Striking Spanish author sparks digital publishing debate

Since prominent Spanish writer Lucía Etxebarria announced an abrupt end to her life as an author due to the effects of ebook piracy, her decision has continued to prove controversial.

Etxebarria told the press recently that she would not publish any more work for a “very long time”, following reports that more illegal copies of her latest novel have been downloaded that have been purchased legitimately.

While most authors, and indeed artists in general, would hope to see financial compensation for the hard work they put in, the manner in which Etxebarria has turned her back on her profession has sparked fierce debate about the role of artists in a digital age where work can easily be accessed for free.

A backlash was immediately felt on Facebook for example, with the author quickly shutting down her account.

The fact that Etxebarria is in the small percentage of writers who have been fortunate to make a good living has added to the debate.  But should the fact that Etxebarria has won the lucrative Planeta and Primavera awards – amounting to approximately £750,000 in prize money – colour our opinion of her protest against readers illegally obtaining her work?

Is it wrong that a notably talented and successful author should write for years only to receive barely enough to make a living, and should we expect that an artist subsist on a pittance while other professions make a comfortable living?  Or should Etxebarria count her blessings that she has made money from something she has a passion for?

There are perhaps no simple answers to these questions. However with the ever-increasing popularity of ebooks across the world, and the ability to access the content for free, the age-old debate over financial aspirations for artists has come to the fore once again.

There are many who think that to throw away one’s talent and passion for what is often described as a ‘calling’ is wasteful, and heated debate has raged over Etxebarria’s decision.

Sci-fi and fantasy writer Storm Constantine, the author of the Wraeththu series of novels, believes that financial considerations should not take precedence over what is a compulsion for many.

“While I understand Ms Etxebarria’s anger over her situation, I don’t empathise with her decision to quit writing,” Constantine told TechEye. “Surely, authors write because it is in our blood, because it is ‘what we do’. 

“For many, myself included, it has never been primarily about the business side of things, even though it’s great if we can earn off our writing.” 

“If this writer is a true story teller, how could she bear to give up writing? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Baffling. The only person she’s hurting is herself.”

This is a view echoed by award-winning Swedish novelist Christine Falkenland, “First of all, I consider my identity and my work as an author both a calling and a profession, in that order,” she told us. 

However Falkenland acknowledges that there is perhaps an unfair expectation that authors should be happy to share their work for free as it is something that they enjoy doing. 

“This view can be used against an author, since it is understood that you could work or share your products without payment, since you consider it a calling, and you have a desire to be read.”

Of course the idea that an artist may have to struggle for their art is of course hardly a new one. Indeed history is littered with now-famous names who barely made ends meet in their own lifetime in the pursuit of their craft.

But with illegal downloading of material increasingly prevalent online the problem has come to the fore in many fields as a more modern, and very real, concern.

However for Storm Constantine the reality of the changing landscape, with ebooks being freely downloaded, is simply a situation that must be accepted.

“I have had this situation myself. I wrote to the sites concerned and asked for the ebooks to be removed and in most cases they were. But quite honestly, I don’t get that het up about it.”

“It’s generally fans of my work who get annoyed about it, and they are the ones who inform me when a book of mine is available somewhere for free download.”

In fact, just like many proclaimed in the music industry when MP3 files began to be illegally downloaded from sites such as Napster, there is a plus side to content being shared for free. This of course led to the music industry slowly and tentatively changing its attitudes, leading to sites such as MySpace offering free content to entice new fans in a bid to funnel through to actual sales.

“The way I see it is that if people read a freebie version of one of my books, and they like it, perhaps it might encourage them to buy a hard copy of it, or investigate other titles of mine that aren’t available for free,” said Constantine.

“They might tell their friends they liked it, or review it online. If anything, to make writers feel better about piracy, they can look upon it as a form of advertising, even if not one of which they particularly approve. It’s similar, in my view, to people buying second hand copies of books off the Internet for 1p, which is hardly uncommon.

“Writers don’t get income from second hand books either, and since books were first printed, people have sold second hand copies.  The Internet is a bloated well of copyright violation. It’s naive not to expect this to happen.”

Christine Falkenland also believes that there is no point in fighting against the seismic changes to the way material is distributed in the online age, and it is better to work with new technology.

“I don´t have much personal experience of my work being downloaded, but it happens that I find my poems quoted in blogs and so on, which is  also illegal. But I don´t have anything against it, really: spread the word. I like to be able to, so to speak, throw a message in a bottle in the sea.”

Illegal downloading of material is not consigned just to the field of literature of course.  The film industry for one has seen profits hit be illegal downloading alongside pirate DVDs being flogged in many pubs and highstreets.

The music industry too has been decimated by the end of shops charging sixteen quid for a CD.  This has knock on effects on artists of course, with many bands being forced back into the garage for now at least.

Since the birth of Napster music execs have been spending much time removing their heads from the sand/their arses over how to deal with the problem of freely downloaded content.  However the industry musicians in general have adapted has led to new methods of staying financially viable without massive record sales, with distribution models such as Spotify offering little renumeration.

For the field of literature it seems the ability to adapt to changing circumstances may be just as valuable.

“I think that it is now impossible to stop illegal downloading both of literature and music etc, whether you like it or not,” says Falkenland.

“So, the artist or writer has to find other means to earn money.”

“Either you can stop writing and get a daytime job or you could continue to write but broaden your field, work as a creative writing teacher, as a coach, give lectures, write columns, etc. I had chosen the latter way to support myself.”

Constantine too believes that there ways to survive in the constantly changing environment of literary publishing.

“[Etxebarria]might as well simply publish as ebooks herself as well, and at least get some income from these legal versions. It’s what I’m doing now.”

“We have to accept that the publishing industry is changing, and that more and more people will be inclined to read digital versions of books.”

“Perhaps new technology and/or legislation will come in that will offer authors and publishers more protection against illegal downloads. But in the meantime, if you can’t fight the tide, find the best way to move with it!”