Ebook discussions flying under the radar

A couple of weeks ago, I started seeing a pile of blog discussion about ebook piracy. It all started on January 12th, when Australian fan lucyham tweeted to author Sarah Rees Brennan:

Apologies. Have just torrented The Demon’s Lexicon. Will buy when laggardly, pickpocketing, luddite publishers in Aus get around to allowing Australians to buy books off Amazon. So sick of “Aussies can’t purchase this book” message.

A twitter storm ensued, which quickly made it to various blogs. Author Saundra Mitchell posted on her blog and also on her LiveJournal, saying:

If even HALF of those people who downloaded my book that week had bought it, I would have hit the New York Times Bestseller list. If the 800+ downloads a week of my book were only HALF converted into sales, I would earn out in one more month. But I’m never going to earn out. And my book is never going to be available in your $region, not for lack of trying.

Things took off quickly; there were almost 20 posts that day, mostly in response to Mitchell. In the next two weeks, or a little more, almost a hundred posts on the subject sprang up, more than two-thirds of which were on LiveJournal or Dreamwidth (a LiveJournal-like site, based on the same code; many people crosspost between the two.)

Reading these posts as they flowed past, I noticed several interesting things about them. Firstly, many of them were addressing the issues of ebook piracy from an angle I had never seen before, criticising the capitalist structures of book distribution and intellectual property from a social justice perspective. Secondly, most of the posts seemed to be by women. Thirdly, nobody outside the circles of LJ/DW fandom and social justice circles seemed to be noticing. It seemed a pity. I’m a regular reader or visitor to many tech blogs, including O’Reilly Radar, TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, and pop-culture-meets-tech blogs like Boing Boing, any of which might have picked up this story and run with it, if they’d been in the loop.

I wondered, though, whether I was missing something. I know that we tend to follow people most like ourselves online, and read things that reinforce our own views and opinions. If men disproportionately follow other men, maybe I’m disproportionately reading posts by women, and there were a whole bunch of posts by men that I’d missed. It’s happened before, after all.

Tonight I decided to investigate. Using Google Blog Search and following links from any posts I found, I put together a spreadsheet of posts, 112 in all, on the subjects of ebook piracy and international distribution, between Jan 10th and Jan 27th. (Why Jan 10th rather than 12th? Turns out that O’Reilly Radar had posted an article about ebook piracy and DRM on the 10th, which was referenced by other bloggers over the next few days, so it seemed worth including. More notes on my methods and choices made are at the bottom of this post.)

I then took the spreadsheet and ran it through a few lines of Perl to generate the following GraphViz graph:

ebooks discussion (600px)

Visualisation of the ebooks discussion. Version 1.0, 2011-02-01. Full image: SVG, PNG

Key:

  • A <- B means that post B linked to post A
  • Gender of poster is shown by colour of the nodes (pink for female, blue for male, grey for unknown/other)

Here’s what’s going on.

  • The giant tangled blob taking up most of the image is the discussion sparked by lucyham’s illegal download of Sarah Rees Brennan’s book, and Saundra Mitchell’s subsequent blog post. As you can see, there are the best part of 100 posts, mostly by women. This discussion ran from at least the 12th to the 27th of January (and the post you’re reading right now extends it into February).
  • At the top of the chart are some small clusters showing conversations not connected to the main LJ/DW conversation. The first is small cluster mostly around posts by Chris Walker of booksprung.com, criticising publishers who don’t make their books available to Australian consumers. This discussion ran from at least Jan 11th to 25th, but never crossed over with the discussion sparked by lucyham (also Australian).
  • Just below that is a set of posts about ebook piracy and DRM circumvention, mostly centred around O’Reilly Radar’s interview with Brian O’Leary, who says that DRM doesn’t prevent piracy. O’Reilly run the Tools of Change for Publishing conference, and that blog post was part of the lead-up to that event. This discussion played out from the 10th to the 18th of January, without linking to any of the other discussions in progress. (Nor, to be fair, being linked from them; the community discussing ebooks in January was as unaware of O’Reilly as O’Reilly were of them.)
  • At the extreme top right, a single post by Mike Shatzkin, on the globalisation of ebook publishing, was posted on Jan 21st but doesn’t link to any of the aforementioned conversations. It’s included purely because of its topicality, even though it wasn’t connected to anything else.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this, other than that my gut feeling was correct: there was a really fascinating, complicated, crunchy conversation going on, mostly among women, mostly on LJ/DW, that the tech blogs and other parts of the web don’t seem to have noticed. Make of that what you will.

If you missed the discussion and would like to catch up on some of the highlights, I would recommend:

Links to all ~100 posts are in the spreadsheet o’ doom.


Some notes on methodology

  • How I found posts: a) Google Blog Search for “ebook piracy” between Jan 10th and 31st, b) following links from any blog posts that showed up, c) “linkspam” posts, especially this one. (The LJ/DW community, especially those involved in fandom and social justice issues, have a tradition of gathering linkspams to document hot issues as they happen.) I followed up with additional blog searches for related phrases, for instance “saundra mitchell”, or “brian o’leary” to find more posts linking to his O’Reilly Radar interview.
  • What posts qualified: any post that had at least a paragraph of original opinion, or was linked to by any other post already in the set. Therefore, posts that simply linked without additional commentary didn’t count. Posts outside of the time period (Jan 10th to 31st) were not included, no matter how often linked.
  • What counted as a link: only links in the main body of the post; I didn’t look at links in comments. However, if there was a link to a comment thread, I counted that as a link to the parent post.
  • Gender: I based gender on the stated gender of the poster (in user profiles, self-referential pronouns, etc), given names, pictures of the poster, and/or circumstantial evidence, in roughly that order of preference. In many cases, I have met the poster in person, and so used my personal knowledge.
  • Proportion of LJ/DW posts: when calculating the number of LJ/DW posts in the conversation, I counted a post if it was crossposted to at least on LJ-like platform.

Please, if I missed anything, mis-categorised, or mis-gendered anyone, let me know, and I’ll update the spreadsheet and the generated graphics.

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