In my recent post, The value chain strikes back: Google and the history of copyright, I touched on the threat of internet piracy, which is a highly contentious issue at the moment throughout the digital industries. In researching that piece I came across some interesting historical sidelights on book piracy, which deserve more attention than I could give them in the previous piece.
Piracy of copyrights in texts, of course is nothing new. The default state of the nascent book market in the 15th Century, before printers banded together to get themselves some protection, was freebooting, unregulated chaos. Even after the Statute of Anne in 1710, the legislation with which modern copyright begins, piracy continued to be a thorn in the side of publishers – and eventually authors, as the latter began gradually to gain more control in the publishing process.
‘Everyone goes to Paris’
Much of the piracy came from abroad. Foreign territories were not subject to English copyright law; indeed, there was no harmonisation of the copyright regimes in different countries until the establishment of the Berne Convention in 1886 (large parts of which were not implemented in the UK until more than a hundred years later in 1998). During the 19th Century, Parisian publishers did a roaring trade in cheap editions of books by UK authors. The poet Wordsworth deplored Galignani’s 1828 ‘pirate’ edition of his poems, which cost a mere 20 francs, but that didn’t stop him purchasing for his library Galignani editions of Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. It was common practice for travellers to pick up such editions; a temptation to which even the high-minded Wordsworth, clearly, fell prey.
Why Byron sold more than Wordsworth
The Romantics were the first generation of British writers to exert much influence over the way their works appeared in print. Naturally, this exposed them to the threat from pirates, and they differed in the way they dealt with it.
Byron was all for beating the pirates at their own game. He wanted his long satiric poem Don Juan to be published not only in the usual lavish publisher’s edition but also in compact, cheap version, to ‘anticipate and neutralise’ the pirates. So strongly did he feel about this marketing strategy that he moved publisher half way through the project (the poem was published in parts), from John Murray to John Hunt. Byron’s market instincts turned out to be largely right. He could not forstall the pirates entirely: following his death there were numerous editions; but the latter cantos of the poem sold in huge numbers, with the result that Don Juan, by William St Clair’s reckoning (see sources), was read by more people than any previous work of English literature.
Wordsworth, by contrast, was dead against selling his books cheaply. His own epic-scale work, The Excursion, when it was published in 1814 at at cost of 42 shillings, was probably the most expensive work of literature ever published in England. Perhaps as a consequence, it sold only 400 copies in six years, and 22 years after publication, only another 64 had gone (by way of comparison, Byron’s Corsair sold 25,000 copies). This failure must have been all the more galling since Wordsworth had a stake in the project. In exchange for two-thirds of net profit, he had stumped up two-thirds of the production costs.
He might have thought twice about venturing into self-publishing again, but Wordsworth did not back down from his stance on cheap editions, and his Poetical Works, issued at 24 shillings in 1832, similarly tanked. Astonishingly, to the Poet of the Lakes, not a single copy was sold by one of the leading booksellers in Cumberland.
Wordsworth, it has to be said, was not as racy or ‘media-friendly’, in modern terms as Byron. His poetry, with its stark plainness, was possibly less accessible to readers of the time – although critically speaking, his star has risen higher than Byron’s subsequently. Nevertheless, he would almost certainly have sold a few more copies in his lifetime had he taken a view of publishing business models closer to Byron’s.
Piracy and market intelligence
The moral of this story hardly needs pointing out, and its implications for our own time are also fairly obvious. Pirating of literary works may indeed be no better than theft, and something to be strongly resisted, but it does provide, for publishers, one highly valuable by-product whose value cannot be gainsayed: tangible and specific knowledge about buyer behaviour. Marketing is a very data-driven business, and too often it has to make decisions based on theory, extrapolation and flawed statistics. Where real intelligence about what buyers want and how they want to buy is provided, marketers ought to be duty-bound to listen.
The success of Napster, earlier in the decade, demonstrated not only the obvious truth that people would rather get something for free than have to pay for it, but also that perfectly law-abiding people would succumb to the convenience of online downloading where no comparable paid offering was in place (it also told us that CDs were criminally over-priced – but then, we knew that already). What consumers chiefly want is convenience, and anything which carries the taint of illegality offers the threat of a potentially huge amount of inconvenience – from, for instance, police action, infection of one’s equipment by virus and spyware, identity theft, etc etc. Pirates may well be ‘bad people’, but the music business presented far too easy a target for their broadsides with the slowness of its reaction to the shift to digital among its heavily younger-demographic consumers. Having come later to online downloading publishers are, as has often been pointed out, well placed to learn from the mistakes of the music business. The long and illustrious history of publishing as an industry also contains some pointers, as I hope this series of posts is showing, in some small way!
Proselytising, prosecution and paywalls are not of themselves going to make piracy disappear. Neither are consumers so cash-strapped, even in this credit-crunched age, that they won’t pay for a convenience, added value and authoritative content if it is on offer. Ordinary people don’t like breaking the law. Publishers just have to be certain they are keeping a close watch on what the pirates are up to, and being perhaps more Byronic in their reactions than Wordsworthian.
The stakes are high, and it is not just a case of being outmanoeuvred by smaller, fleeter piratical competitors. Google and Amazon, to many publishers, although organisations of considerable scale, have a distinctly piratical way about them. However, these are not nippy little corsairs we’re dealing with. They’re more of an armada.
The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period by William St Clair
Cambridge, 765 pp, £90.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 521 81006 X
Article in the London Review of Books (subscription needed):
Out of Bounds
Ian Gilmour: why Wordsworth sold a lot less than Byron 20 January 2005