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.
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