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
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Dec 2009 @ 6:37am

    I know that I'm a little late to the discussion, but I would love it if someone can give me a reason that books in electronic format scare people so much when almost every city has this wonderful building called a library.

    Personally, I will never pay for an Ebook for multiple reasons:

    First I think books are too important to lock up so only those who have money can afford them, that is why we have Libraries full of the dead tree editions for people to borrow and read.

    Second, if I love a book, I can't stand not having the dead tree edition. I only use Ebooks because it is nice to be able to use Ctrl+F and I can't take my library with me when I travel. I also think there is no moral issue with having a paper book and then downloading the electronic version for free, I already bought the $20-30 dead tree edition, why should I have to pay $5-10 more for the electronic bits of the exact same thing?

    And finally, the fact that it doesn't cost anything to replicate and you can get the physical version in libraries means that Ebooks are just another way to get access to the text. The fact that libraries are starting to offer the digital bits edition of books only cements this image in my mind. Why aren't all libraries offering all of their books electronically and as soon as any library is doing that what is the difference between downloading it from your local library and downloading it from your local torrent provider?

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