Should I let you steal my work? More and more, that’s a question most writers will face.

Take a writer who said “Yes” with astounding results ...

In 1999, the agent for Brazilian author Paulo Coelho returned from Russia with bad news. Coehlho's novel “The Alchemist” had sold fewer than 3,000 copies and the publisher had decided to discontinue publication.

A second Russian language publisher was found but the republication was held up by supply problems.

Then Coelho found a pirate edition of the Russian translation on the internet.

He posted the pirated translation on his web site, where anyone could download it without paying.

At the end of 2000, his publisher had sold 10,000 copies, a year later 100,000; by 2002, 1 million Russian language copies had been sold.

Coelho was excited by the discovery that the internet posting helped to lure readers into buying the physical book. So he decided to do the same with his other books. But what about translations to which he did not have the rights?

His solution: Gather all the links to illegal file-share sites and create the Pirate Coelho Web site.

It was a hit. By 2007, a million unique visitors a month were visiting the site.

If you go to the site today, Coelho rather disarmingly advises that if you download a book and like it, “I would suggest you buy the book, so we can tell the industry that sharing content is not life threatening to the book business.” (I’ve cleaned up his English.)

Coelho’s worldwide print sales for all his books had reached 100 million copies in 2007. "Once we did the Pirate Coelho there was a significant boost," he says.

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we must,” Somerset Maugham once said. Surely that must explain the proliferation of words by authors writing their hearts out for free on blogs and websites, including this one. (And maybe all the unpaid contributors to Wikipedia.)

Coehlo admits he’s an example of Maugham’s maxim. “If someone were to offer me the choice of getting paid $3 million to write a book for three readers or $3 to write a book for 3 million readers, I would definitely do the latter,” he wrote in the International Herald Tribune Magazine Dec. 17.

Is he right when he says most writers would do the same?

Perhaps so. But maybe it’s my family’s labor union heritage that makes me wonder if this is fair to the workers, in this case writers like myself.

Apparently other writers who once lauded the “content wants to be free” line are having second thought as well.

New York Times columnist John Tierney is one of the enthusiasts who praised the spirit of digital collaboration back in the 1990s. “[I]it did not occur to me that the Web’s ‘gift culture,’ as anthropologists called it, could turn into a mandatory potlatch for so many professions—including my own,” he recently wrote.

In a new book, “You are not a Gadget,” computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier is another enthusiast thinking twice. He once lauded the Internet’s potential to allow artists, writers and scientists around the world to share their work instantly.

In that vein, I’m admiring of “citizen journalists” like the anonymous Iranian who recently won a Polk journalism award. He uploaded the video of a female student killed during the Iranian protests last June, sending it around the world. (The video was captured by an anonymous bystander, and sent by an Iranian doctor with an email message “please let the world know,” then uploaded by the anonymous Iranian in the Netherlands.)

I’m less worried than former Times journalist John Darnton that this kind of bystander activity could somehow undermine the professionalism of journalism.

Without the brave young Burmese video reporters who risked their lives to film the government’s violent repression of the monk-led protests in 2007 and send their videos via internet overseas, the rest of the world would never have known what was happening. As the movie “Burma VJ” movingly tells it, these young Burmese working with hidden cameras were motivated by a desire for political change, not professional compensation.

But Lanier argues the end result of all this instantaneous, free sharing has been a destructive new social contract for the rest of us.

“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind… Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

On Amazon. com, the author of the customer review of Lanier’s book rated “most helpful” cites himself as an ironic example: Even his unpaid commentary is probably eyed by Amazon as yet another way to sell books!

No one has yet figured out how to charge for most of this activity.

To some extent today’s writers are no different from the legendary starving artist in the garret, driven to express her personal artistic vision even if she’s never rewarded monetarily.

When faced with the dwindling number of places willing to pay me to publish my stuff, simply putting my thoughts on the web without sifting them through an editor sometimes seems like a refreshing alternative—as I’m doing right now with this column.

Anyway, technofreaks often say that charging for digital content is a hopeless cause because hackers can get at just about anything. But as Lanier notes in his book, society doesn’t condone break-ins to homes and cars just because locks can easily be broken. The “free-open-culture ideology” is often used to cover the guilt of someone downloading music without paying for it, he argues-- though I doubt there’s much guilt there.

