June 12, 2013

Why ebook piracy sucks

I have a Kindle, but I’ve never felt the need to engage in ebook piracy. I’m not a big reader, I’ll get through one book a month if I’m lucky (and they’re short) and given the average price of a Kindle book is £4-£5, I can spare that monthly stipend for literature.

But since I (sort of) work in publishing, I have a look around from time to time to see what’s going on, and man, does ebook piracy suck. But maybe not for the reason you think.

Let me explain something: services like Steam (for PC games) and iTunes (for music) got where they are today by making one important realisation: the main driver for piracy is that the pirates offered a better product than the official sources. One could get a PC game without leaving the house, not have to faff around with registering for some DRM account system and not need the disc in the drive. One could get music without going to the shops, or having to risk buying online and being locked into a single device, or getting songs in a format that wouldn’t be around in five years.

Steam and iTunes said “fine, we’ll let you do (nearly) all of that”, plus we’re guaranteed virus free, a quicker download than you get on a Bittorrent, and no feelings of guilt”. See, that’s a sales pitch. See the first thing they had to do was be sure they were offering a product at least as good as what the pirates were offering. Because if they didn’t do that, they had no chance.

Here’s the thing: e-book piracy is already not offering as good a service as the legitimate publishers do, but the sucky thing is: you might not realise.

Last night I nosed around a bunch of pirated versions of ebooks I’d bought recently, or owned paperbacks of: some Star Trek novels and some Iain Banks stuff. Some of them were great: they’d clearly taken the files from Amazon or wherever, stripped the DRM and uploaded them again.

Some of them made me throw up in my mouth. Full disclosure: I used to work as editor, so I’m trained to spot this stuff. But this is stuff that will affect your enjoyment of a book, it’s just you won’t even know it.

Here’s the two most common problems I found with the pirated copies:

1) Lack of italics. Yes, no italicisation (and no bold) in the entire book. Not a big deal is it? Italics barely get used do they? Go to your bookshelf, pick up a fiction book, and flick through it and look for italics. Go on. I’ll wait…. There’s loads aren’t there?

Thing is, authors use italics for a lot of things. Not just emphasis like I did there. They use it to, for example, distinguish a character’s internal monologue from speech. To delineate terms in other languages (which in fantasy/sci-fi, may well be made up languages). For the names of ships or brands or other proper nouns. Here’s a thing: in Star Trek novels, when the characters are communicating via communicator (the away team is talking to the ship, for example) italics are used to represent speech over the comms. That’s the Pocket Books house style, and it’s so heavily ingrained and used so consistently in the novels, that after setting it up early on, authors just use it as short hand to avoid the whole “he said / she said” thing.

The net result of that is Star Trek novels without italics in are nigh-on unreadable the minute someone taps a comm badge, as you’ve no clue which dialogue belongs to which side of the conversation.

Of course, the issue here is that I’m telling you this. Had you never seen a legitimate copy of the book, you might think the writer was just a bit crap. Or that the author was trying and failing to do some weird stream of consciousness thing by not separating the character’s thoughts and speech. You’d be confused, but you wouldn’t even realise it was because some idiot pirate stripped the italics out of the file.

Oh and Discworld novels where Death doesn’t talk in bold.

2) No paragraph spacing, no paragraph indents. I’ve seen both of these as individual problems, and also together where they become a complete nightmare. In books, spacing matters. Each novel may do it differently, but early on you quickly learn exactly what spacing means. You don’t realise it, but in the early chapters the author teaches you almost a ‘grammar’ of spacing for that book, and then later uses that. For example, most commonly, books will indent every paragraph, but only space on a scene change. They’ll also indent speech as new paragraphs so you can quickly follow the back and forth between a bunch of characters. Some books will also use double spacing to represent a change in point-of-view character (or they’ll use a horizontal rule or other symbol, also often stripped out).

If you don’t do this stuff, things start to go wrong. No paragraph indentation means knowing when a new paragraph is starting is often difficult, which gives that whole ‘wall of text’ effect that just makes things hard to read. It also makes speech a complete pain to follow.

No spacing means scene changes can just come out of nowhere and confuse the hell out of you. The worst example I found was one where every paragraph had a line space after it (no indentation) except for when there was a scene change, where the paragraph was just run-on directly without so much as a carriage return! The complete opposite of what your brain has been trained to expect. I read a few pages and it was a complete headfuck. If you’re an author and really want to mess with your reader, try doing that.

And then there were the versions that lacked both spacing and indents, and so seemed to eschew the whole concept of paragraphs entirely.

There were other issues: typos, lack of proper chapter marks, all that stuff. But those two big ones make such a huge difference to your reading experience, and they’re things you might not even notice if you don’t know they’re meant to be there. You’ll think the author is just being weird, or worse incompetent.

Now, there’s a reason this happens, and the legitimate publishing industry itself is partly to blame. When ebooks first became a thing, lots of books were not available legitimately, so a bunch of enthusiastic people went out and scanned them and OCR’d them, and some of those were done quite badly. Then after that, plenty of publishers realised they should get their back catalogue out in an electronic format, so paid people to scan and OCR them. And some of those were done pretty badly too, and certainly weren’t proof read.

Things are better now. Not perfect, a book likely still won’t get another proof done at the electronic stage so the occasional spacing issue or typo can turn up, but nothing so egregious as the examples above. The companies that do conversions have gotten better, and the big publishers can now handle it in house. Many are returning to the back catalogue and fixing those errors (and Amazon will notify you if a book you bought has been updated) and this is where the pirates will let you down. They won’t go back, get the new version, and upload a fixed pirate copy. As far as they are concerned, if a pirate ebook exists, it doesn’t need doing again. They’d rather pirate something new or something very old that doesn’t exist in any format. And they can do what they want, but some of their existing stuff is nigh-on unreadable.

As an experiment, I tried to track down the collected works of my favourite author, the now depressingly late Iain (M) Banks. Of 27 fiction books (Raw Spirit isn’t available electronically anywhere, as far as I could tell), 6 of them did not have an accurate pirate version (I was comparing to paperback copies, and legit electronic versions from Amazon). To obtain the other 21, I had to download three separate “complete works” files, each of which had good copies of some books and awful ones of others, and piece a collection together. Even then there wasn’t a single version of Complicity with italics intact. All the Amazon versions are wonderfully formatted and well worth picking up by the way. Especially Complicity for £3.79 if you’ve not read Banks before.

But that’s an author who, while not at a Brown/Rowling level of mass market fame, is one you’d always find near the front of displays in Waterstones, a critical darling. Yet if you sample his work illegally, there’s a one in five chance you’ll get something that’ll put you off him for life.

In a way it’s nice that there’s a good incentive out there for people to actually pay for the work. It’s great that the publishers are beating the pirates in terms of the service they offer to customers. What worries me is that people don’t know this even happens. After all, if you get a ‘bad’ copy of a movie, it’s generally obvious: you can see the cinema audiences’ heads, or it has un-removable Chinese subtitles. If the pirated version just had the actors missing their cues on occasion and few scenes the wrong way around, you wouldn’t know, you’d just think it was bad.

This is what is happening now in literature. So if you must pirate, at least use Amazon’s handy ‘look inside’ feature to compare the legit version to whatever you downloaded, and make sure it at least looks right first. If it doesn’t then for god’s sake just buy thing instead of ruining it for yourself.

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