"Children's book for adults" ransacks bestseller list with help from pirates

By Harriet Staff

You might not be able to read the bedtime story Go the Fuck to Sleep to your children, but you can certainly read them the reassuring tale in The Bay Citizen about how a bunch of PDF pirates illicitly propelled the book to Amazon's number one bestseller before it was even published.

Once upon a time, the kingdoms of the RIAA and the MPAA waged war against the pirates for stealing all of their valuable Metallica and The Santa Clause 2 reserves and distributing copies to the peasants. Then, with the pirates either shut down or untouchable offshore, they decided to go to war against the peasants directly, using their still copious reserves to sue suburban moms whose worst crimes were a love of Mariah Carey and a lack of understanding of how peer-to-peer sharing made them complicit in piracy and illegal distribution networks. Since the kingdoms didn't distinguish anymore between the pirates and the peasants, the peasants decided the kingdom didn't deserve their allegiance and almost quit buying stuff entirely (well, until iTunes and Netflix came along and piracy numbers for music and movies finally began to subside slightly).

Meanwhile, the kingdom of publishing thought, "Wow, that's a hot mess. Good thing those pirates only steal a small percentage of our books," and largely ignored the whole phenomenon. While some musicians and filmmakers were early advocates for distributing their work for free online as a way to actually boost visibility and sales of physical copies after they began to see the writing on the wall, a handful of authors like Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman were notable for putting their books out there digitally before it felt like an industry imperative. In their cases, though, the consensus seemed to be that that would work only if the author already had a following.

With the success of Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep, The Bay Citizen's Reyhan Harmanci speculates that something else is at play, namely a perfect viral storm.

In an age of e-books, piracy has been a rising concern amongst publishers for a few years, although none of the publishers contacted by The Bay Citizen could recall a PDF of a book going viral in the vein of "Go the Fuck to Sleep." This volume had a few key properties that enabled its electronic popularity: an undeniable title, a good-looking cover and a short length, making it easy to read, post and pass on. Also, the long lag time between the book's pre-sale (it was originally scheduled to go on sale in October) and the buzz made online sharing necessary.

And with that, Brooklyn-based publisher Akashic Books had a hit on its hands despite the fact that it engaged in no direct promotion until this week. They now find themselves in the odd position of feeling like they have to police something that's doing much more good than harm, just on principle. After all, Fox 2000 probably optioned the movie rights after one of the pirated PDFs landed in a Hollywood executive's inbox, not because the publisher dropped a copy in the mail.

"The copies have been proliferating since this craziness started," said Ibrahim Ahmad, senior editor at the Brooklyn-based press, "With a PDF, you can make so many duplicates and people have just been forwarding it."

And Akashic been doing what they can to control distribution of the document by asking people to take down any posted PDFs. This may not be much. "As the publisher of this book, our responsibilty is to tackle instances of piracy when we become aware of them," Ahmad said, "That's just doing a service to our authors, ourselves, book sellers, distributors, to everyone involved in the successful making and promotion of a book."

As Go the Fuck to Sleep and many other recent cases clearly show, the way to execute "the successful making and promotion of a book" is becoming more difficult to control and predict. If there's one thing that can be learned from other media industries, however, it's that suing cash-strapped and sleep-deprived parents probably isn't the answer to living happily the fuck ever after.

Originally Published: May 17th, 2011