The result is much like a mob of looters, says Tierney. “When the majority of people feel entitled to someone else’s property, who’s going to stand in their way?”

I would add that writers are often saying, “Be my guest.”

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Tags: #publishing, industry news


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Comment by Donna Lawrence on February 19, 2011 at 9:48am
When I decided recently to offer my novel, On the Way to Somewhere Else, as a free download on my web site,, I did it because the current wisdom seems to be that you need to give something away to get people to pay attention. You have to have a platform to convince agents and publishers to people will want to read your book. I have been paid many times for my writing--a nonfiction book that is now in its third printing, more than 300 articles--but a novel is different. As a writer, I'm not used to trying to get attention. When I was doing publicity for my nonfiction book, my publisher set it up, so this does feel different. But I am happy that people are reading my novel! And the goal is still to have it published for pay!
Comment by Dangerous Old Woman on March 10, 2010 at 8:40pm
Lookee here, from Reality Hunger by David Shields:

"Lil Wayne, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead are hugely popular artists who recently circumvented the music business establishment by giving their music directly to their audience for free on the Web. The middle man has been cut out; listeners get a behind-the-scenes peek at work in progress. Lil Wayne can put out whatever he pleases, whenever he pleases, and the fan gets access to far more material than a standard release would provide. For all three of these acts, sales went up after they had first given away some, if not all, of the new release." (Emphasis mine.)
Comment by Carol Willette Bachofner on March 9, 2010 at 7:15am
hmmm, I had work stolen by a reputable zine when I was only 11. I cried and fussed to my father who wisely said: they like your work enough to steal it. You must have talent.

So when we are copied, we can choose how we view it I guess. I am happy when someone takes a poem of mine and uses it in the classroom, or posts it on his/her wall or comments on it with"authority," but... if i found pirated copies of my books out there, well I might not be so pleased.
Comment by Judith van Praag on March 7, 2010 at 9:58am
@Sarah, Good title for an interesting post that triggers equally interesting comments.

@Gwyn Stephen King has been offering free content of new books on his site. Clearly he has more than a clue about marketing.

@Ginster, Thanks for collecting the different takes on the Helene Hegemann example/case. A 17-year-old who gets away with plagiarism because she's using somebody else's text in another context? That's a matter of eduction, no? A writer's fear that text that's readily available Online can be appropriated by others without credit is real. Ultstein Verlag found a good solution, showing the "borrowed" text. I sure hope Airen is experiencing the benefits.

@Christina, Like you, I wonder about Coelho's fame and the success of his marketing plan as well.

@dangerous old woman Thanks much for heads up re: David Shields. Incidentally the Los Angeles Times published a book review of Reality Hunger in today's paper.

L.A.T.: "Plots are for dead people," he writes. And: "[T]he novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps." Fiction, with its emphasis on plot and narrative, has failed its readers."
The "scraps" he mentioned are of his own writing I take it though, not "borrowed" from another writer, as was by Helene Hegemann.

@Gabrielle, Great to hear from you. Reading about your p.o.v. as acquiring agent (?) is invaluable to all new writers.

Hey you all, I only joined SW a few days ago, and it's contributions such as yours that make me happy to be part of this community. Here's to doing the write thing!
Comment by Gwyn Nichols on March 6, 2010 at 8:42pm
Great response to piracy.

Chris Anderson's Free is a great example of someone planning to give something away as part of the business model. It has already become the norm for professional speakers, who offer (in order of increasing price) a free product, a cheap one (that would be the book, dear writers), the DVD/workbook series, the paid speaking engagements, and the consulting time. And now we're in a new world of offering both free and paid versions simultaneously, and learning that the free versions really can be great advertising that do sell the paid ones.
Comment by ginster plantagenet on March 5, 2010 at 11:38pm
We have a very current plagiarsme scandal with 17 year old German writer Helene Hegemann and her book 'Axolotl Roadkill' and you will find all kinds of interesting argumentation on what is right or wrong about this. Fact is, the book is better sold then all other 'decently' produced books. See and here,1518,678165,00.html
as well as
From the blogs 08.02.2010 (

