Please Remember to Tip the Starving SF Writer

Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow turns the conventional wisdom that pirated SF novels are bad for the industry in his Locus Magazine column “Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet”.

He raises two major points: 1) that the economy, as it has in the past, is changing and that the publishing industry must adjust to those changes and 2) that giving books away for free can actually help sales.

Jumping industries, he points out that prior to radio, musicians made their money as performers. When radio came along, a different model — the musician as artist, rather than performer — became possible. But with the internet, and rapidly pirated music, yesterday has come again: the music may be free, but musicians can still make a sizeable buck on live performances. That’s not so great for the introverts who get terrified of going on stage (we’re looking at you Axl Rose) but it has possibilities.

He then looks returns to science fiction, and points to writers such as himself who’ve released books for free (including Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town as an RSS feed, only to see those online books drive sales of his print books. We see the same with other authors, such as John Scalzi, who leveraged one of his free books into a publishing deal, and who’s blog helped drive sales of his first novel, Old Man’s War.

The Genre That Pays You Back

So the new economy can work, but yet, something was missing from this rosy look at the consequences of the Pirate Economy: a discussion of what the fans owe to the creators, be they science fiction writers or jazz musicians.

When it comes to free content on the Web, be it pirated or offered up willingly by creators, I think there are two kinds of consumers: those who read/listen/watch because they’re sampling, and have every intent of following up with a purchase (assuming they like what they’ve just absorbed) and those who download everything they can with no intention of ever giving back — through effort or dollars — to those who did the creating. These later are piratical black holes, constantly consuming, never producing.

For the creators to succeed in the coming age, the percentage of consumers vs. devourers must be strongly skewed toward the consumers — and as fans and as creators, we need to remind people that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Far too many people view pirated content as “free”, and rationalize it away through a variety of self-delusional techniques — maybe they’re “putting it to the man”, and scorching Hollywood’s bottom line by not paying. Maybe they’re not really pirating, because the original file is still there, and they’ve just made a copy. Maybe the creator isn’t really losing anything, because they would never have bought the crap they downloaded in the first place.


There are merits to some of these arguments, with the “it’s just a copy” one being the strongest because of its roots in fair use. Yet at some point, TANSTAAFL comes into play. Call me a capitalist pig but at some point I like to get paid.

Writing the great American novel is undoubtedly a rewarding artistic experience, but if everyone copies that novel, and never sends a solitary dime back to the author, how is her or she supposed to keep writing, even as a sideline (as a I realize that for most writers, publishing amounts to a glorified hobby). It’s out duty, as fans, and as creators, to make sure that we reward those we admire for their good work by actually buying the book, picking up the CD, or purchasing a ticket.

And I think that Doctorow does imply this, as he points to his own book sales and those of other authors. But it think it occasionally needs to be stated explicitly: if you like an author, buy his stuff. It completes the circle. It buys the lunch. And it lets creators actually go on creating.

So go ahead, download that book, and listen to that song, but please do remember to tip the starving SF writer on your way out.