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A dirty little secret: books are free (and so should be readers and writers)
Giulio Prisco   May 4, 2014  

I don’t know anyone who still buys music discs. The age of music downloads started about 15 years ago (remember Napster?), but today it’s much easier: if I want to hear a song, I just find it on Youtube. Film: if a film hasn’t been totally ignored, chances are that it can be found on the torrent sites. And now books: today’s dirty little secret is that most books are free to download.

It seems strange that books, usually considered low-tech, became routinely downloadable only after music and film, but there is a simple reason: paper cannot be downloaded (yet) and ebooks need a reading device at least as good as paper. So even though ebooks exist since the 80s, the age of ebooks started only in 2007 with the Kindle, the first successful ebook reader and a real game changer.

If a book is popular, or if even just one reader finds it good enough to spend some time to make it available online, you will be able to find and download it in open standard EPUBformat (.epub extension), or Kindle-compatible MOBI format (.mobi extension). Sometimes, especially for technical or “serious” non-fiction books, you can find only a PDF copy, but PDFs are perfectly readable on iPads, iPads mini and most tablets. Not yet on Kindle-like devices, but there are good conversion tools such as the free and open source Calibre.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) locks don’t seem to be a significant obstacle. New books are often available as perfect DRM-free copies of commercial ebook editions, often unlocked with free DRM-cracking tools. Of course publishers try to make their DRM locks smarter and more solid, but hackers are smarter than 9-to-5 workers, and it just takes some googling to find new DRM-cracking tools and updates. Old books (think of vintage science fiction novels written decades ago) are patiently OCRed by fans and converted to electronic formats. This may introduce copy errors, but usually the result is perfectly readable. Often hacked downloadable copies are the only option to read old books out of print, for which the hackers and uploaders must be thanked.

I will not share detailed information and directions, but chances are that, if you really want to read a book, you can find a downloadable copy online.

This worries me. Yes, this worries me because I could live without music, and perhaps even without film, but not without books, and I know perfectly well that I depend on those who write the books that I read. If they stop writing, I won’t have anything to read.

Writing a book takes time, Time, TIME, effort, and energy. Some authors can write good books without leaving the day job, especially at the beginning of their career when they are young and strong, but professional quality writing is really a full-time activity. If a writer has to choose between writing and putting food on the table for the family, of course they will stop writing and choose the family. So I am afraid that not paying for books will make good books very scarce, and we readers will lose.

So what can be done?

One simple thing that we can do, is to pay for books;-) I am a big fan of Smashwords, the online distributor of indie ebooks. A book that I bought recently on Smashwords is very good (see my review here), and costs 0.99 US$, much less than a cup of coffee. Another reason why I buy books at Smashwords is that they sell DRM-free books.

I just hate DRM because I think technology should make things more usable, not less, and what happens with DRMed ebooks is that they become useless when you cannot read them on your favorite device. For example, my old Kindle, bought second-hand in the U.S., has no WiFi and only works with U.S. wireless networks, so I cannot directly download ebooks.

I don’t buy often from mainstream publishers via Amazon because: 1) I prefer ebooks to paper books, 2) I don’t buy DRMed ebooks, and 3) mainstream publishers are often too expensive – I remember my disappointment when I found out that the Kindle edition of a book that I wanted to read was actually MORE expensive than the paper edition – and very little goes to the writer.

But I always buy from Smashwords and other sellers of reasonably priced, DRM-free ebooks. So my advice to writers is, give preference to publishers of cheap, DRM-free ebooks.  Smashwords is a self-service WYWIWYP (What You Write Is What You Publish) publisher, but there are small publishers that offer editing and promotion services as well, for reasonable fees.

Rudy Rucker, one of my favorite science fiction writers (see my review of his last novel The Big Aha), gives an example of how publishing should be re-engineered:

2) The full text is available online (see also Notes for The Big Aha, a writing journal as entertaining as the novel);
3) It is published and sold, without DRM, by Rudy’s own publisher Transreal Books;
4) Instead of going to a traditional publisher for a cash advance, Rudy funded the writing phase via Kickstarter (I am sorry that I missed it, I would have loved to contribute).

