Inaudible

Inaudible

I am emphatically not a self-published author: I did one short story collection on my own, made a goodly sum, but got no writing done for six months and realised that my publishers are definitely earning their keep. But this week, I launched a Kickstarter to sell pre-orders of my self-produced audiobook of my next novel, Attack Surface (the third volume in my bestselling Little Brother series), because the alternative was selling out to Amazon in ways that I simply can't accept.

Here's the issue: Amazon owns Audible. Audible controls the vast majority of the audiobook market, and it has a no-exceptions policy of slapping Amazon's DRM on every audiobook sold there. Though these digital locks are billed as "copyright protection," it's the matter of a few minutes' googling to remove them (some protection!), but providing DRM-removal tools is a felony in the States, under Article 6 of the EUCD and Section 1201 of the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (other stupid, overreaching, badly thought-through, oligarch copyright laws are available, consult your local legislature for details).

Here's what that means for authors and publishers: every time we sell an audiobook through Amazon, it is locked to Amazon's platform...forever. And it's a felony, punishable in the USA by a 5-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine, to provide a reader with the tools to take their audiobooks elsewhere.

Again, Amazon claims this is for the protection of copyright proprietors - authors and publishers - and the fact that this locks those readers into Amazon for all eternity is a mere coincidence. I don't buy it.

The problem is, if you won't let your publisher sell your audiobooks on Amazon then they don't want your audibooks. I can't blame 'em. Amazon controls virtually the entire market for audiobooks, so saying no to them is a career-limiting move.

But I live in LA, blocks from Skyboat Media, the same studio that Macmillan and Random House (and Audible) use to record many of their frontlist titles. And I'm friends with (and willing to pay scale to) some of the great voice actors of the industry (who also live in my neighbourhood).

Which is how, at the start of the plague, I found myself on a week-long Zoom call with Cassandra de Cuir of Skyboat and Amber Benson (Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and also a stupendous novelist) in her home studio, recording the audiobook for Attack Surface. Over the intervening months, we've mastered the audio, including recording pickups for lines I changed as the book went through production at Tor/Macmillan and Head of Zeus.

I've got a long-standing deal with my publishers whereby I retail my own e-books, allowing readers to buy direct from me and give me the share that Jeff Bezos would trouser otherwise. Thus, I was able to list the e-books for the trilogy in the Kickstarter alongside the audio editions in various permutations.

I'm writing this a day and a half into the campaign and we've just hit $92,000, which is serious money, but I'm more interested in units: I've sold 6,000 e-books and audiobooks in 36 hours, and I'm just getting started. My goal is to pre-sell at least 10,000 e-books and 10,000 audiobooks; figures that, I think, will change the way publishers think about authors who don't want to kowtow to Amazon's bullying.

My goal is to usher in an era where the dread phrase "Audible Exclusive" means "exclusive of Audible" - for sale everywhere except on a monopolist's platform where authors have no choice but to sell their audiences into perpetual bondage.

I love doing it this way: the e-books I sell benefit my publishers (I remit 70% of the sale price to them), and me (I get Bezos's 30% and then my publishers send me 25% of the remainder as a royalty) and my agent (who gets his 15% of the cut my publisher sends back to me). What's more, the publicity ginned up by the presales drives retail sales for the print editions, and gives me a massive list of readers that I can promote indepedent booksellers to once the book ships.

In 2009, Amazon remotely deleted copies of 1984 that readers had bought, in response to a claim from the Orwell estate. In 2019, Microsoft revoked every single e-book it had ever sold from every device in the world. Both times, the tech giants offered refunds to readers and told them to suck it up.

I was a bookseller for years and once I sold you a book, it was yours. Nothing - not a claim from the useless professional descendants of a long-dead writer nor the callous indifference of tech execs in a Redmond boardroom - could compel me to come over to your house and take the books back. And if I did, it would not be okay, not even (and I can't stress this enough) if I gave you your money back.

Books are older than paper, older than bookbinding. Bookselling is older than copyright. The idea that some jumped-up Big Tech firm can paste some text into a digital format, tack on a garbage-novella of impenetrable legalese (READ CAREFULLY: BY BUYING THIS BOOK MENE MENE TECKEL UPHARSIN ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE) and declare the ancient compact between writers, readers and booksellers null and void...well, it's unacceptable.

And I, for one, will not accept it.

Cory Doctorow is the author of the Little Brother series, the most recent volume of which is Attack Surface (Head of Zeus, Oct 2020). He is a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group.