The Secret History Of The Bookaneers

05/15/2015 12:52 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

last bookaneer

"Bookaneer? What's that?" That's a question I've heard since first telling people my new novel is called The Last Bookaneer. In the past I've abided by the unspoken rule of book titles--don't choose unfamiliar words that can be mispronounced or misspelled--but this time I liked the mystery to the term. The golden age of book pirates, after all, remains shrouded in mystery.

Up until the final decade of the nineteenth century, the United States and the United Kingdom did not recognize copyright in each other's creative works. Free of legalese, put it this way: if you were a British writer, American publishers could freely print and release your book to their marketplace, and the same went for American writers in relation to British publishers. This created an imbalance by the time consumers saw the works at a bookstore or bookstand. Books written by local authors, who were to receive royalties, might cost $1, while books by foreign authors could go for as little as ten cents, since publishers had smaller overhead costs. Today, writing and publishing a book remains a practice that promises no easy ways to earn a living, but having to compete with vastly cheaper imports made it much harder back then--one reason authors such as Edgar Allan Poe were sometimes paid in copies of their own books.

Without requiring a foreign author's permission to publish, it became a race among publishers to get their hands first on a manuscript--or more likely the proof sheets (that is, the text already set in type). Interested as I was in the publishers who pirated books, I was truly intrigued by the men (and presumably women) who were their foot soldiers. The publishers devised strategies and made the decisions to pursue certain titles based on the authors' popularity and chances of success, but they probably wouldn't have been the ones out on the streets bribing, cajoling, or stealing to get their hands on a hot title. I came across one report of such operatives sent by publishers to stand watch at the harbors for an arriving ship transporting an anticipated novel.

For my purposes, I decided to call these special agents--these literary bounty hunters--the "bookaneers," a term I'd come across before in my research and really liked. It was coined by a poet and author named Thomas Hood. He used the word to paint the book pirates broadly, but for the purposes of my novel I applied it to this otherwise unnamed class of people who would have done the dirtiest of the dirty work.

Another reason I chose a term that might at first trigger an onlooker to pause was that I liked how the word "bookaneer" played with the intersection of the literary and the actual pirates or buccaneers of the high seas. This leads me to one of the most interesting facts about the nineteenth century fight against book piracy: it wasn't actually piracy. Not technically, according to the law.

Now, it's possible (probable, actually) that those literary bounty hunters were willing to skirt other laws when trying to get their hands on a valuable text. But the act of publishing a foreign author's work without permission was in itself perfectly legal. Moreover, major authors who complained experienced the same kind of backlash from the public as today's top musicians sometimes face when they speak up against illegal downloads of music. People play the greed card against them. From James Fenimore Cooper to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Charles Dickens, authors who tried to argue against the established system were shouted down as avaricious, and they often nervously retreated from the fight.

Truth was, money was but one of the issues at hand. The integrity of the creation was also at risk. Pirated editions often used proofs that authors had not fully corrected or polished. Sometimes piratical publishers assembled works by multiple authors into one volume. Titles were changed, or even other content modified in the book. In one case, Robert Louis Stevenson's last name was misspelled by New York publisher Hurst & Co. as "Stephenson." But all this was fairly esoteric and too obscure to persuade the public to pay more for books.

So authors and their allies regrouped and did what came naturally: they created narratives. The narratives portrayed the non-authorized (yet legal) publishers as pirates violating their natural rights. Authorized editions of a book sometimes had a note in the front appealing to moral senses of the reader by explaining it was the only edition that paid the author. Copyright clubs were formed that attracted media attention to the cause by bringing together famous writers at dinners. Cartoons were published showing publishers like the Harper Brothers dressed as swashbuckling, sword-wielding rogues seizing ships of helpless authors. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem directly dramatizing the publishers as attacking pirates. "Does he steal with tears when he buccaneers?" Kipling's victim asks. "'Fore Gad, then why does he steal?"

Finally, the law caught up with the narrative when an agreement for international copyright was put into place in 1891. The bookaneers, for the most part, vanished, while their employers had to adapt to the new landscape or move on. It's easy to forget that this historic transformation had relied on a kind of slow-growing shadow copyright regime created by rhetoric supported by some of our greatest authors--rhetoric that went outside the actual legal parameters to reshape the way we thought about intellectual property. (It is also easy overlook how this kind of rhetorical reshaping continues today. The intimidating language of FBI warnings before sports games and DVDs, in some ways, creates a perception of ownership that's not quite there, because the cautions obscure or ignore established concepts such as fair use that carve out exceptions to our more airtight modern copyright.)

I wasn't sure whether to feel it appropriate or eerie, maybe flattering and maybe not, when months before publication time came I noticed The Last Bookaneer available online for illegal download. Real-life bookaneers find ways to adapt.