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In 2007, as Apple's iTunes was cementing its dominance over digital music distribution, Amazon tried something bold. It launched the Amazon MP3 store, where all the music was DRM-free. It even used the slogan: “DRM: Don't Restrict Me.”
It worked. Companies initially lured to iTunes by the promise of DRM as an anti-piracy measure had increasingly come to see that DRM was a trap. Because Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it a felony in the U.S. to provide someone with a tool to remove DRM, every song sold through iTunes was permanently locked into Apple's platform. And it didn’t take long for the music business to recognize that DRM didn't stop piracy. All it did was make labels beholden to a tech company that put its interests first.
Enter Amazon’s new MP3 store. Wary of Apple, the record companies supplied Amazon with MP3 files stripped of DRM. And Apple’s dominance over the music download business basically died…forever.
A few months after its move in the music business, Amazon completed its acquisition of a scrappy upstart audiobook company called Audible. At the time of the acquistion, Amazon publicly announced it would remove Audible's DRM. After all, why would a company with a self-proclaimed “relentless customer focus” impose such restrictions on audiobook users?
Fast-forward 12 years, and Audible has accomplished remarkable things. The company has helped grow the audiobook market to the point where it is a vital revenue stream for publishers. And Audible commands a huge share of the digital audiobook market—as much 90% of the market in some verticals.
But, they never removed the DRM.
In 2008, I took Amazon at its word when they promised to kill Audible’s DRM. But I told Random House, the publisher bringing out the audiobook for my bestselling book Little Brother, to hold off on Audible distribution until that happened. I was naive. And some 12 years later, we're still waiting for that to happen.
But I'm done waiting. On October 13, Tor is bringing out Attack Surface, a standalone sequel to Little Brother and Homeland (also a bestseller, but who’s counting). However, given that I won't let my audiobooks be sold through Audible, Tor took the absolutely reasonable position not to acquire the audiobook rights for Attack Surface. And that's OK. I understand that logic—after all, I was basically demanding they eschew as much as 90% of the potential audiobook market for the book.
Instead, I retained my audiobook rights and contracted with Skyboat Media, an audiobook powerhouse (that happens to be around the corner from my home in Burbank) to record the Attack Surface audiobook. We hired Amber Benson (a spectacular Random House author who played “Tara” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to read the book. And we hastily retooled our recording plans when the lockdown started, setting up a week's worth of Zoom calls between Amber's basement studio, the director's home, and my home office. The result is a superb, 15-hour unabridged audiobook, mastered by John Taylor Williams, who's been editing my podcast for more than a decade.
Last week, I launched a Kickstarter for presales of the audiobook. Because I am set up to act as an e-book retailer for my publishers (including both Tor and Attack Surface UK publisher, Head of Zeus) I was able to list both the series backlist and the Attack Surface audiobook on the crowdfunding campaign. As of this writing, we have raised more than $207,000.
Look, $207,000 is a lot of money. And my family's finances have taken a severe beating since the Covid-19 crisis hit—I'm sure you can sympathize. We need this. Thank you.
But I'm not doing this for the money. Rather, my not-so-secret plan is to fundamentally shift how publishers relate to authors who are willing to stand up against Audible’s exclusive non-negotiable DRM-enforced exclusive market strategy. Giving authors leverage over Audible isn't just about getting it to back down on its DRM policy. It also empowers us work with libraries, against whom Audible maintains a total blackout, refusing to license any of its exclusive audio content at all, forcing America's library users to buy subscriptions through Amazon's data-hungry, monopoly-reinforcing app.
My belief is that once more authors and publishers find they can succeed outside of the Audible funnel, Amazon will have to give Audible customers and the authors and publishers who supply the content the technical means and legal right to take their business elsewhere if they choose. And once that happens, publishers and authors will finally regain some of the leverage needed to negotiate fair deals from Audible.
I recognize that not every author can do what I’ve done with Attack Surface. That said, there are plenty of writers with platforms who can—I mean, if I can do it they can do it too.
I want to be the pebble that starts the avalanche that changes the face of the mountain. Think of it: if more bestselling authors declined to offer their audiobooks under Audible's current DRM-enforced terms, and Audible became the place on the web where you couldn't get a bestselling audiobook, how much pressure that would create for fairer terms?
We know this much is true: using technology to lock in your customers is great if you're the dominant player. It's terrible for everyone else. Amazon hated DRM when it was challenging Apple for the music industry. But it loves DRM now that it has a dominant position in the audiobook market. And Audible’s practices are enabling the company to effectively seize control over both sides of the audiobook transaction, setting the terms for suppliers and customers.
That’s never good. Take for example the hyper-concentrated U.S. poultry industry. Labor economists have identified a practice they've dubbed “chickenization,” by which three firms have divided up the U.S. market so that any given chicken farmer basically has one processor who can handle their birds.
Here's how it works: poultry processors sell farmers their chicks, they tell them how to build their coops, set the light and feeding schedules, and tell the farmers which vets and which medicines to use. Sometimes, poultry processors even experiment on their farmers—they change the variables without telling the farmers why or giving them the chance to opt out. They also use sensors in the farmers' barns to collect and aggregate data about market activity.
Only when the birds are ready for market does Big Chicken tell the farmer how much they will get for their birds. And thanks to all the data they have collected, they can titrate the dose of money so it's just enough for the farmer to keep going, but never enough to get ahead. Meanwhile, farmers must sign nondisclosure agreements with their processors so they can't compare notes on their treatment.
Like most chicken farmers, authors are also independent small businesses. Audible is basically chickenizing digital audiobook publishing—and DRM is the tool they are using to do it.
Now, Audible will say it uses DRM to protect publishers and authors from piracy. But the fact is, removing Audible’s DRM—though illegal—is not hard. In reality, the only entity Audible DRM serves to protect is Audible. And the thing Audible DRM protects the company from is competition. Because every audiobook licensed through Audible increases the switching costs for customers who might take their business to a more publisher-friendly platform. And every dollar a customer spends with Audible is a dollar they have to surrender if they decide to switch platforms.
Look, you can't shop your way out of monopoly capitalism any more than you can recycle your way out of climate change. Monopoly is a structural problem created by more than 40 years of lax antitrust enforcement. If there was any doubt, last month's Congressional antitrust hearings, which included a litany of complaints from Amazon suppliers who've been comprehensively chickenized, laid that to rest.
But reversing monopolies is an iterative process. My effort to whittle away at Amazon's audiobook hegemony I believe will help show authors, publishers, and readers that there is a path to a more pluralistic and fair marketplace. And, in the process, fuel the growing support for more stringent antitrust enforcement.
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