Guest Editorial: Cory Doctorow is a Bestselling Author, but Audible Won’t Carry his Audiobooks
Hey, everyone. I hope you’ll be willing to read another post about the problems with Audible and the current audiobook landscape. It has been a few months since I decided not to put my secret projects up on their platform, and want to keep the discussion going about the topic.To that end, I would like to try something we do only rarely on my website: have a guest editorial. Cory Doctorow (all around great guy and well-known blogger, speaker, and digital rights advocate) reached out to me about these issues. He has a sharp perspective on all of this. Indeed, one of the very first times I ever got an inkling that things were wrong with Audible, was because of a conversation I had with Cory. He’s an excellent writer, and I think you’ll appreciate what he has to say.He’s composed some thoughts on the larger problems with Audible and Amazon right now–not just the ones I highlighted. Give it a read! And if you’re interested, he’s doing his own Kickstarter for the audiobook of his latest novel Red Team Blues (which he refuses to put on Audible), and has posted the details at the bottom.-Brandon
Audible is a monopolist. The audiobook giant – a division of Amazon – controls more than 90 percent of the audiobook market in most commercially significant categories.
Audible built that monopoly the old-fashioned way: by cheating.
Audible is part of the Amazon conglomerate. Like all tech giants, Amazon’s growth strategy was to tap the capital markets to buy out potential rivals when they were just getting started, while selling products below cost to prevent new companies from springing up faster than Amazon could buy them out.
On the way, Amazon played us all. First, it gave customers a good deal, with deep subsidies on common products from diapers to hardcovers. It subsidized shipping and offered free returns.
All the while, the company was scheming to lock buyers to its platform. Some of those moves were overt, like selling us shipping a year at a time, in advance, through a program called Prime. Today, a supermajority of US households get locked into a year’s Amazon shopping through Prime subscriptions.
Some moves were sneakier, like the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) on ebooks and audiobooks. DRM is a kind of encryption that is marketed to creators and publishers as a way of preventing unauthorized copying.
In practice, pirates find it trivial to remove DRM, or – easier still! – find a copy of the same file that someone else already removed the DRM from. But while DRM doesn’t do much to prevent unauthorized use, it is a supremely powerful tool for preventing authorized use.
Under Section 1201 of 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it is a felony to provide someone with a tool to remove DRM, even if no copyright infringement takes place. And not just any felony! The penalty for violating DMCA 1201 is a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine…for a first offense.
That means that once you buy an ebook or audiobook that’s locked to Amazon with DRM, only Amazon can unlock it. If you break up with Amazon – or if a writer you love decides to take their books elsewhere – only Amazon can give you permission to move your books to a rival platform.
It’s as if every book you bought at Walmart could only be stored on a Walmart bookcase, to be read in a Walmart chair, under a Walmart lightbulb, and if the author of the book gave you a tool to let you use someone else’s shelves, chair or bulb, Walmart could send that author to prison for five years, for letting you transfer the book they wrote, whose copyright they hold.
The most incredible thing about DRM is that Amazon sold it to the publishers and rightsholders as a benefit, including it in a package of sweeteners and goodies that were designed to lock publishers into the platform – cheap advertising, generous recommendation policies, and high fees for writers who directly published on Amazon through Kindle Direct and the Audible Content Exchange (ACX).
Here we see parts one and two of the platform playbook: in part one, you dangle incentives for buyers, until they are locked into the system; in part two, you shift benefits to sellers, until they, too, are locked in.
In the final act, all the goodies are withdrawn from buyers and sellers alike, and transferred to the platform’s shareholders.
That’s where we are now.
Amazon shoppers can’t help but notice that buying on Amazon has gotten far worse: a search for a common product yields an entire screen of ads, and four more screens that are 50 percent advertising. Amazon’s $31 billion/year “advertising” product is primarily fueled by sellers who bid against each other to be at the top of your search results, whether or not their product is cheaper, better, or more closely matched to your search terms. The more a seller pays for ads, the more sales they get, but they also have to charge more and/or reduce quality to remain profitable after spending so much on advertising.
