Defend Truth


Books Column: Bin Before Reading


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

In his debut column, Ben Williams wonders aloud whether there was any connection between the rampant piracy of The President’s Keepers and the book’s extraordinary sales.

“PDF me.”

This is currently one of the dirtiest phrases in the English language. It’s practically a thought crime, but it’s commonly typed into WhatsApp or Messenger with blithe indifference. It’s something you’ve probably typed – admit it – and probably something you’ve done, snuck a pirated book off social media or a torrent, taken a peek inside, possibly even read a chapter or two, then consigned the stolen goods to the general detritus of your anarchic desktop. I can picture it now, lurking next to the README.txt file from that time you installed Toxic Bunny.

Make no mistake: digital piracy is stealing. When you say “PDF me” on Twitter, you’re proclaiming, “I sail under the flag of jolly ignorance about how the creative industry works, but which I’ve heard has the best chance of surviving the predations of the fourth industrial revolution, and so is the one we should do the most to protect”. (It’s a long flag. It’s more like a pennant.)

To those who make their living trading words in bulk for money in bits – authors, publishers, booksellers – the best thing that can happen to a book is for someone in power to threaten banning or burning it, and the worst is for someone to steal it.

Except when it isn’t.

Here’s a funny pair of fuzzy facts: book piracy has never been more rampant – you can get almost every new book out there as a free download if you look hard enough – and yet, in the last decade, since the double-whammy of the Kindle’s debut in 2007 and the world economy’s defenestration in 2008, the book business has rarely been in better shape. This is subject to all sorts of caveats, of course. On the retail side, booksellers face enormous challenges, many to do with fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour. On the ideas side, writers face huge pressures, including ever-shrinking royalties. On the production side, publishers – well, the publishers are actually doing pretty well. But generally speaking, there’s an optimism and energy in the books world that went missing for a while, and that some thought would never return.

The last big pirated book in South Africa was, of course, Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers. You got a copy, I got a copy, the voters of Nkandla all got copies. It was also – let me see – oh yes, a record-breaking bestseller, the likes of which is witnessed once, perhaps twice in a career.

TPK (as those in the trade call it) had an interesting timeline, sales-wise. It’s worth a quick review. The book was published on the last Sunday in October 2017, following a top-secret operation by its publishers, who coordinated explosive media coverage and dead-of-night distribution to ensure it made it unmolested into bookstores. That Sunday, it sold more than 600 copies, making it the second-best selling book in the land for the week.

Two days later it was Halloween, and the spooks, in the form of the SSA, began threatening to ban the book. Pirated copies started to circulate widely, primarily via WhatsApp.

Four days after that, the 4th of November, Pauw posted a note on Facebook that should be in every author’s playbook: “If you have a PDF copy and can afford to buy a book,” he wrote, “please do it.” He continued, “If you can’t find a book now, read the PDF, but you should still order a book. If you cannot afford a book, go for it and read it. You have my blessing.” He extended an olive branch to the buccaneering, baying public, and earned goodwill from them that was as good as retail gold.

That week, Mmusi Maimane waved the book in Parliament under Jacob Zuma’s nose, and by the end of the week, it had sold more than 9,000 copies in print.

During week two, two extraordinary launches at Exclusive Books – one almost certainly sabotaged by the state, when the power was cut halfway through the event, and one featuring an actual marksman on the balcony above the stage where Pauw spoke – fueled the (justified) hype.

Also in week two, nearly everyone with WhatsApp in South Africa had received a pirated copy of the book. Still, more than 8,000 print copies went through the tills.

It was in week three, however, that the sales reached their crescendo. Two more huge launches, one hosted by The Book Lounge, the other by Exclusive Books. Frenzied threats and denials from the corrupt state, extraordinary nerve-holding on the part of the author, his publishers and the booksellers. More than 15,000 print copies went through the tills. The book never again reached that mark, in terms of weekly print sales.

And this after the entirety of the market for a book like Pauw’s had already been saturated with pirated copies.

Now, I won’t speak the heresy that piracy is good for book sales, for fear of being rounded on by some of the people I hold dearest, and because correlation isn’t causation (duh). But it’s worth noting that publishers figured out some time ago that ebooks are effective marketing tools for print books (but not vice-versa) – and a pirated book is, after all, just a DRM-free ebook.

A key reason, then, I think, that wide-scale piracy didn’t prevent Pauw’s book from becoming an all-time bestseller is that it worked like an ebook in a publisher’s marketing campaign, and fueled the only mechanism for selling books that the world has ever known: word of mouth.

In its power to get people talking about a book, piracy has something in common with book banning and book burning. But whereas the latter catalyses book sales by what might be termed the “broadcast effect” (the media love a good fight with censors; and the free PR is yet more retail gold), the former plugs into the mighty “network effect” that’s currently turning our world upside-down.

All this leads me to the following unsolicited advice for book brigands and their victims.

Brigands, if you obtain a pirated copy of a book, which you shouldn’t do – but sometimes it’s out of your control – you should shout about the book, loudly, on your various platforms, exhorting your followers to buy it, and thus giving it a network boost. (You should also bin it without forwarding it, then go out and buy it yourself. That’s what I did, after someone who shall not be named WhatsApped me the illicit TPK goods, sans request.)

Writers, until publishers and booksellers get on top of the piracy situation, which I’ve every confidence they’ll do – these are the people who browbeat Google into submission, after all; who banded together to avoid music’s fate; and who are currently fighting the good fight against the government’s mooted loosening of copyright law – consider following Pauw’s example. Address the pirates. Tell them, in the nicest possible way, to buy what they stole. You may end up boosting your book’s network power exponentially.

Banners and burners, meanwhile, you keep doing you. It’s brilliant for business. ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He’s formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.


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