Author Sherman Alexie's Rants On Colbert Against Ebooks, Piracy And 'Open Source Culture'

from the you-said-what-now? dept

On last night's Colbert Report, author Sherman Alexie spent most of the interview ranting against digital books and how "piracy" was destroying the book business. The whole thing was odd not just because of how uninformed it was, but also because he seemed to contradict himself multiple times. I haven't read any of Alexie's books, but if his logic is so twisted, it's difficult to think that his books are worth reading:
He starts out by insisting that he won't put his book on the Kindle or any digital book format because he's afraid of piracy -- but that makes no sense at all. By not giving readers what they want, he's actually encouraging more piracy. There are probably plenty of people actively willing to buy ebook versions of his book, and his response is that because of piracy, he won't offer it to them. How does this help? Those people now have more incentive to actually go and download an unauthorized copy of the book (and Alexie is fooling himself if he thinks they don't exist). How can not giving people what they're asking for and are willing to pay for be a smart business model?

He compares the book business to the music business, saying:
"When the music industry went digital, somewhere between 75 and 95% of music is pirated. Nobody makes money off their music any more. Everything is about live shows now."
First of all, it wasn't the industry that went digital. Music went online way before the industry even realized it, and one of the main reasons that the piracy rates are as high as they are (and his numbers are industry figures that aren't reliable at all) was because the industry held back for so long in giving people what they wanted: which is exactly what Alexie is now doing!

As for his claim that no one makes money off their music any more, that's obviously silly. He admits that they now make their money from live shows (which is making money off their music). And then later in the interview, he points out that one of the parts he enjoyed most about being a published author was doing live performances and readings of his works. In other words, he already does what he claims happened to the music industry. So why is he so worried about piracy? That's not clear at all.

He also seems rather uninformed about how file sharing has helped some authors.
I'd be really worried if I were Stephen King or James Patterson or a really big best seller that when their books become completely digitized, how easy it's going to be to pirate them.
Where to start....? First, Alexie doesn't seem to understand how book file sharing happens. It's not because the industry digitizes the books, but because others digitize those books, and, yes, they're most likely already available on file sharing networks, whether those authors released them in ebook form or not. It's not the official ebook they're sharing in most cases anyway.

Second, as for the claim that it will harm the biggest name authors most of all, Alexie might want to talk to Paulo Coelho. Coelho is the guy who quietly set up operations to "pirate" his own book and saw the sales of his physical books increase massively. Oh, and the book he chose to offer up via BitTorrent, The Alchemist is one of the best selling books of all time. Stephen King and James Patterson, by the way, do not have any books on that list -- though, to be fair, if you combine all of their books, King has sold more than Coelho, and Patterson seems to be in a similar ballpark, probably selling slightly more than Coelho, but both have published many more books.

Then, really strangely, he attacks "open source culture":
With the "open source culture" on the internet, the idea of ownership -- of artistic ownership -- goes away.
Now, beyond this just being flat out wrong about what "open source" means or what "open source culture" is, what's the most bizarre thing about this statement is who it's coming from. Alexie is most well-known for his writing about modern Native American life -- and Native Americans aren't exactly known for their strong believe in artistic ownership. In fact, much of the understanding of so-called "gift economies," which are sometimes (though not always accurately) used to describe the open source world are actually based on Native American gift giving culture of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, which is where Alexie is from.

Colbert actually does a good job pushing back on this, in his usual self-mocking manner, pointing out that sharing helps get the word out there, and the only reason he's so famous is because of how easily his content is shared via TV. Without that, he notes, he'd have to just go door to door shouting at people. To which Alexie responds: "I'm a fan of door to door shouting at people." Good luck with that.

Filed Under: ebooks, open source, piracy, sherman alexie, stephen colbert


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  1. identicon
    BONES, 3 Dec 2009 @ 2:21pm

    Alexie is NOT Wrong

    Well, as a part-time professional musician, I can only agree with the thrust of Mr Alexie's discourse, despite the rubbish spouted in this article. My band recently released it's third album in Europe and the US, with an unprecedented push from our label, via a very effective PR company campaign, and so far our sales are dismal, far worse than previous albums despite overwhelmingly positive press, all of which agrees it is our best, most accessible album to date. On the back of this and a couple of other recent releases, our independent label has revised it 's forecast of staying in business for another few years and now believes they will be forced to close their business as early as mid next year.
    Of course, all our music is available on iTunes and several other digital distribution services but guess what? Our digital sales are less than 10% of our physical sales. To me, that says that people will not pay for a digital copy of something when it holds no advantage over a free digital copy. i.e. Once it is torrented, and this album was torrented within 48 hours of release, people are just as happy with free mp3s as with ones that cost money.
    As for live music, only big name acts can make a living from doing concerts. Most of us are lucky to find someone to cover our expenses. The reason for that is in part because the internet has taken away the intermediaries who once facilitated the rise of an unknown band. The 'net might be good for getting you started but once you reach a certain level, it tends to strand you there, unless what you are doing has a broad appeal. i.e. It is a great tool for the major record labels. Where once they had to spend money on a dozen bands to find one that was going to make it, now they can use the 'net to filter out those others. That means there are 11 bands who would once have had a taste of major record company backing and achieved something who will never get that opportunity. The evidence to support this is obvious from the total homogenisation of contemporary music. Even "Indie" is now just a branch of the mainstream and has lost all it's edge and potential. Unless there is a massive change, there will never be another Sex Pistols, there will never be another Nirvana.
    Oh, and for the record, the music industry went digital in 1985, long before the internet was around to exploit it.

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