Sellers, too, are increasingly vocal about their worsening conditions on the platform. For ebook authors, the main culprit is the shifting terms in the Kindle marketplace, from royalty calculations to the ever-changing list of sins that can get you booted off the platform altogether, without explanation or appeal.
But things are much worse for audiobook authors.
Back in 2020, writers who used Audible Content Exchange (ACX, Audible’s self-serve platform for independent writers and small publishers) uncovered a massive wage-theft scandal they dubbed #Audiblegate.
ACX authors had long observed a system-wide decline in their sales figures, which they were at a loss to explain, especially in light of Amazon’s frequent pronouncements about the growth of ACX and Audible.
But eventually, they figured it out. Amazon wanted to lock subscribers to Audible by getting them to buy a book-per-month subscription, which would guarantee that if you wanted an audiobook, you’d get it on Audible, because you’d already paid for it. To make that deal more attractive, Amazon offered an incredibly generous returns policy – after buying an Audible book, you had a year to return it, no questions asked.
Amazon also went to great lengths to make sure its subscribers knew about this offer. When you finished listening to a book all the way through, you’d get a pop-up asking you if you wanted to return it for a full refund of your one-book credit.
If you ignored that come-on, Amazon bombarded you with emails and other invitations to return the book, whether you’d never finished the book, or had listened to it three times in a row and written a glowing review.
How could Amazon afford such a generous returns policy?
Simple: they made authors pay for it.
Every time a listener returned an audiobook, Audible clawed back the royalty that the author would otherwise be due. ACX authors financed their own audiobooks, and were required to guarantee Amazon a seven-year exclusivity window, as well as submitting to having every copy of the book they sold locked to Amazon’s platform for all eternity with DRM.
ACX authors were outraged by #Audiblegate, and rightly so. A campaign launched by Susan May, an ACX author from Perth, Australia quickly gathered steam. One ACX author, the forensic accountant-turned-finance thriller writer Colleen Cross, took a deep dive into Audible’s royalty calculations and determined that the company’s returns policy was just the tip of the iceberg. Amazon misrepresented everything about its royalty scheme, shuffling numbers behind the scenes.
All told, Cross believes that Audible has stolen in excess of $100 million from its authors. The company advertises a 40% royalty for exclusive titles; the true rate is 21%. For nonexclusive titles, Audible promises 25%, but really pays 13%.
Stealing $100 million from authors is a dirty trick indeed, but it would be a mistake to view Amazon as a uniquely immoral company. Amazon is behaving as any monopolist would, free from either the discipline of competition or regulation, holding the whip-hand over its suppliers and customers thanks to DRM lock-in.
The problem with Audible is not that it makes a wide catalog of audiobooks available through a convenient app. The problem is that Audible uses technology, accounting fraud, and market power to steal vast fortunes from creative workers and the audiences who love their books.
It need not be this way. Amazon’s abuse is not the result of some special defect in the character of its managers, but rather, a defect in the structure of the market. Once Congress created a law like the DMCA, designed to help corporations to usurp the relationship between creators and their audiences, this kind of ripoff was inevitable.
After all, Amazon isn’t the only company that uses DRM to extract billions from people who make things and the people who buy the things they make – think of Apple, which uses the DMCA to make installing apps without using the App Store into a felony, and then rakes off 30 cents from every dollar you spend in an app.
Our dysfunctional Congress has been struggling to take action on Big Tech, getting closer with each legislative session – this session’s ad-tech breakup bill is ambitious and well-wrought, with a diverse list of sponsors that includes both Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren. Who knows, maybe this one will pass, and be the first domino in a chain reaction that (eventually) forces Amazon and other tech giants to play fair.
Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission is under new management, a young prodigy named Lina Khan who made her bones writing a seminal paper on Amazon’s market abuse when she was just a law student – just three years before assuming the helm of the world’s most powerful consumer protection agency, which had, for decades, declined to use that power. Perhaps Chairwoman Khan will bring Amazon to heel.
But we have a role to play, too – both as writers and as readers.
