience) very often it is the quieter voices that have the most interesting things to say. I suppose that the internet gives me hope that this will happen. Here I am, in Northern Italy, chatting to you, in Texas; we can both make our writing public in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

      I like your idea that art is a gift, and agree with it. What I find inspiring about Palmer is that, in a world that seems greedy for money, and often at the expense of artistic striving and excellence, she seems to instinctively recognise this. That, at least, is my impression!

      1. The quieter voices seem to speak from a place closer to the oracular, There is less “ME” in the way, and the stories they tell are more concerned with the message, not the messenger. We are fortunate to have the internet, and to have the chance to find those voices that before would have been segregated from us by geography or just sheer luck of who got picked up for traditional publication.

        It is an entire conversation unto itself, the idea of how many “artists” seem to be willing to trade artistic integrity for a quick buck. The worst thing is that they seem to have commercial success! Does the world really love mediocre stories?

        Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Mari!

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