What constitutes piracy nowadays?

This article looks into the bruhaha around the internet’s National Emergency Library and asks if pirates know (or care, or even think) they’re pirating.

The million dollar question here is whether the work of the Internet Archive, and its actions, amount to book piracy. If you ask publishers and publishing trade organizations, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” If you ask internet and information freedom advocates, the answer is, “hell no.” 

So which is it? And what are regular readers supposed to make of all this?

The answer, of course, is complicated, because it involves copyright, and copyright is complicated. But here’s the short version: Libraries hoping to lend books in the U.S. have to either have them donated or purchase them from publishers. (Those purchases, when made by public libraries and public school libraries, are made with taxpayer dollars.) Once they purchase a print book, they own it, as does anyone who purchases anything in a capitalist society. E-books, however, need to be acquired directly from the publishers.

But publishers don’t sell e-books to libraries. They sell e-book licenses. Terms of those sales vary from publisher to publisher, but typically, each e-book license is limited to a period of two years or 52 individual lends of each licensed e-book, whichever comes first. The typical cost is usually three to five times the cost of a consumer e-book. The idea, on the publishers’ end, is to account for the loss of sales of either print or e-books. Physical books, after all, degrade with use, and the most popular books need to be replaced now and then, while digital content, for all intents and purposes, lasts forever. 

I learned it from you, DAD!

Remember this? From the Bookninja Cover Redesign Contest back in 2008. Good times. (Ingrid Paulson won with this cover).

Are writers worse parents? Some, for sure. Whether it’s lack of presence, behaviour modelling, or disposition, there’s a certain portion of every segment of society that probably shouldn’t be parents.

That said, I have four kids and I have given up so very, very much in my so-called career to be as good to them as possible: residencies, teaching gigs, jobs, editorial positions, etc. But the biggest sacrifice of all has been time.

I usually work a day job (because kids = more food and activities, families = solid roof, and teens = allowances and gaming systems), so that’s eight hours, minimum; then I help with homework (homeschooling now), household duties, driving people places, doing bedtimes when they’re younger, etc. It basically leaves about an hour each day in which I just want to suck back two beers and fall asleep.

And I don’t really feel they’re old enough yet for me to fuck off to a two- or four-month residency or semester at a distant school, so I turn down offers. I even try to keep my book tours packed into about one week of hectic travel so I can minimize the time away from them. My partner and I, both being writers, have developed systems for supporting each other through this, but before her, it wasn’t an option.

I’ve got friends on both sides of this: on one hand there are those who chose to not have children (or can’t) and have been able to flit about the world chasing every opportunity and writing whenever it suited them, and on the other are people like my buddies Mark and Pete, who are rooted up to his knees in dadding and are reliable, loving caregivers. (Further are those who gave up writing altogether, bu that’s a whole other post.)

When Mark and I have a beer we end up talking parenting more than writing. Sometimes, I suppose, we lament the missed opportunities. More accurately, we look at the lives of our friends without kids and feel a sort of envy, but not one that is strong enough to incite action on our part. Neither of us are going anywhere until all our genetic messages-in-a-bottle are settled in the world and ready to make their own lives.

So, am I shittier parent? No, I don’t think so. But in trying to preclude that, I admit that am a reduced writer, at least in opportunity. Am I resentful? A little. I used to be much more resentful. Not of the kids, mind you. Just of like… the situation. More of a regret, much in the same way I’m sad I didn’t stick with Judo just as I was getting near a higher level.

I sometimes daydream about having been born a century back. I’d marry someone who does all the work, then after they cook dinner, and while cleaning up and tend the kids, I’d fuck off to my study to write. Then later the kids would show up for a half hour dandle on Dad’s knee and head to bed. Then I’d write all night and wake up when they’re in school. Then rinse and repeat. It’s much easier to be great when you’re selfish.

