Pity the poor antipiracy pitchman. Digital media means perfect copying, and most pirate goods are now of comparable quality to the official release, and often superior to the commercial alternative. Pirated e-books, for example, can be easily converted to any format, for any player. And pirated games don’t include antipiracy technology that force-quits your game every time your network connection bobbles.

Likewise, there’s no way the legit marketplace can compete on price. It’s eminently possible to compete with free (just ask any bottled water company), just not on price. Some legitimate sales channels are marginally more convenient to use (think of Amazon’s Whispernet), but most online content marketplaces can’t hold a candle to the Pirate Bay on the user experience side.

And forget threats, like those unskippable piracy warnings on movies, the irony being those warnings are only watched by people who haven’t pirated, for much the same reason you look for your keys under the lamppost instead of where you actually dropped them. Only innumerate people will be scared off of piracy by the threat of a lawsuit, and swearing off free downloads over fear of a legal reprisal is like quitting your job in the hopes of winning the Lotto.

Yes, making the case against illegal downloading can be hard graft. So, without quality, price, convenience, or the threat of punishment, how can publishers convince people to do the right thing and buy? Basically, with an appeal to decency: you should buy our goods because it’s the right thing to do.

Corporate Culture

It sounds too simple, but it can be effective. No matter how many worthy people support their families with corporate paychecks, corporations in the age of Citizens United and Occupy Wall Street make poor poster children for a sympathy campaign—and audiences are especially suspect of corporations that operate in the arts. Record labels, movie studios, and, yes, publishers, too, are commonly viewed as rapacious scoundrels that prey on artists, exploit a stranglehold on distribution, and force content owners into abusive contractual relationships.

But trade publishing is different, especially when it comes to fiction. Unlike musicians, we novelists give limited licenses to our publishers, licenses that we can terminate if the publisher doesn’t actually get our creations into retail channels. If a song isn’t available for download, it’s often the case that some record company owns the rights and can’t be bothered to do anything with it. If you can’t get a book it’s usually because no one wants to publish it, not because some faceless corporate bean-counter has decided to sit on the rights.

And unlike musicians, authors are not commonly charged for production expenses. A recording contract typically requires musicians to sell enough to pay for all the production, publicity, and marketing before they see a penny in royalties. In publishing, the publisher pays these expenses out of its pocket, and the author isn’t expected to pay it back.

Finally, authors’ advances are (usually) only charged to their current books, or sometimes across a single deal. Unlike musicians, who are often required to pay back shortfalls from their last project before they can start earning on their latest one, authors’ balance sheets are zeroed out with each new book. If your last book tanks, your next book usually doesn’t have to pay back its advance. Publishing doesn’t do debt slavery.

It’s true that very few writers get rich or even make a living off their book deals, but that’s because their books don’t sell very well. It’s not because publishers have stacked the deck against writers in the way that other entertainment bogeymen have for their creators. Compared to Hollywood accounting, writers’ royalty statements are paragons of transparency and fairness. Compared to the terms crammed down musicians’ throats, writers get square deals.

Honor and...

My point: publishers have virtue, and this is something that publishers should make a bigger thing of. Even publishers owned by giant corporations deal with their writers on industry-standard terms that really do see to it that the money a customer hands over for a product finds its way into the creator’s bank account. Why not start publicizing the differences between writing and music and film deals. Let the world know that whatever sins your corporate cousins may have committed, they are not your sins.

Publishers, let your readers know that you’re on the side of the angels. In a world where payment must be convinced, not coerced, this is money in the bank.