I have never permitted DRM on any of my works, which means that none of my audiobooks are for sale on Audible. This is a consequential decision: my agent tells me that it cost me a fully paid-off mortgage and a fully funded college savings account for my daughter.
But for more than a decade, I’ve paid to produce my own audiobooks, to be sold everywhere except Audible, paying incredible narrators like Neil Gaiman, Amber Benson (Tara from Buffy, and a brilliant writer in her own right) and Wil Wheaton to record them at Skyboat Media, a legendary LA studio. These books aren’t cheap to make, and while they sell well relative to other titles on non-Audible, DRM-free platforms like libro.fm, Google Play and downpour.com, the total numbers are still anemic, a tiny fraction of my ebook and print book sales and far fewer than my peers in the field get from Audible.
During the lockdown, I decided to try something different. Using Kickstarter, I pre-sold the audiobook for Attack Surface. The campaign broke every audiobook crowdfunding record, topping $268,000 (a record that Brandon went on to comprehensively smash, of course!).
Last year, I repeated the trick, crowdfunding audio for Chokepoint Capitalism, a nonfiction book I co-wrote with the Australian copyright scholar Rebecca Giblin, about how monopoly in the arts screws over creative workers, and what to do about it.
We made a small exception to our no-Audible policy for this book: we packaged the chapter about #Audiblegate and Audible’s other ripoffs as an “Audible Exclusive” and uploaded it to Audible via ACX. That’s the only part of the book you can get on Audible.
And now, I’m doing it again.
Red Team Blues is the first volume in my new series about Martin Hench, a hard-charging, 67 year old forensic accountant who has spent 40 years unwinding Silicon Valley’s sleaziest finance scams. I wrote it in a white-hot fury during lockdown, from idea to first draft in six weeks flat.
The last time I blasted out a book that quickly, it was Little Brother, which has been a New York Times bestseller three times over, translated into dozens of languages, and adapted for stage. From the moment I finished Red Team Blues, I thought I had something special. A week later, I knew it, after my editor at Tor bought the book and two sequels for a fantastic advance.
The book comes out on April 25th, and it’s already swept the trade magazines, with starred reviews all around. I’m just a few weeks away from an extensive tour of the US, Canada, the UK and Germany.
What’s more, I just got out of the studio, where Wil Wheaton recorded a stupendous audiobook of the novel.
That audiobook will not be sold on Audible.
Instead, I’m in the middle of another successful, high-profile Kickstarter campaign for it. Preselling the audiobook through Kickstarter makes the finances of producing an expensive, high quality audiobook work – and of course, the profits make up for the massive losses I’ve incurred because Audible refuses to carry my DRM-free books.
But more importantly, the audiobook serves as an object lesson to my fellow writers. As a group, writers have to contend with a brutal collective action problem. If a sufficient number of well-regarded, well-selling writers withheld their books from Audible – if only for the ninety days after release – we could bring Audible to heel and force it to give us the option to sell our work without DRM.
After all, the thing Audible fears more than anything else is competition. The company’s most valuable asset is its lock-in over writers and listeners. Without that lock-in, the profits from every sleazy trick would have to be weighed against the losses from writers and readers leaving the platform in disgust.
Remember, all of this starts with control over buyers. Locking you in lets Audible lock us in. If you were to try, say, Libro.fm and discover what a fantastic experience it offered, and shift your habits from automatically buying on Audible to automatically buying on Libro, the company would lose its hold on you – and thus on us.
Convincing a critical mass of writers to push back against Amazon’s abuses won’t be easy, but writers do understand the risk of being at the mercy of a company with a well-deserved reputation for bullying its suppliers and wringing every last cent out of them.
Successful independent campaigns that prove that buyers are willing to shop off Amazon. They prove that readers buy audiobooks because they want to support writers, not buy more rocket ships for Jeff Bezos. A successful indie campaign makes for a hell of a convincer for a hell of a lot of writers.
I hope you’ll consider backing my Kickstarter – in service to a better future for audiobooks, and a damned fine literary experience. To quote my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who read Red Team Blues overnight and emailed me once he’d turned the last page:
A! F***ing! Ride!