Let’s call it what it is by Quentin Bates

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Googling yourself calls for a strong stomach and a deep breath before jumping into the search engine quagmire. Of course writers claim to ignore the reviews, the stinkers at any rate, but it wasn’t the (thankfully very few) crap reviews that made me want to punch the wall.

It’s all about us these days. First the music business was hit by piracy, then cinema, finally with the advent of ebooks, it’s writers and publishers. Piracy is everywhere and I was staggered at just how many download sites were offering free electronic copies of my latest book (Cold Comfort, in case you wanted to know…). In fact, these were on offer before the kindle version was even available, before I’d even seen my own book myself.

Several of these sites have comment boards, with positive comments about the book. I’m ‘another good norse writer for my norse noir’ according to ‘Certinty’. Yeah, but not so great that Certinty is prepared to stump up €5 for a legal copy.

It’s bloody infuriating to first see your book offered free for download at a torrent site, and then to see the comments by those who downloaded it saying what a great read it was. Better than them slagging it off, I suppose. But still not hard to keep the teeth ungritted in chagrin.

To begin with the music business was made to suffer by internet pirates, and it doesn’t seem that the books business has learned all that much from music’s tough time. It’s the way the world functions. Someone puts up a fence, and a horde of others won’t rest until they find a way around it.

So let’s take a look at this. It’s not piracy in all its colourful trappings. It’s not sticking it to the man. It’s not a blow for freedom and it’s not ‘sharing’. Let’s call it what it is; it’s thieving, as surely if the guy who described me as ‘another good norse writer’ had put his hand in my pocket and extracted a fiver from my wallet. Personally, I’d like to poke him in the eye, or maybe borrow his car for an afternoon. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind if were to pitch up at his house one day, drink all the beer in his fridge, belch and tell him what a great guy he is before strolling off down the street.

He wouldn’t walk into Waterstones, grab a copy off the shelf and walk out with it, so why the online version of the same thing? It’s because he can and it’s out of sight and out of mind. It’s practically human nature. Leave something lying around in full view and not firmly nailed down, and sooner or later someone will sneak off with it.

Earlier this year award-winning Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria announced that she would be retiring from writing and would be looking for a job after discovering that more illegal copies of her novel El Contenido del Silencio (the Contents of Silence) had been downloaded than it had sold legally. This is despite the book not even being available as an ebook, but distributed as a scanned pdf.

Spain is, apparently, right at the top of the chart for illegal downloads. China and Russia see a higher volume, but it seems that on a per capita basis, Spain is where the work of artists, musicians and writers is seen as something that should be free.

Bizarrely, Lucía Etxebarria was lambasted for her decision. If she were a shopkeeper who decided to pack up her business because shoplifters were eating up her profits, would those same people have told her to keep going because they like having her shop there but don’t actually want to buy anything? I think not. Most people would sympathize and agree with her.

What’s infuriating isn’t that Certinty has deprived me of a relatively small amount of cash, although lots of small amounts can add up to the difference between making a living and going broke, but the fact that he’s stolen from me, my agent, my publisher and a few other people along the way.

Writing for a living is a precarious business, especially for a brand-new writer who has a way to go yet to become properly established. If the book doesn’t sell well enough, possibly because stolen copies are doing the rounds, my excellent publisher is less likely to commission any more books. I’ll have to find another way of earning a living (not for the first time) and there’ll be no more from this ‘good norse writer’ – legal or otherwise.

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