We need to talk about Audible. Audible is the 800-pound gorilla of audiobooks. A division of Amazon, Audible accounts for the vast majority of audiobook sales. In some genres, Audible commands a 90% market share. Audible isn’t just an audiobook retailer, it’s also an audiobook publisher, and its “Audible Originals” titles are sold exclusively in Audible’s store. And until recently, Audible has been reluctant to work with libraries to make its content available.
Audible has some powerful advantages: a commanding market share, a sweet deal with Apple Books, integration into the Amazon platform. But all of that is backstopped by something even more powerful: a law that makes it illegal for any other audiobook seller to compete head-on. That law is Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits the creation of tools to bypass “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), the digital locks that tie the audiobooks Audible sells exclusively to the players it authorizes.
DRM is sold to publishers and authors as a tool to prevent copyright infringement: they’re promised that DRM is a technology that somehow makes it impossible for their customers to copy and share their creative works. This is a lie. In practice, DRM technologies are always broken, swiftly and comprehensively, and any dishonest person who wishes to bypass the DRM can easily find out how to do so with just a few quick searches.
DRM doesn’t slow down criminals, but it stops law abiding competitors dead in their tracks. The people who create and share DRM-breaking tools don’t care about violating the law, but audiobook stores who’d like to compete with Amazon’s monopoly do, mostly because Amazon knows where to find them, and can ask the US government to charge them with felonies if they make DRM-breaking tools. DMCA 1201 provides for a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine…and that’s just for a first offense.
The upshot? Amazon is the only one that can legally provide Audible customers with a tool to move their Audible books to a rival audiobook player. Which means that if you’re hoping to tempt Audible customers into switching stores, you have to rely on their willingness to give up all the audiobooks they ever bought from Audible, or to maintain multiple unwieldy, confusing tools to manage their audiobook libraries.
And here’s the kicker: Audible’s DRM is mandatory. Audiobook creators and publishers must allow Audible to permanently, irrevocably lock every product they sell to Amazon’s ecosystem. Every dollar your listeners spend on your audiobooks at Audible is a dollar they’ll have to forfeit if they ever try to follow you to a platform where you, and they, might get a better deal.
My co-author Rebecca Giblin, a law professor and noted expert on artists’ rights, have coined a term for this: chokepoint capitalism. Chokepoint capitalism is where corporations create hourglass-shaped markets, with consumers at one end, workers and suppliers at the other, and themselves at the the pinch-point in the middle, charging whatever the traffic will bear.
Chokepoints are everywhere, but they’re particularly rampant in creative labor markets: books, video streaming, screenwriting, journalism, mobile games; the production, distribution and ticketing of music, you name it. Sometimes the chokepoint is controlled by a tech firm, sometimes by an entertainment firm, and sometimes by an unholy alliance of both.
The practice is so pervasive, and so damaging to the fortunes of creative workers, that we wrote a whole book about them: Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back, which Beacon Press will publish later this month.
But Beacon won’t publish the audiobook, because we are committed to making the audio chokepoint-free, which means we won’t allow DRM, and that means Audible refuses to carry it.
But that's never stopped me.
Since 2013, I’ve been self-publishing my audiobooks, hiring talented narrators like Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson to read them, then selling them through all non–Audible retailers. It has mostly gone pretty well, earning modest sums and satisfying the part of my readership that prefers audiobooks. I’m a big audiobook fan myself, and get through a couple novels from libro.fm every month on an underwater MP3 player while I swim laps in my neighborhood public pool.
In 2020, though, I tried something different. I launched a Kickstarter for the audiobook of Attack Surface, part of my bestselling Little Brother series. It went very, very well. In fact, it was the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign in history, raising $267,000.
That was pretty great. It also sent a message: audiobook readers don’t like Audible’s death-grip on the format and they want alternatives.
So, we’re doing it again. On August 17, Rebecca and I launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund pre-sales of the independently produced audiobook of Chokepoint Capitalism. We got Stefan Rudnicki to read it. He’s co-owner of Skyboat Media, the independent studio where I record all my audiobooks, and he’s narrated over 1,000 audiobooks, winning a Stoker, a Bradbury, dozens of Audies and Earphones, two Grammys, and two Hugos for his work.
The Kickstarter is doing great. We smashed our $10,000 funding goal on the first day, clearing $40,000 in the first 12 hours. We’re pre-selling hardcovers, e-books and audiobooks hand over fist. Our readers are also paying to donate copies to libraries, and we’ve even sold a couple of our $1,500 big-ticket “conversation pieces” including a series of five shadow boxes called The Annotated Robert Bork, containing pages excised from Bork’s influential 1978 pro-monopoly manifesto The Antitrust Paradox, heavily marked up by us in red pen (Rebecca’s a law professor, so taking a red pen to bad arguments comes naturally to her).
And this week, we unveiled the first of our surprises: we've made a standalone audiobook out of chapter 12 of Chokepoint Capitalism. Entitled “Transparency Rights,” which explains how Audible has shifted power and wages from creative workers to Amazon, and goes into a lot of detail about #Audiblegate, a scandal involving allegations of rampant wage-theft on ACX, Audible’s self-serve platform for independent creators.
We asked Colleen Cross, a former forensic accountant turned writer of financial fraud thrillers, how much money she estimated Audible had drained away from authors. Her answer: “Hundreds of millions of dollars for the last couple of years on the returns alone—that’s the conservative estimate.” The chapter also tells the story of a campaign led by indie writer Susan May to demand greater transparency over Audible’s accounting, and, the inspiring, real change she and her army of furious independent authors have managed to collectively achieve.
We actually used ACX ourselves to upload our short audiobook, Transparency Rights. It is now available on Audible, allowing the company to lock it to its platform forever with its digital locks. It’s the only part of the book you can get on Audible, and the only part you’ll ever be able to get on Audible so long as it insists on mandatory DRM.
Unrigging the Market
Now, yes, this is a bit of a fun stunt. But stunts aren’t the focus of Chokepoint Capitalism. Rather, we propose concrete, shovel-ready solutions to take power from the Big Content/Big Tech cartels and give it to creative workers, providing the conditions for them to share more fairly in the economic rewards generated by their labor.
We’ve all read more than enough “Chapter 11” books— you know—the ones where the authors spend ten chapters laying out all the world’s problems, then cram a bunch of half-baked solutions into the concluding chapter. This book is different. We devote fully half the text to proposals for widening out the chokepoints that are suffocating creative labor markets, including actions that can be taken by individual creators, artists’ organizations, technologists, startups, nonprofits, and local, regional and national governments.
That’s not to say we have all the solutions. Chokepoint Capitalism seeks to offer new way of understanding how today's creative markets came to be rigged, and new ways of understanding how they might be unrigged. But every creative market is different, and those who work within them are the ones best placed to build on these ideas to figure out how to take control of the means of production, distribution, and promotion.