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The Pleasure of Piracy

In a Granta article from 2009, Peruvian author Daniel Alarcón discussed the rampant state of book piracy in Peru. If you think the present day electronic copying of ebooks is a problem, this is nothing to the large scale copying of physical books in Peru: a new book by bestselling author Paul Coelho was widely available on street corners before it was even in the shops.

Alarcón, a newly published author at the time, lamented the loss of royalties when he found his book had been pirated. But at the same time he acknowledged that piracy was also a badge of honour – an author whose new book was not pirated had somehow failed.

It made me think how I would feel if my (as yet unpublished) books were pirated. And I concluded: I would be delighted. I’d be happy that someone had taken notice, that they’d felt the book was worth pirating. I don’t want to be a full-time writer, to need to make a living from writing – I’m happy trying to find a balance between working for money and the writing work that I do for myself for pleasure (which is pretty much the theme of The Tyranny of Careers in a nutshell.)

Of course in order for a book to be pirated, it must be published in the first place. It is the publisher that has lost the most – it is their decision that your book is worth publishing that encourages the piracy. Philip Pullman recently complained about the loss of earnings for full-time writers, and the unfairness of some readers taking for free what others have to pay for.

These are valid complaints. But even so I want to take Alarcón’s ambiguous view of the Peruvian book pirates as a guide for good writing. I do not want to view any kind of creative work in the same way as work to earn money. As I wrote in a previous post, I think a healthy society is one where art/creative work is a part-time activity undertaken by as many people as possible. I don’t want to write with the expectation of money – if it became a grind I would give it up. If I am never able to earn money to live on from writing perhaps I will only produce a book only once every five years say, rather than every year. This is fine. An every-five-years book will hopefully be more considered and therefore better than an every-year book. It is not like there is a shortage of books in the world to read.

In fact I would go further: if I am not happy for any work I produce to be pirated, if I am not happy to do the work but make no money from it, then it is not work worth doing.

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