It’s all a distraction, of course, but everything is grist to the mill. The pram in the hall, the lack of the pram, the spouse, the job, the lack of the job, the lack of the spouse, the chores, the chaos, the drudgery, the unvarying routine. Life can be difficult, but for writers it often seems to be more difficult than for most – or maybe they just complain about it more. Pity poor me. The provocative, publicity-seeking title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume, self-regarding autofictions My Struggle – the series’s Norwegian title, Min Kamp, deliberately intended to recall Mein Kampf –is not just a sick joke, it’s a boast. I am a terrible father! I’m a terrible son! Behold, readers, and worship the colossal wreckage!

While Knausgaard is widely acclaimed for his frankness about his struggles with his family and his life, others are roundly condemned. John Banville was only the most recent victim of his own honesty when in an interview with the Irish Times last year he admitted that as a writer you “take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones . . . . You see, because you have to concentrate so deeply, and have to sink down into yourself as far as you can go, you lose sight of the people around you. The people you are writing about can be more real than the people you live with, which is very cruel on the people you live with”. Cue the righteous with their indignation, among whom David Simon, creator of The Wire, was perhaps the most outspoken: “Speak for yourself, fucknuts”. 

Why can’t we ever have anything nice?

So, the global pandemic has changed everything, we can all agree on that. Book buyers are changing how they get their fixes, and Bookshop has been a big part of that, giving indie-shoppers a non-Amazon option to get their books in one place. But is buying from Bookshop leading to a better world? Some are criticizing the site’s margins, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Still better than Amazon, obviously, but better than buying direct from your favourite store? Probably not.

Despite its success, the site has critics. Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif., which maintains a Bookshop page, pointed out that though the site is helpful, it is not a replacement for direct sales, as the profit margin on Bookshop sales is significantly lower. In particular, Johnson said, the site doesn’t provide any direct engagement with customers—or individual customer data. “There seems to be a belief among many people that buying a book from Bookshop is the same as buying it directly from the bookstore,” he added.

Johnson also objects to the way Bookshop is marketing itself to indie booksellers. “While, I see [Bookshop] as a tool that can conceivably be used, they’re making it much more difficult to do that because of their narrative of saving bookstores. They’re not.”

Hunter sees things differently. “I only use the word supporting,” he said. “We’re not claiming to be saving anyone. I do think that selling books online is going to be important to the survival of stores in the future, and we want to help stores make the transition.”

Hunter noted that this is a time of crisis and that there are several large bookstores that may not continue to use Bookshop when they reopen. “They’re using Bookshop as a stopgap until they go back to their stores,” he said. “And we’re happy to have them for now.”

But Hunter believes the platform is providing a long-term revenue stream for smaller stores. “These stores are using Bookshop as their sole means of commerce,” he explained. “They don’t have a lot of resources or inventory to satisfy their customers. They just want a turnkey solution, and to earn money every day without doing much work.”

Majority of writers hear voices

I’m not one for the more “spiritual” end of the writers’ self-aggrandizing spectrum — those who say things like “my poems or characters found me”, or that they were “channeling the work”, as “merely a conduit for the story”, etc. To me it’s all a little too crystals-and-energy silly. It smacks of self-mythologization and academia-like exclusion — trying to convince non-writers that we possess something more than what they do when in fact probably every one makes up stories and characters and has profound thoughts, with the main difference being that we’ve built a career around recognizing those and crafting them in to something more than mere passing fancies. We’re not wizards or shamans or priests, people. We’re mechanics mucking about under the hood of a machine called Imagination. That said, yes, I can also “hear” my characters speak, at least in the sense that I have simply created accents and vocal tones for them as part of their development into believable simulacra for real people. Doesn’t seem to need a more magical interpretation than that. Can you “hear” your characters?

The study, which appeared last month in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, also found that 56% of the writers surveyed reported visual or other sensory experiences of their characters when they were writing, while a fifth had the sense that their character was occupying the same physical space. Fifteen per cent of writers said they could even enter a dialogue with their creations.

“When I’m trying to ‘put words in their mouth’ instead of listening they often talk back. And then we discuss things until I find what they would say,” reported one anonymous respondent. Another revealed that their characters’ voices were distinct from their own inner speech: “When my characters are running dialogue in my head I feel like a spectator, but with my own inner speech I feel like the one speaking.”

