Cory Doctorow Launches a Bookstore Where Authors Sell on Behalf of Publishers – Wait, What?

Cory Doctorow just announced his support for an ebookstore platform that has me scratching my head.

It's not just that he has apparently abandoned his support for free Creative Commons-licensed ebooks in favor of selling ebooks (welcomes to 2007, Cory!) but also that he believes that authors should be sales staff for publishers.

From PW:

Walkaway has traditional publishers, and it will have a traditional e-book edition. But I'm going to sell that e-book in a nontraditional way. I'm launching an e-book store with the book, a store that I've privately developed for the past three years, code named "Shut Up and Take My Money" (SUATMM). SUATMM is what I like to call a fair trade e-book store, in which the writer also serves as a retailer.

There are many small, niche-oriented e-book stores serving highly specific markets, but SUATMM is different. It's a retail platform that lets authors with traditional publishers serve as retailers for their those publishers, on the same terms as Amazon, Kobo, Google, BN.com, Apple, and other giants. Those stores have resources no individual author (save, perhaps, the delightfully DRM-free J.K. Rowling) can muster. In particular, they can manage a seamless experience that no indie bookstore can hope to match.

Buying an e-book from a website and sideloading it onto your Kindle will never be as easy as buying it from the Kindle store (though if the world's governments would take the eminently sensible step of legalizing jailbreaking, someone could develop a product that let Kindles easily access third-party stores on the obvious grounds that if you buy a Kindle, you still have the right to decide whose books you'll read on it, otherwise you don't really own that Kindle). But a bookstore operated by an author has an advantage no giant tech platform can offer: a chance to buy your e-books in a way that directly, manifestly benefits the author.

As an author, being my own e-book retailer gets me a lot. It gets me money: once I take the normal 30 percent retail share off the top, and the customary 25 percent royalty from my publisher on the back-end, my royalty is effectively doubled. It gives me a simple, fair way to cut all the other parts of the value-chain in on my success: because this is a regular retail sale, my publishers get their regular share, likewise my agents. And, it gets me up-to-the-second data about who's buying my books and where.

It also gets me a new audience that no retailer or publisher is targeting: the English-speaking reader outside of the Anglosphere. Travel in Schengen, for example, and you will quickly learn that there are tens of millions of people who speak English as a second (or third, or fourth) language, and nevertheless speak it better than you ever will. Yet there is no reliable way for these English-preferring readers, who value the writer's original words, unfiltered by translation, to source legal e-books in English.

Amazon and its competitors typically refuse outright to deal with these customers, unable to determine which publisher has the right to sell to them. Most publishing contracts declare these nominally non-English-speaking places to be "open territory" where in theory all of the book's publishers may compete, but in practice, none of them do.

Even in the Anglosphere, readers are often left to their own devices. Told that Amazon U.S. can't sell the book to them, they must discover for themselves where to find the book on Amazon U.K. But acting as my own retailer, I can easily determine who gets the publisher's end of the payment: in the U.S. and Canada, it's Tor; in the U.K. and the Commonwealth, it's Head of Zeus. Everywhere else—all that open territory—it’s me.

For the other defined territories, it's a simple matter of calculating the remittances and sending payments and statements to my other publishers, just like any other retailer. The difference being that rather than my publishers sending me 25% of the money due twice a year in the form of a royalty check, I am in control of the money.

In case you are wondering, Doctorow is apparently talking about BookGrail, the (Gumroad slash Aer.io) platform from UK publisher Head of Zeus. (Or at least that platform was briefly mentioned in his post; Doctorow doesn't explicitly say how his brainstorm would work.)

When I first read this I first thought about taking Cory to task for his anti-Amazon FUD (he blames Amazon for only selling ebooks where suppliers tell it to).

I also thought about pointing out direct sales have never lived up to the hype.

