The internet, piracy, and Amanda Palmer - Mari Biella

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.
A pirate, back in the days when pirates had such style.
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.

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?

All images c/o Wikimedia Commons


Lee said…
Most of you know my views:

1. I'm very tolerant of piracy.
2. Unless there's any way to earn a significant amount of money from writing fiction, why bother spending the time and energy necessary to do so? (In my case, it's a simple business computation: a one-page translation will net me more than at least a month's worth of writing fiction. And I also happen to prefer the freedom that 'free' ensures.)
3. Palmer is undoubtedly as much of an exception in her way as JK Rowling is in hers: on the whole, the ask-rather-than-demand model seems to work only in rare cases (Cory Doctorow?). The why of popular appeal is still not well understood -- and perhaps never will be. Are we dealing with black swans? A business model which relies on poorly understood processes, and perhaps flukes, is not particularly sound.
4. I doubt that there is a single way forward. And one unexpected technological development may change everything again.
Dennis Hamley said…
Mari, I'd be chuffed to bits if you turned up unannounced with your ukelele. On a related matter (to your blog, not your ukelele) I was very worried about the Green Party's proposal to limit copyright to 14 years. I heard Caroline Lucas explain yesterday that they meant 14 years after the author's death, not book publication. Slightly better, but even so, the Greens are the only blue sky (I think that's the current term) thinkers in politics today and it seems a portent. Today's blue skies are tomorrow's peasouper fogs. Legal piracy can come even earlier.
Lydia Bennet said…
hm great post Mari. It's already happening, with festivals adn events expecting even famous authors to perform gratis and even pay their own expenses, becoming the norm - only a couple of years ago I'd get 'arts council recommended minimum rates' or more - now they offer much more well known folks than me, a big fat nowt. I've read some famous musicians too, are getting almost nothing from downloads, even millions of downloads, and these are legal ones! also there's the democritisation of art - masses of folks are doing it, at one time some did and some consumed, now it's getting more like an even split, moving fast towards that anyway. We have to roll with the times, and perhaps the professional artist will become a rare thing. Palmer is too privileged to be a viable model for most of us - would we get the coverage, and enough to buy gregg's pasties, if we did the same? But her approach is refreshing. However there is a lot of the 'you're undercutting other artists' feeling about as well. We are in the middle of a major change here. Thanks for raising all this in such an interesting way.
Really interesting piece of analysis, Mari. I'm reasonably laid back about piracy in that I don't go looking for it and I don't think pirated copies represent lost sales - not right now, anyway. But then I keep my prices low. I won't pay over £5 for an eBook and I get very frustrated when a traditional publisher prices the next book in a series I'm hooked on at what seems to be an extortionate price - £8 or £9 in some cases. I won't buy it - and I won't pirate it either, but I can see how a great many people, unable to access what they want at a reasonable price (or, in some cases, at all!) would be tempted to pirate. One of my radio plays is available on a pirate channel and I've directed people to it because there's no other way they're going to be able to listen to it. I do think price as well as availability is the key to a lot of this. Our local community cafe would love to be able to play music, but the two licences needed are so expensive that they can't afford them - it's too big a chunk out of the takings of a not-for-profit business. So they don't play it at all. Nobody wins in this situation.
I also know from my son's experience that video game designers, even with thousands of legal downloads, can be paid very little. You have to achieve Angry Birds levels before it becomes cost effective - and yet it's an expensive and demanding business to be in. I don't know what the answer is.
Unknown said…
Ah, the Amanda Palmer enigma. I've been trying to puzzle out my own mixed reactions to her. I do agree that her approach won't work for everyone - she concedes as much herself. I also agree that her particular history and associates have helped make her visible in a world where no one (seemingly) is content to sit quietly. The idea of art as a gift, and something that people willing give support to the artist for, is ancient and I do believe that our modern commerce has strangled, if not severed, the link between the artist and her community. There are so many different angles from which to meditate upon the Amanda Palmer enigma. I alternate between inspiration and despair.

The only author I know who is closely following Amanda's example is Ksenia Anske. If you compare her Patreon campaign to Amanda's, though, I think you'll get a better picture of the level of response to an artist who does not have a cult following in multiple media formats. I love that Patreon exists, and I hope it does turn out to be a viable alternative to mainstream commerce. At the moment, though, it may not be the fully viable financial option for unknown artists as it is for Amanda Palmer.

Mari, you and your ukulele are welcome at my home, any time.

Bill Kirton said…
Much food for thought, Mari. And thanks for that link. I'd never heard her speak before and she's a powerful, charismatic performer, isn't she? My attitude to the pirates is close to that of the others. They're parasites but, in the end, if they think my book's worth the trouble, it's a (back-handed) compliment and, as Catherine says, they're not really lost sales. They might even generate some word of mouth. I'm an optimist. People will always need fiction and some (probably most) will want to pay for it.
And when you've finished serenading Dennis, pop up to Aberdeen.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I absolutely agree that the model espoused by Amanda Palmer would almost certainly be rather ineffective for most people. Yet there really is something refreshing and interesting about her approach to it all. I also agree, Lee, that an as-yet-unforeseen technological development could entirely change the landscape for all of us; indeed, I’d say that was not just possible, but probable.

And thank you, Dennis, Aniko and Bill – but if you had any idea what my musical skills are like, you’d probably have second thoughts! (And Aniko – you’ve aroused my curiosity about Ksenia Anske. I might have to do some research...)
Lee said…
Apologies, my second point about earning money from fiction was unclear: I meant, why bother trying to spend the time and energy on earning a mere pittance? There are more cost effective ways of supporting a writing habit.

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