“A Good Guy Offering a Good Product at a Fair Price”:
Cory Doctorow on Fair Trade E-books, Publishing, Copyright, and the Optimism of Disaster

Posted May 9, 2017
photo by Jonathan Worth

portrait of Cory Doctorow by Jonathan Worth | CC BY-SA 2.0

As part of our mission to empower authors in the digital age, Authors Alliance encourages authors to embrace new strategies for publishing and ensuring the ongoing lifespan of their work, both in print and in digital formats. Best-selling novelist, blogger, and Authors Alliance founding member Cory Doctorow epitomizes this innovative spirit in myriad ways. We sat down recently with Cory for a wide-ranging talk about his newly-launched platform for selling fair trade ebooks, the pros and cons of traditional publishing, and his brand-new novel, Walkaway.


AUTHORS ALLIANCE: At the London Book Fair this past March, you announced your new model for selling fair trade ebooks, affectionately known as “Shut Up and Take My Money.” What was your inspiration for this new platform? How does it address some of the issues with traditional retailing?

CORY DOCTOROW: There are ongoing disputes among publishers and writers about the equitable way to share ebook royalties. I kept hearing from people in publishing that hell would freeze over before publishers would pay 50% instead of 25% for ebook royalties. Now, “never ever” is a long time, and things do change, but if this is a thing you want to feed your kids with, you shouldn’t hold your breath. I got started by retailing my own audiobooks on my website with a modest shopping cart program after I had been kicked out of the traditional audiobook market by refusing to agree to DRM [digital rights management, which controls users’ access to, and use of, copyrighted material]. When I sell my audiobooks directly on my website, I get paid twice: I get the retail cut, as well as the royalty from my publisher, which is pretty damn close to 50%. The same is true for the ebook fair trade model: if you sell an ebook on your website, the royalty plus your retail cut is close to 50%.

There is also the fact that, in the time since Creative Commons licenses were negotiated, publishers have entered into agreements with the large ebook retailers that allow for price matching. This is in part an artifact of anti-trust litigation, but it means that if someone somewhere offers the book at $0, it technically allows all of the other ebook stores to offer the book at $0 as well.

Thus far my publishers have been good about grandfathering in the CC-licensed books that I already had, but for the last couple of books I haven’t done CC licensing, in part because of the real fear that Amazon could set the price at $0 and there would be no recourse for my publishers—not even the recourse of not letting Amazon sell the book, because of deals ensuring that if Amazon sells one book of a publisher’s, they have to sell the whole catalog.

So I thought, “What can I do to accommodate the CC books and the non-CC books that will maximally benefit all the entities here, and play within the Realpolitik of these regulatory settlements?” And I came up with this fair trade ebooks idea.

AuAll: You’ve talked about reaching new audiences, some of whom are in nontraditional English language markets, through the fair trade ebook model. New channels that enable creators to expand their audiences aligns closely with our mission of helping authors to share their work more broadly. Could you talk a little more about how fair trade ebooks expand your readership?

CD: It’s hard for Anglophone readers to appreciate the degree to which non-native English speakers are able to, and encouraged to, read in other languages. That’s the curse and the benefit of English, a language that has an enormous amount of literature published in it. You could read a novel a day in English for the rest of your life and not run out of great books!

Many readers in other countries tend to be more multi-lingual than English speakers. If you go to a big city like Stockholm or Amsterdam, you’ll find English-language bookstores, but the ebook market to reach those people is a dog’s breakfast. In part that’s because the online platforms can’t always tell which publisher has jurisdiction in the so-called “open territories,” where any publisher who has the right to publish a book has the right to sell it there. So if you have the British rights, you can sell books in Germany, and if you have the American rights you can sell the books in Germany. But because the sellers can’t always tell what is going on, I get a lot of complaints from readers in Europe who cannot buy my ebook. And then I write to my publisher and my publisher writes to Amazon and Amazon writes back to my publisher, and eventually maybe we make it available in those regions.

