November 7, 2012

In Russia, ebooks pirate you


When his debut novel was published, author Peter Mountford innocently set up a Google Alert for news relating to his book. This took him down a strange path, as he recounts in The Atlantic.

Once the initial flurry of book publicity subsided, he began to get alerts about his book being discussed on the online translation message board

A WordReference user named AlexanderIII, based out of Moscow, was regularly querying the online message board, asking other users about the best way to translate passages from Mountford’s book.

Mountford describing Bolivian street kids as being “zooted on shoe polish”, attracted the following exchange,

“AlexanderIII: Did this mean the kids had smoked marijuana before shining shoes?

PaulQ: As you can see from the context, it is highly unlikely that the shoeshine boys would be smoking marijuana on boot polish. From = Zooted: “being so f*cking high/drunk the only words you can say are nigga im zooted.”

Shoe polish can be melted to provide a drink (?) that will have strongly intoxicating effects. It is usually drunk by severe alcoholics or others too poor to afford proprietary alcohol, beer/wine/spirits/etc. (Do not try this at home.)

AlexanderIII: I see. Thank you very much, PaulQ. I’ve checked Urbandictionary but somehow have not found about drinking the melted shoe polish. This seems to suit best.”

Watching AlexanderIII struggle with “white-liberal guilt,” musing that white liberal guilt meant “the guilt for consuming white substance (cocaine)” must have been a little painful for the writer.

When AlexanderIII told another user that he was trying to get the translation correct “for a publisher”, however, Mountford wondered if someone in Russia had bought the rights to his book. Unfortunately, it was not so, and it became clear the hapless translator was assisting in pirating the book.

In fact, Russia has a very organized ebook pirating industry. Mountford reports that, “pirated books reportedly compose up to 90 percent of Russian ebook downloads. According to Rospechat, the state agency that regulates mass media, Russians have access to more than 100,000 pirated titles and just 60,000 legitimate titles, with illegal downloads costing legitimate vendors several billion rubles a year.” In fact, one of Melville House’s authors, John Reed, has discovered that his book Snowball’s Chance (appropriately, a satire of Orwell’s Animal Farm) is a highly downloaded ebook title in Russia. Sadly, also pirated.

Mountford told The Guardian,

“Because ebooks are growing so quickly in Russia — twice as many ebooks sold in 2011 than 2010, the pirate market is expected to continue to gobble market share from legal book sellers. It’s not only that the black market books are cheaper, Rospechat estimates that there are more than 100,000 pirated titles available, whereas legitimate sellers only offer about 60,000 titles. Not surprisingly, the lawful Russian publishers are being crushed by the illicit market.”

Mountford took the long view on the matter, deciding that it was enough that his book would reach more readers this way. He even reached out to AlexanderIII, and offered to assist with his translating questions. AlexanderIII responded, and began to pepper the author with translation queries, for example what on earth was a “vivid chin”.

As Mountford told The Guardian,

“If the pirated version becomes a best-seller in Russia – seems unlikely, but if it happens – maybe one of the official publishers will make an offer, too. Maybe I’ll sell Chinese rights?” he said. And he believes his situation is only the tip of the iceberg – just looking at AlexanderIII’s posts on WordReference, the translator has also been working extensively on Dennis Lehane‘s Gone, Baby, Gone. What could “I am fucking down with that, brother” mean, he asks.”



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.