On January 27, Donald Trump's executive order banning U.S. entry for people from seven Muslim-majority nations threw America’s immigration system into chaos. Lawful permanent residents were detained or sent overseas. Refugees and asylum-seekers were turned away. Families were separated. And that weekend, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it had received more than $24 million in donations—six times its annual intake from private donors.
The neoclassical model of economics predicts that human beings will behave as "rational economic actors," always seeking to maximize their personal utility. But the ACLU’s experience suggests people also place value—and will also spend money—on things that are not directly related to personal utility, but reflect their values.
This April, Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.) will publish Walkaway my first novel for adults since 2009. It's my "optimistic disaster novel," about people behaving kindly towards one another in times of crisis—a countervailing narrative to all those stories in which disaster precipitates barbarism, and where the failure of the our infrastructure is swiftly followed by marauders who smash down your door and eat you.
When we are faced with a crisis and need to think fast, we deploy the "availability heuristic." That's where we treat things as likely outcomes because we can vividly imagine them. The stories we consume are bound up with this availability heuristic: if you've thrilled to dystopian fiction where the few and the good battle the ravening mob, then, when confronted with unprecedented crisis, that fiction becomes a prediction—when the blackout hits, you assume your neighbors aren't coming over with a covered dish, they're coming over with a shotgun.
You've probably noticed that when disaster strikes, the media tends to focus on the few aberrant episodes of bad conduct. Walkaway is about the opposite of this: a reality-inspired tale of everyday bravery and selflessness drawn from the real world of real disasters, which are always, always moments in which humanity shines.
How do I Support You?
In all the years that I've made e-books available through unconventional means, such as Creative Commons licenses, my number one question from readers has been: "How do I pay you for this without making some digital monopolist richer?" I don't pretend that this is a concern of the a large proportion of the casual readership, but based on my data, it is the most pressing concern for thoughtful, engaged readers—readers who care about books like Walkaway.
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.
A New Reader Experience
After my experiences organizing name-your-price e-book bundles with the Humble Bundle people—raising $2M in voluntary payments for a couple dozen backlist titles—I had a realization. Most e-book readers were already living in a "name your price" world: one in which the only two prices they were allowed to quote were zero, and full retail.
But people are kind. People are good. Homo Economicus is a lie. People want to do the right thing. And when the name-your-price offer is couched in terms of being a good person, people open their hearts and their wallets. SUATMM has lots of bells and whistles. And I think fair trade e-books are an idea whose time has come.
As I was preparing this column, I learned that my U.K. publisher, Head of Zeus, had been developing BookGrail, its own author-centric e-book retail platform, one that offers a very similar slate of terms, with thousands of titles, and far more resources than I could bring to bear on such a project.
It's an exciting moment! BookGrail is a platform I'll be delighted to have my books on, even as I use SUATMM to serve my own quirky needs: name your price, 100% DRM-free, etc. But both platforms represent a way for readers who care about the book trade, about authorial independence, about their money going preferentially to the people who make the art they love, to express those preferences.
And both platforms make offers Amazon, Google, and Apple can never match: the chance to buy books in a way that benefits the whole ecosystem of writers, agents and publishers.