An Open Letter to Chuck Klosterman about Stealing E-Books

Editor's note: The following is in response to Chuck Klosterman's piece in the New York Times column "The Ethicist," which can be read here  

Dear Mr. Klosterman,

I was shocked to read your response to the conflicted e-book thief in “Steal this E-Book” on September 28, in which a book lover wondered if by purchasing physical copies of books, the reader was then off the hook for paying for any additional versions of the book that might be more convenient to consume, such as e-books or audio. You argued that “no one involved with this illegal transaction is losing money” and that, as a writer, “I’m concerned only with the consumption of the words,” and certainly not in whether or not my work is compensated.

Let us begin with the latter point. Do all writers hope that their work enjoys immense popularity, and that the maximum amount of readers have their lives touched and transformed by what they produce? Absolutely. Do writers deserve to be compensated, and compensated well, for performing highly skilled, financially high-risk work in order to share their artistic vision, to educate, to persuade, or to illuminate? The answer to this question is also yes. I do not ask anyone to pay my way so that I can put my words out into the world. I do not ask that tax money be directed toward paying my mortgage or that when I eat out in a restaurant I have only to scrawl “word artist” across my bill. One could argue that this is a society in which we’d like to live, but American capitalism generally works quite differently.

Most authors do not have the benefit of a steady salary, stipend, or patron to allow them to produce. Instead, most find other means to pay the bills and perform their writing in the margins, not because they want it this way but because book publishing especially is a great financial gamble. And while this is the writer’s choice, no writer is aided by the tired perpetuation of the myth that authors are artists who find payment dirty. One cannot feed one’s children intellectualism or fantasy; it turns out they prefer food. To this point, I want to assure you that although publishers and distributors alike take a great bite out of royalty proceeds from e-book sales, authors do indeed make money on them, sometimes quite a bit of it. Not only is there a cost to the publisher to convert and produce electronic versions of the work, but there are also sunk costs in producing a book in any form, many of them editorial. Additionally, the writer often depends on readers paying for non-print formats in order to augment their royalty income overall.

The reader who sought your advice has been dipping into writers’ pockets, and either needs to simply read the book purchased or buy an electronic copy in the first place. Should you be forced to pay for different versions of the same book? That’s not really the question at hand; as you say, that point has been decided. However, I have purchased many books electronically that I ended up loving enough that I then bought a physical copy. I paid twice, yet not for the same product. For the first purchase, I paid for the right to binge immediately on the next book in a series or to buy a book from the comfort of my bed at 2:00 a.m. The second purchase delivered a tactile object that I can admire and caress, loan out, or keep as a treasured possession. Each was a worthy product; each generated revenue for the writer when I made the purchase.

Let us be done with the myth of the starving artist. Modern writers have already recast that story, and continue to do so by taking more control of their publishing lives and over the distribution of their content, all of them hoping to get paid. As the Amazon vs. New York battle rages on across our city and yours, framing this discussion, let’s move to a more educated and nuanced position on the future of electronic media and who deserves to profit.


Leslie Miller

CEO/COO Girl Friday Productions (an editorial company) and author