13 May 09 | Chad W. Post

Just when you thought the Times had figured out how to correctly pair writers with appropriate topics . . . Kidding—the Times will never get that straight. Here’s some clips from today’s review of Lost‘s season finale:

[. . .] the producers of “Lost,” who have devoted the show’s fourth and penultimate season (which ends on Wednesday) to the more mind-bendingly nonsensical dimensions of its sci-fi-ness.

Uh, that would be the “fifth and penultimate season.” And a quick trip to Wikipedia or ABC.com could verify that fact. (I’m way more lenient with the Washington Times claiming a book was translated from Syrian than with the NY Times fucking up a simple pop culture reference. When you’re the “paper of record” you ought to be able to count.)

I don’t want to get into a long-winded defense of Lost — there are other things to complain about than this wildly off-the-mark review, which uses the word “limned” (! — is this Kakutani in disguise?) and seems to be written by someone pretty unfamiliar with the show.

(One last Lost comment: Will Leitch’s bit on Jack Shephard in his weekly Ten Humans of the Week column is way better: “Jack is just a drunk surgeon with daddy issues and a serious case of inflated self-importance, and the great joke about his character is that everyone keeps blindly following him into disaster even though his decisions are always, always wrong. Well, the big gimmick for the final episode is that Jack is trying to detonate a hydrogen bomb on the island, with the idea that it will change history and allow the original flight that crashed on the island to land as was initially scheduled. This is a terrible, awful, hilariously stupid idea — he is trying set off a hydrogen bomb!”)

In other Times goings on, this article by Motoko Rich on e-book piracy has attracted a lot of responses from the blogosphere, including posts from Moby Lives and Book Square, pointing out how incredibly late to the game the Times is with this “news.”

Rather than dump on the Times for being out of touch, I think it’s more interesting to look at all the infuriating, yet typical (and infuriating because they are typical), responses from publishers and mainstream authors about online book piracy.

First we get Ursula Le Guin getting all pissed off (“Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?”), followed by Hachette’s Sisyphean tactic of endless legal action (“Our legal department is spending an ever-increasing time policing sites where copyrighted material is being presented”), then Stephen King trying to be above it all, but instead taking pot shots at bloggers internet users (“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys” [. . .] “And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer”), and ending with Harlan Ellison’s out and out threat (“If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.”)

And buried amid all this sky is falling outrage from people who haven’t learned a damn thing from the movie or music industries, Motoko throws in a few moments of sanity:

“If iTunes started three years earlier, I’m not sure how big Napster and the subsequent piratical environments would have been, because people would have been in the habit of legitimately purchasing at pricing that wasn’t considered pernicious,” said Richard Sarnoff, a chairman of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer titles.

Huh, who would’ve thunk?

And more to the point for non-mainstream writers:

Others view digital piracy as a way for new readers to discover writers. Cory Doctorow, a novelist whose young adult novel “Little Brother” spent seven weeks on the New York Times children’s chapter books best-seller list last year, offers free electronic versions of his books on the same day they are published in hardcover. He believes free versions, even unauthorized ones, entice new readers.

“I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It’s obscurity.”

Speaking of which, Cory wrote a post at BoingBoing yesterday about a recent study on the impact of free online book releases on print version sales. From the Bloggasm’s coverage of the report from John Hilton, a doctoral candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University:

On March 4 of this year, Random House announced that it would release five books for free through its science fiction portal, all of which came in downloadable PDF files (among other formats). Hilton recorded the before and after book sales and found that “one of the five books has had zero sales in 2009. So no sales before or after the free version. But the other four books all saw significant sales increases after the free versions were released. In total, combined sales of the five books were up 11%. Together they sold 4,633 copies the 8 weeks prior to being released free and 5,155 copies the eight weeks after being released.”

There are more factors that muddy these results, and the e-releases that Tor did resulted in fewer sales for 20 of 24 titles, but based on these results, it’s clear that the impact of free e-versions of books (or even pirated versions) is much more complicated than most industry insiders and mainstream authors would have you believe.

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