Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Books don't grow on trees

Ten years ago, I bought three pirated books. I was a student at the time and, as I told myself, cash-strapped; I also told myself the authors would surely be glad to share their insight with readers who couldn't afford the originals.

Well, I've been feeling vaguely guilty every since, especially once I started writing my own books and realised how much work it was. So I was surprised/annoyed/enraged when I read the following post on the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, weighing the dilemmas of buying pirated books in Shanghai:

"When I'm at a book kiosk in Shanghai," blogger Jiayang Fa writes, "I find myself rationalizing that migrant workers, who account for the vast majority of book-peddlers, need the money more urgently than publishers or, for that matter, self-indulgent writers."

As a self-indulgent writer, I wasn't happy. It's true that Chinese migrant workers need the money more than me, but I need the money more than Jiayang Fan, and if no one pays for my books, I'll have to go back to journalism.

Hang on: I can't go back to journalism because people don't pay for that, either. In fact, about a year ago, Dan forwarded me an e-mail he received from a friend who works for the Guardian. "Guess who I'm plagiarising right now," the subject line read, followed by a story I had written for Reuters news agency out of Paris that day.
The Guardian journalist was based in London and didn't speak a word of French, but she quite liked seeing her photo byline on stories about France, so she took my story and published it under her name without crediting Reuters. Oh well. When I sent her a sulky e-mail about it, she said the practice was common at the Guardian because of cost cuts, but that there was a big "discussion" around it.

I don't know what it is with all these dilemmas and discussions. Why can't people just agree that it's mean to steal from starving authors and starving fellow journalists? We've all done it, but let's at least feel a bit embarrassed about it and promise to change our ways.

And spare a thought for the Chinese migrant worker whose harrowing-yet-beautiful first novel about a lovelorn construction worker in downtown Shanghai will never be published because there's no market for books.

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