While it is easy to buy ebooks in the Kindle Store, it's difficult to find much less buy ebooks in niche 3rd-party ebookstores (hence why Harry Potter ebooks are available everywhere, why Baen Books moved into the Kindle Store - not away, and why Hachette never launched its Kindle Store competitor).

But I am not going to make that point because this effort might have enough publicity to succeed. (Plus I want authors to sell direct because they get more money.)

Instead, I want to point out Doctorow's blind spot: the unwarranted assumption that authors need or even should be doing business with publishers.

The thing about Cory Doctorow is that he was an ebook pioneer. Ten years ago he was advocating that ebooks should be released DRM-free and under a Creative Commons license so that all could gain access (this mattered more in the pre-Kindle era when it was difficult to buy ebooks even in the US). He even went so far as to forbid his publisher from selling the ebook.

But like many pioneers, Doctorow advanced only so far. He never managed to shed his original assumptions and keep up with the times.

For example, Doctorow still thinks authors should do business with publishers.

It's 2017, and publishers now expect authors to do their own marketing, blog regularly, be active on social media, and ideally already have their audience built before the contract is signed.

And now Doctorow wants authors to also

  • Sell ebooks for publishers,
  • And handle payments,
  • And remit the money to publishers in several countries?

Okay, but if authors are going to do all this work then why sign with a publisher in the first place?

It's 2017, and authors can control their work completely, they can hire the help they need, and they can cut out middlemen by dealing directly with retailers like Amazon.

Who would they give up control, and a lot of money, just to act as a salesperson for a publisher?

image by Joi

About Nate Hoffelder (11211 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

12 Comments on Cory Doctorow Launches a Bookstore Where Authors Sell on Behalf of Publishers – Wait, What?

  1. The problem with Doctorow is that rather than self-publish, he made an unholy alliance with big publishers early on, that completely flew in the face of all his Creative Commons, the internet should be free stuff. I don’t know if he liked the advance, or the validation that came with a big company, but he effectively cut his royalties at least in half by allowing the publishers to control his back catalogues.

    So it’s so weird for him to talk about taking 30% off the top for his retail store, and then giving his publishers 70%, of which he then gets 25%. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that maybe Amazon’s deal is better, they take 30% and he would get 70%. (And, they sell a LOT MORE BOOKS than his website will.)

    Many of his trailblazing opinions about the internet didn’t really make sense. (He advocated very strongly that artists always get screwed by big companies, that the internet would make it worse-WRONG-and that was was needed was more government intervention-WRONG.)

    But the biggest problem might be, despite all the hype around him, apparently he doesn’t sell many books. I’ve never bothered to read any of them, but if they were that great, it seems he wouldn’t have to keep coming up with weird schemes to sell them to third world countries and through his own website.

    • I think it’s the validation.

      Before he was an author, Doctorow was a blogger. He still helps run BoingBoing, a popular blog. That blog was so popular that Doctorow could have used it as a platform to build a career as an indie author (think xkcd, or The Oatmeal).

      So he has the platform to go indie and succeed, and yet he continues to sign with Tor.

      • Tor has some great editors. Could be he’s one of those writers who likes working with a knowledgeable, professional editor.

        The idea that going indie and self-publishing is the only way forward for everyone is as wrongheaded as the idea that traditional publishing is the only way forward for everyone. Doctorow’s no dummy. This new thing sounds odd, but you know, he seems to be doing pretty well making his own decisions.

        • I have no problem with him traditionally publishing. But he seems to have a problem with Amazon making it easy for others to self-publish because he constantly bashes them and hints for government intervention. He does this without even minimally acknowledging the sea change in new opportunities for indy writers thanks to Amazon. (Or admitting he has an inherent bias because he prefers to work with traditional publishers.)

          As far as him not being a dummy: okay. But some of his ideas, including this one, sure sound dumb.

          • I’d bet the reason he and others have such a bad case of ADS is because there’s no way for him to ‘stand out’ on Amazon – other than by selling lots of ebooks (and doing it from a level playing field with all the other self/indie/trad-pub ebooks.)