That creates a lot of work for large publishers and online sellers to generate a couple of sales at the margin. But for me, those two sales mean a lot more, especially if I can do that sale direct in open territory, where I can retail my own ebook edition. That way, I don’t get 50% of the clearing price, I get 100% of the clearing price! So that sale counts as four ebook sales in the US through Amazon, or two ebook sales through my own website. Each one of those customers is worth four times as much as a traditional customer. That’s pretty amazing!

AuAll: The fair trade ebook model is obviously a model that benefits authors and readers. What about other actors in the publishing ecosystem?

CD: I wanted to figure out a model to benefit not just myself, but the people who benefit me—the ecosystem I am a part of. I’m a great believer in working with publishers, which often surprises people. I feel I get really good value for money from my publisher, in terms of royalties and the money they earn for my book. If you’ve heard of my books, chances are you’ve heard of them because my publisher made sure that people found out about them, in ways large and small. I promote my own work and reach an audience with my own technology and techniques, which is very complementary to the audiences that my publishers help me reach.

I want my publisher to continue to exist, and I want traditional bookstores to exist. I’m a former bookseller and a great and inveterate goer-into of bookstores, as my family can attest. The most boring thing in the world is to pass a bookstore with me, because I’ll insist that we stop for an interminable period and browse.

AuAll: What do you want to see from this fair trade ebook model long term? Do you hope or anticipate that other authors will be inspired to follow suit?

CD: First and foremost, I’m trying to build something I can use. I’ll have it running on my server, and we’ll see how it works. Then we’re going to release it as free and open-source software, and we’re contemplating doing a Kickstarter campaign to produce the documentation and build tools to allow third parties to implement it.

My real hope is that it becomes federated. That would be my ideal: Creating some code that could live at the center of a wider ecosystem of different options for search, sales, payment, and hosting at different levels of engagement and technical competence for different kinds of authors. The intersection of authors who can run a server (or pay someone to run a server) and authors who have books to sell is very thin. At its best, what open software does is create these ecosystems, and I’m hoping it will allow other people to solve their problems and build businesses.

AuAll: Can you tell us about your decision not to use a Creative Commons license on Walkaway, and what that means for readers?

CD: I am a great believer in Creative Commons, and I’m also a great believer in fair use, fair dealing, and limitations and exceptions to copyright. I don’t think you need a CC license to loan a book to a friend. I think that if you do need a CC license to loan a book to a friend, then there’s a lot of people breaking the law every day. If you want to loan one of my books to a friend that you downloaded without DRM, there are no technical impediments to doing it, and as far as I’m concerned there’s no legal impediment either.

Likewise, some transformative uses go into the realm of requiring a license. If Paramount is going to adapt Little Brother for the screen, as they’ve optioned to do, then it’s legitimate for them to negotiate a copyright license with me. But fanfic or transformative uses—I think those are all fair game. If the only time you’re allowed to do that is when the author has voluntarily opted into a license, then we greatly impoverish what people can and should be expected to do with their work.

It would be better, in my view, if I could CC-license this book. I would love an avoidance of doubt, so that people know what they are and aren’t allowed to do. But even without a CC license, people should feel free to make a lot of the uses that they think of being CC–only. They should be making those uses not just with my book, but with all books. That’s in the deal that copyright actually gives them. We’ve got such a constrained view of copyright. I want our polestars to be HathiTrust and Wind Done Gone!

AuAll: What advice do you have for authors who want to be innovative in today’s publishing ecosystem—perhaps by using a “name your price” model or using a Creative Commons license for their works—but are concerned about their bottom line?

CD: I think that we should start with the Realpolitik, which is that all ebooks are “name your price” whether or not they are CC-licensed. Except that there are only two prices that the public are allowed to name: One is free, and the other is full retail. Every single ebook ever released can be downloaded with minimal effort for free. Against that backdrop, if your goal is to feed yourself—and not to express your dudgeon at the entitledness of today’s youth—then you need to operate in a world in which payments are presumed to be voluntary anyway. Dudgeon won’t put braces on your kid’s teeth! And there are lots of ways to incentivize people to pay.

