[Doctorow-L] Kickstarting the "Chokepoint Capitalism" audiobook (We wrote a book that Amazon won't sell)

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Aug 17 12:06:40 EDT 2022

My next book is *Chokepoint Capitalism*, co-written with the brilliant copyright expert Rebecca Giblin: it's an action-oriented investigation into how tech and entertainment monopolies have destroyed creators' livelihoods, with detailed, shovel-ready plans to unrig creative labor markets and get artists paid.


Ironically, the very phenomenon this book describes - "chokepoint capitalism" - is endemic to book publishing, and in audiobook publishing, it's in its terminal phase. There's no way to market an audiobook to a mass audience without getting trapped in a chokepoint, which is why we're kickstarting a direct-to-listener edition:


What is "chokepoint capitalism?" It's when a multinational monopolist (or cartel) locks up audiences inside a system that they control, and uses that control to gouge artists, creating toll booths between creators and their audiences.

For example, take Audible: the Amazon division controls the vast majority of audiobook sales in the world - in some genres, they have a 90%+ market-share. Audible requires every seller - big publishers and self-publishers alike - to use their proprietary DRM as a condition of selling on the platform.

That's a huge deal. DRM is useless at preventing copyright infringement (all of Audible's titles can be downloaded for free from various shady corners of the internet), but it is *wildly effective* at locking in audiences and seizing power over creators. Under laws like the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, giving someone a tool to remove DRM is a felony, punishable by 5 years in prison and a $500k fine.

This means that when you sell your audiobooks on Audible, you lock them to Audible's platform...forever. If another company offers you a better deal for your creative work and you switch, your audience can't follow you to the new company without giving up all the audiobooks they've bought to date. That's a lot to ask of listeners!

Amazon knows this: as their power over creators and publishers has grown, the company has turned the screw on them, starting with the most powerless group, the independent creators who rely on Amazon's self-serve ACX system to publish their work.

In late 2020, a group of ACX authors discovered that Amazon had been systematically stealing their wages, to the tune of an estimated $100,000,000. The resulting Audiblegate scandal has only gotten worse since, and while the affected authors are fighting back, they're hamstrung by Amazon's other unfair practices, like forcing creators to accept binding arbitration waivers on their way through the chokepoint:


I have always had a no-DRM policy for my ebooks and audiobooks. Amazon's Kindle store - another wildly dominant part of the books ecosystem - has always allowed authors to choose whether or not to apply DRM, but in Audible - where Amazon had a commanding lead from the start, thanks to their anti-competitive acquisition of the formerly independent Audible company - it is mandatory.

Because Audible won't carry my DRM-free audiobooks, audiobook publishers won't pay for them. I don't blame them - being locked out of the market where 90%+ of audiobooks are sold is a pretty severe limitation. For a decade now, I've produced my own audiobooks, using amazing narrators like Wil Wheaton, Amber Benson and Neil Gaiman.

These had sold modestly-but-well, recouping my cash outlays to fairly compensate the readers, directors and engineers involved, but they were still niche products, sold at independent outlets like Libro.fm, Downpour, and my own online storefront:


But that all changed in 2020, with the publication of *Attack Surface*, an adult standalone novel set in the world of my bestselling YA series *Little Brother*. That time, I decided to use Kickstarter to pre-sell the audio- and ebooks and see if my readers would help me show other creators that we could stand up to Audible's bullying.

Holy shit, did it ever work. The Kickstarter for the *Attack Surface* audiobook turned into *the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign in world history*, grossing over $267,000:


Which brings me to today, and our new Kickstarter for *Chokepoint Capitalism*. We produced an independent audiobook, tapping the incomparable Stefan Rudnicki (winner of uncountable awards, narrator of 1000+ books, including Ender's Game) to read it.

We're preselling the audiobook ($20), ebook ($15), hardcover ($27), and bundles mixing and matching all three (there's also bulk discounts). There's also the option to buy copies that we'll donate to libraries on your behalf. We've got pins and stickers - and, for five lucky high-rollers, we've got a very special artwork called: "The Annotated Robert Bork."


Robert Bork was the far-right extremist who convinced Ronald Reagan to dismantle antitrust protection in America, and then exported the idea to the rest of the world (Reagan tried to reward him with a Supreme Court seat, but Bork's had been Nixon's Solicitor General and his complicity in Nixon's crimes cost him the confirmation).

Bork's dangerous antitrust nonsense destroyed the world as we knew it, giving us the monopolies that have wrecked the climate, labor protections and political integrity. These monopolies have captured every sector of the economy - from beer and pro-wrestling to health insurance and finance:


"The Annotated Robert Bork" is a series of five shadow-boxes containing two-page spreads excised from Bork's 1978 pro-monopoly manifesto *The Antitrust Paradox*, which we have mounted on stiff card and hand-annotated with our red pens. The resulting package is a marvel of museum glass and snark.

Bork's legacy is monopolistic markets in every sector of the world's economy, including the creative industries. *Chokepoint Capitalism* systematically explores how tech and entertainment giants have rigged music streaming, newspapers, book publishing, the film industry, TV, video streaming, and others, steadily eroding creators' wages even as their work generated more money for the monopolists' shareholders.

But just as importantly, our book proposes things we can do *right now* to unrig creative labor markets. Drawing on both existing, successful projects and promising new experiments, we set out shovel-ready ideas for creators, artists' groups, fans, technologists, startups, and local, regional and national governments.

Artists aren't in this struggle alone. As we write in the book, chokepoint capitalism is the final stage of high-tech capitalism, which atomizes workers and locks in customers and then fleeces workers as a condition of reaching their audiences. It's a form of exploitation that is practiced wherever industries concentrate, which is why creators can't succeed by rooting for Big Tech against Big Content or vice-versa.

It's also why creative workers should be in solidarity with *all* workers - squint a little at Audible's chokepoint shakedown and you'll recognize the silhouette of the gig economy, from Uber to Doordash to the poultry and meat-packing industries.

40 years of official pro-monopoly policy has brought the world to the brink of collapse, as monopoly profits and concentrated power allowed an ever-decreasing minority of the ultra-rich to extract ever-increasing fortunes from ever-more-precarious workers. It's a flywheel: more monopoly creates more profits creates more power creates more monopoly.

The solutions we propose in *Chokepoint Capitalism* are specific to creative labor, but they're also examples of the kinds of tactics that we can use in every industry, to brake the monopolists' flywheel and start a new world.

I hope you'll consider backing the Kickstarter if you can afford to - and if you can't, I hope you'll check out one of the copies our backers have donated to libraries around the world:


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