            As far as running his own site? I (and many others) trust our CC info with Amazon, why do I need to trust it to yet another third party? (and that’s if I ever hear about/find his website.)

  2. Doctorow still offers his ebooks DRM-free on his website. I don’t get the point of the “Shut Up and Take My Money” store, but maybe it will work out for him.

    A reason to have a publisher is supposedly they are professionals, so they handle the cover art, copyediting, copyright things and other stuff one needs for a book as well as the author getting an advance. An author can contract out those services, but some people like the one stop shop and the advance.

  3. “It also gets me a new audience that no retailer or publisher is targeting: the English-speaking reader outside of the Anglosphere. … Yet there is no reliable way for these English-preferring readers, who value the writer’s original words, unfiltered by translation, to source legal e-books in English.
    Amazon and its competitors typically refuse outright to deal with these customers, unable to determine which publisher has the right to sell to them. Most publishing contracts declare these nominally non-English-speaking places to be “open territory” where in theory all of the book’s publishers may compete, but in practice, none of them do.”

    Really? I must be browsing an alternate Amazon or Kobo website, full of English books, in my Amazon/Kobo.es account. I maintain the .com accounts because sometimes is cheaper to buy the books with those accounts, but after the 2010 nonsense with the Agency clauses and geographical restrictions, the English books have been available in Spanish bookstores for some years.

  4. “But a bookstore operated by an author has an advantage no giant tech platform can offer: a chance to buy your e-books in a way that directly, manifestly benefits the author.”

    Except those that indie publish on Kindle or Kobo. Idiot.

    Only a traditionally published writer perceives Amazon, Apple, Nook and Kobo as villains and the big 5 as the good guys and then mistakenly thinks that everyone else shares their point of view.

    The reality is that what most people see is Amazon fighting to give us discounts and great prices while big 5 would have us paying inflated prices always. Most people see Amazon as the platform that allows the would be author to be published when they didn’t have that chance before. And on top of that it’s way easier to buy books on your kindle then it would be to sideload from another site.

    A store that offers the reader nothing and is built in anti-amazon sentiment is doomed to fail.

  5. Pretty sure if I set up my own ebook shop on my website I can get 100% royalties minus the expenses. I really don’t see the point to paying a publisher for the privilege of selling my own books.

  6. It doesn’t have to be either or (publisher or self-published). They both have advantages and disadvantages. Being a book retailer is just another branch of the business–just like I blog and am an affiliate. They are related businesses; I sell my books and I refer other books. When I approached one of the big publishers about being a direct affiliate (sending them traffic instead of Amazon or B&N, etc) they semi suggested I might want to BE a retailer. LOTS of writers dream of opening a bookstore. His idea is essentially the same, but online. I think part of the problem is that as a writer, you can only write so fast and only make so much money–and you might actually need more to make a living. (Maybe not Cory specifically, but he might have lots of reasons to expand into different areas). There is a visibility problem with any book store, but he might have enough fans to make a go of it. Sure, on the surface, he could self-publish and take home more–but a bookstore as a business might also help him make more money. He might not have the time to write an entire series in addition to the ones he has under contract. He might want to do something OTHER than writing. Writing can be quite challenging–and, as with any job, we know there can come a time when we can’t do it anymore for various reasons. Having a second business isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Things that prevent you from writing may not prevent you from running a second business. It depends on the problem. A second business is also something that a spouse or child might be able to take over, whereas that may not be possible with writing.)

  7. So, is he going to take on Apple next? They lock their stuff down and stifle others far worse than Amazon ever has.

    But really, do we all want to hear from another trad pub shill who got ‘famous’ for attaching his name to ideas that had been bandied about the net for years prior?

    Yeah, I love his advice: Pay Trad Pubs More Money and Help Them Make More Profit Off Your Work!! Great advice (not).

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