"Axolotl Roadkill", the heavily hyped debut novel by 17-year-old Helene Hegeman has now been revealed to be the product of a lot of copying and pasting. The scandal broke after questions starting being asked about how a 16-year-old could write so convincingly about Berlin's nightclub Berghain. "The strict door policy in Berghain means that people who even look like they might be under 21 are refused entry," according to Deef Pirmasens in his blog Gefühlskonserve, who traced the passages back to the underground techno novel "Strobo" by a writer called Airen. A day later the blog announced: "Helene Hegemann apologises." Her full apology is published at buchmarkt de. "Airen, from whom I copied a whole page of writing, without changing much, copied more or less directly, is a great writer," she said.

Die Welt 09.02.2010

In an interview with Cosima Lutz, Helene Hegemann had the following to say about the accusations of plagiarism: "I don't see it as stealing because I have used the material in a completely different context which is entirely my own. And I have never pretended that any of this stuff was mine. When people insist on reinterpreting what I have written as the novel of the Noughties, then they have to recognise that the writing process is also a product of its time. This means that whole copyright excess has been replaced by the right to copy and transform."

The "Axelotl Roadkill" plagiarism scandal

Since last week's revelation (more here) that Helene Hegemann's feted debut novel "Axelotl Roadkill" contained large chunks of plagiarised material the feuilletons have continue to fret. Now the debate has turned back on itself:

In the Frankfurter Rundschau on 13 February a "prominent literary critic", writing under the pseudonym of Axel Lottel, directs the criticism away from the 17-year-old writer and in the direction of the critics: "Hegemann is not the problem. The problem is the critics. Over the course of this affair, the literary business has shown itself in a new, clearer light. The literary business, this is the embarrassing thing, whose feathers no one wants to ruffle, has been taken in by its own fictions. The literary business assimilated a young writer because she ticked every box the business had ever dreamed up. " And later: "embarrassing, embarrassing and yet more embarrassing."

On 18 February in Die Zeit, literary critic Iris Radisch, who compares the meetings of newspaper editors with a "Yemeni tee house", gets straight to the point. She detects "a misogynistic tone that harks back to the days of whiskers" and sees a cultural clash between the male-dominated cultural establishment, and the "slightly more female" domain of the online media: "Hegemann's worst crime was not that she kept quiet about her sources, or that she was a little too coquettish with drastic vocabulary. That would hardly been enough to provoke the sort of patriarchal brouhaha that we have been hearing. Her crime was that she transferred the chaos and the unscrupulousness of the internet media culture - a world that has yet to be subjected to the hierarchies of the male cartel - into the sphere of influence of the old literary culture, and provoked a head-on collision."

Hegemann's publishers, Ullstein Verlag, have now listed the passages in her book where the writing of others is appropriated. In all there are around 3 pages of a total of 200. Here as a pdf

Since Elfriede Jelinek writes her new novel only in her website, times do change indeed.
Comment by Jeri Bates on March 4, 2010 at 5:25pm
I think a good many of writers giving away their work are content just to have their say, knowing that their words will be read.

Comment by Heidi Mann on March 2, 2010 at 7:42am
Very thought-provoking. Thank you, Sarah!
Comment by Christina Brandon on March 2, 2010 at 5:58am
Great post! I agree with Jenne'. Much to ponder. I wonder if a main reason why Coelho was successful "giving" his stuff away was that he was an already well-established author?

Granted my experience in business and marketing is nil, and perhaps I'm still idealistic, but I think it's important that writers, or any artist creating great art, should be paid accordingly. Like what Hollye said, handing out freebies is a great way to promote yourself. But hopefully there's some way society can pay you so your art can be your living too.
Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on March 2, 2010 at 12:10am
I am so glad that Coelho had the courage to pursue this and find his audience. Admittedly writing can be a labor of love, but good writers deserves the dignity that pay would give them. Blogs pay an average of $20 per submission, if they pay anything. No one can make a living on that.

I'm not good with business or marketing, so I have no solutions to offer, but I honor all who are searching.

Meanwhile I continue to offer Writer Advice,, as a service to writers. It's thrilling to be able to publish writers for the first time and to have last year's contest winners pick those who will win this year. Thrilling. Not lucrative. At least I get to be my own boss.

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