We were apparently ripe for the plague

The world was ripe for this. Not just in terms of rampant overpopulation and a system of capitalist profiteering predicated on the blood of its workers, but also apparently in fiction. While the BBC looks at long gone writers who predicted a world plagued by …. uh …. plague, several current writers, most famously Emily St. John Mandel, were already back on this train. Canadian Writer and old Bookninja pal Saleema Nawaz had her own eerily prescient pandemic novel Songs for the End of the World bumped from an August release to an e-book wideband this month, and now Emma Donahue, who Canada also likes to claim, apparently had a similarly-themed book sitting in the can waiting for pub date is seeing her book rushed for July.

Go buy Saleema‘s and Emma‘s books, please.

Do we really have to just keep doing this over and over until we die?

It’s Monday. The start of another glorious week in the apocalypse that will look much like all the other weeks in the apocalypse that lay ahead of you, stretching into the distance like a long lonesome road, the horizon marred only by a single signpost that is in fact not a signpost at all but a tombstone on a hill and lo what is that is inscribed on its weathered surface? Your name, dear reader. Your name. … … … OKAY! OFF TO WORK! HAVE A GREAT WEEK!

Audio books vs loneliness

This article about a new mother using audio books as a way to combat the loneliness of existence while you are a servant to a needy tyrant got me thinking about being a stay-at-home dad. Ten hours a day trying to figure out some frigging thing to do while pushing a stroller around town with a pack on my back reminiscent of a medieval pedlar. I kept a couple books for reading during naps, as well as journals and pens for writing in, but the nap-trap comment really drives it home. I wish I’d had audio books back then. On the bright side, I never had to have a little vampire suck out my life essence through my nipples, so I suppose I can’t complain.

In these quarantine days, I miss the casual conversations. Gone are the spontaneous chats on the sidewalk or over cubicle dividers, in cafes or across playgrounds. For all of us, life is transformed.  For many, life is quieter. Personally, this retreat from daily socializing feels somewhat familiar.  Last year, I withdrew into my home to nest with my newborn daughter.

Thankfully, I had audiobooks to rescue me from the sleep-deprived tedium of keeping an infant dry, fed, and mostly content. Then and now, narrators of audiobooks helped me feel less lonely.

Nesting with a newborn, while supremely cuddly, also feels isolating. Like many new parents, I was often “nap-trapped”—sometimes literally pinned down under my snoozing baby. Even when freed from the couch, the baby’s sleep schedule kept us tethered to home. It was a cozy but lonely time, one when I longed for adult conversation. I’d go for any conversation, really, as my baby cycled through her limited vocabulary of vowel sounds. To fill the blurring hours of feeding, diapering, and shushing, I turned to audiobooks.

On shyness and our business

Can one be cripplingly socially anxious and still be a writer today? To me, it’s like outfits. Some days you are in track pants and a tshirt, which is what you enjoy most, and other days you put on the sequinned jacket and go out to be fabulous. That said, the sequinned jacket has a super-short lifespan on my back, while the T could be worn forever. Maybe “outfits” isn’t the right word. Maybe “costumes” is better. Time among other writers for me is mostly spent playing a character: Generally Affable Guy You Might Enjoy a Beer With. It allows me to overcome any self-doubt and restraint until I get home. After that I spend hours doubting. Then I get back into my tshirt and am ready to make some art.

I read somewhere that to be an artist you have to have an ego, to consider your work worthy of being considered art, but I can’t reread anything I’ve written, let alone published, and I’m uncomfortable imposing or promoting myself. I didn’t shirk traditional 9-5 jobs because I believed in my writing, but because it is one of the only places where I am taken seriously, where I can shed my Gen Z age and be an angry Asian woman instead of the stereotypical shy Asian girl. I can pitch a dissenting op-ed and write with an authorial voice, and my editors and readers won’t know that I also enjoy making TikToks with my little sister, or that my voice is actually soft and low and I once chose to drop a full letter grade in a class rather than do a solo presentation.