Of course, any DRM-free book will be given to friends and spread on the torrent networks immediately. Smashwords books include a notice: “If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author,” but how many readers do that?

Someday writing may be considered as a public utility, and writers compensated with public money, perhaps proportionally to how many copies of their works have been downloaded.

But there is a better solution:

Let’s just give a basic income (aka BIG) to everyone, no questions asked, no paperwork, no conditions, no bureaucracy, no bullshit. Let’s give everyone the means to have a modest but decent life. A basic income would not be a “disincentive to work,” but an incentive to do important work, like art and creative writing, and to try to make the world a better place.

This is, of course, not the only problem that BIG would solve. It is evident that automation can only further reduce the need for traditional “jobs,” and an age of massive unemployment is coming fast. When I watch politicians on TV (not that I waste too much time paying attention to them), I find their calls for “jobs” surreal. The truth is, less and less people will be “employed” in the traditional sense, and BIG seems the only viable and sustainable solution.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.


I would certainly spend more time writing if I didn’t have to work to keep a roof over my head, or if writing KEPT a roof over my head.

But considering that I still write for free most of the time, I’d certainly have to say it’s not the money that keeps me writing. After all, my EPIC work is my 400,000+ fanfic, which is certainly never going to make a penny.

Still, if I ever get around to editing my “collected works” I’ll have to give Smashwords a look.

“Let’s just give a basic income (aka BIG) to everyone, no questions asked, no paperwork, no conditions, no bureaucracy, no bullshit. Let’s give everyone the means to have a modest but decent life. A basic income would not be a “disincentive to work,” but an incentive to do important work, like art and creative writing, and to try to make the world a better place.”

Hear! Hear!

This would also give the majority “time” to read, listen, see, contemplate and share works of Art, (as valuable and worthy an occupation for Human minds as Scientific endeavour).

I was concerned you were going to suggest total piracy for literature, thankfully not, as writers hard works need to be rewarded in some “fashion” and I strongly feel for authors “ripped off” by piracy, more so than movies and film. I guess because movies and music production is customarily not a singular effort and many hands are involved, especially Corps - and we don’t mind being insensitive to Profiteering by these so much?

I avoid DRM downloads also, yet did buy two books not easily available, one newly translated version of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” not available in print, and David Brin’s “Existence” which I could not find in UK bookstores, although I did eventually find a copy in “Forbidden Planet” and then glad I did download it as it is the size of a small house brick in paper! It is more handy and easy to carry about on my phone, (twas cheaper also - and saves the planet resources? etc etc)

Trouble is with Google books, two careless clicks and they are deleted/erased completely “forcing” additional purchase to get them back, (nearly did it! stress factor 10 when you’re half way into a book). And of course, these books even after purchase are still not ours, but on semi-permanent loan from the corporate library of T’internet.

BTW How is Bruce Willis getting along with his pursuit of property rights for downloaded media, does anyone know?

As a music fan I still prefer a hard CD and real Hi-Fidelity as compared with inferior and outmoded quality of mp3, (now 25 years old?), and other compressed music file formats. Although finally, there is now an alternative - Neil Young’s PONO Player is super Hi-Fidelity and will hopefully be incentive for multiple hardware manufacturers to adopt in future.

It’s interesting the trade off we Humans accept often disguised as portability and ease of utility, yet also leading to degradation of quality. Sometimes the best of ideas are marginalized and dismissed never to be seen again, together with some excellent engineering/hardware. I hear Sony have now marginalized further towards mobile devices, now ditching production of PCs, TVs as well as Hi-Fi - shameful if they disappear, a lot of tech around us today emerged from “innovation” by Sony, (a Corps not merely driven by aesthetics and profit alone?)

As a side observation, small text on mobile devices IS damaging my eyesight! Specs are now mandatory.


@CygnusX1 re “I strongly feel for authors “ripped off” by piracy, more so than movies and film. I guess because movies and music production is customarily not a singular effort and many hands are involved, especially Corps.”

Think of indie films done with very limited budgets by young beginner film makers. If they see that they can’t make a living with films, they will have to make a living with other things, and goodbye indie films.

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