Convincing readers of the fairness of the deal is a really big part of it. This is one of the areas where DRM cuts against getting as much money as possible for authors, because there’s a material sense of unfairness whenever people run up against DRM. Every book you’ve ever loved is a book that someone gave to you, or that you planned on leaving to your children, a situation that’s obtained for millennia, long before printing presses or perfect-bound books. But now by fiat, five publishing companies have decided that is no longer the deal. People feel like that’s an unfair arrangement. And if they have a choice to make another arrangement for themselves, they will exercise that choice.

Ebooks are much more constrained both technologically and legally than print books ever were, and then we lard onto that the fact that the books are much cheaper to produce, because there are no print expenses. And then you pay about as much as you paid for the print book, even though you get one-third of the utility that the print book had, and it costs one-tenth of the margins of what the print book costs to distribute. And people don’t feel that’s fair.

That is the basis on which this discussion should take place. The question isn’t “Should people or shouldn’t people take what’s for free?” If you’re a working author who’s trying to figure out how to earn your living, your question should be, “How can I make sure people give me as much money as possible for my books?” That’s the salient question. You can do this by allowing people to see that the deal you’re offering them is a fair one, which is to say that they get the choice to name a price that’s different from full retail, and they get a suite of rights that encompasses the traditional rights that they’ve always had in books.

So I try to focus not only on the moral questions, which are obviously important, but also on the practical ones. If I’m going to maximize the number of people who decide not to take my book for free, I have to start by convincing them that the book is a good deal, and that I’m someone who deserves their money. All of these things—whether it’s fair trade ebooks, or DRM-free works, or CC licenses, or HumbleBundles—convey the deservedness of the author and the reasonableness of the commercial offering.

My hope is that the idea of a good guy offering you a good product at a fair price maximizes the number of people who pay me. Some of my books did poorly and some did extraordinarily well, just like lots of other authors’. The difference is that I didn’t have to go around calling my readers thieves or insisting that the Internet be surveilled or that measures of control be built into my readers’ computers so that I could maximize my revenue.

AuAll: We don’t want to end without asking about Walkaway. We can think of nothing we need more in this current climate than a bit of optimism in our disaster fiction! Can you tell us more about it?

CD: Sure! As you say, it’s an optimistic disaster novel. It’s a book about the “walkaways,” people who set up societies that fail gracefully instead of ones that merely work well. As society finds itself with less and less use for more and more people, as automation and capital accumulation in the hands of the 1% make more and more of us obsolete, rather than vanishing without a trace, they set off and build another world. They set up camp in the brownfield sites of post-industrial civilization, they ingest its waste streams, and they use technology to turn the waste of industrial civilization into a new kind of post-industrial, post-work civilization of abundance, where the order of the day is cooperation rather than competition. If someone comes along and demands that you give up what you’ve made, you just move up to the next brownfield site, because there’s no shortage of brownfield sites and there’s no shortage of industrial waste to turn back into useful things.

Against that backdrop, a group of people who have been pursuing tech projects to help people become practically immortal realize that they can no longer in good conscience allow the super-rich to become infinitely-prolonged over-men who speciate from the rest of us. So they steal the secret of eternal life and bring it to the walkaways, and this sparks an all-out war. And that’s what the novel is about.

AuAll: We are honored to count you among the founding members of Authors Alliance. Could you say a few words about the value you find as a member?

CD: I think that authorship is not just about making as much money as possible for yourself. I think that authorship is part of a long and wide tradition of intellectual freedom and curiosity, and that an authors’ group that represents the free speech equities, the scholarly equities, and the long sweep of authorial freedom is something that was sorely missing in the policy discussions around authorship and publishing. So when Authors Alliance was founded, I was very happy to be an inaugural member, and I think it continues to acquit itself very well in defending not just individual authors but the wider question of authorship and its role in the 21st century.

AuAll: Thank you very much for your time! Congratulations again on the new book. We’re excited to read it.

CD: Thank you! I really hope you enjoy it.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger — the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and the author of Walkaway, a novel for adults; a graphic novel called In Real Life; the nonfiction business book Information Doesn’t Want to be Free; young adult novels like Homeland, Pirate Cinema and Little Brother; and novels for adults like Rapture of the Nerds and Makers. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.

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