My next novel is Red Team Blues. It’s a major title for my publisher, Tor (which is part of Macmillan), and the first book in a trilogy. I'm touring the U.S, Canada, the U.K., and Germany this spring. And there's going to be an incredible audiobook that goes along with it, read by Wil Wheaton (who is hands-down my favorite audiobook reader—don't tell my other narrators! They're amazing, but Wil's readings are just...wow). And once again, I'm using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the audiobook edition.
This audiobook will not be for sale on Audible. None of my audiobooks are. Audible, the Amazon division that controls about 90% of the audiobook market, won't carry them because, if you want to sell your audiobooks on Audible, you have to let them add Amazon's Digital Rights Management (DRM) to them, and I refuse. I don't let anyone sell any of my work with DRM. I know how big tech platforms behave when they use DRM to leverage their suppliers. And we all know what Amazon does with the power it wields over its suppliers. I believe we simply can't afford to have all our audiobooks under the control of any single company, much less one that is as committed to wringing margin out of its suppliers as Amazon is.
So more than a decade ago, I started recording my own audiobooks. I retain my audio rights; pay professional voice actors and top-notch studios, producers, directors, and editors; and create top-notch works. At first, I handed these over to independent distributors and waited many years for them to pay off. But during the pandemic lockdown, I decided to try something different: I did a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to support the audio edition for Attack Surface, the third book in my bestselling Little Brother series.
We recorded the book under lockdown conditions, with Amber Benson (who plays Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) reading in a home studio while Zoomed in with me and the director, Skyboat Media's Cassandra de Cuir. Once it was finished, I whomped up my Kickstarter campaign page, offered a few spendy, hot-ticket items (the handwritten original manuscript, a scrapped final chapter; short story commissions), and hit go. And that's when the real work started.
I went through every fan letter anyone had ever sent me about Little Brother, then sat in my backyard hammock for 14 hours a day for three days, emailing them all—about 14,000 in total—thanking them for their notes and letting them know about the Kickstarter. Then I opened Twitter's messaging pane, went through every person who mutually followed me on the service and sent each of them a personal message asking if they'd retweet or quote-tweet the thread I'd published announcing the book.
It was a genuinely absurd amount of work. But it paid off. My first-day pledge total was over $49,000. That figure was newsworthy enough to make headlines, which brought in more backers. All told, the campaign raised about $276,000, making it the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign in history.
But that was far from the end of the job. Crowdfunding fulfillment is very hard to get right, and very easy to get wrong. And while the service I chose for my e-book and audiobook fulfillment has a very slick back-end, it turns out that it had very limited digital delivery tools with extremely low maximum file-sizes. That meant I had to break up the digital files I'd offered my backers into multiple ZIP folders, which baffled them. To make matters worse, there was no graceful way to replace the digital files once they'd been uploaded. So when I made mistakes breaking up the files, which I did more than a few times, I had to correct the files, then wait 72 hours for the change to take effect.
I made other mistakes, too. A couple backers asked for the uncompressed audio of Amber's reading, and a couple more asked for highly compressed versions for low-bandwidth downloads. I blithely said yes to both, and offered it as a free option for anyone who bought the audiobook. Thousands of backers ticked those boxes. Which meant I had to juggle three different sets of audiobook files, and then work with the hundreds of backers who messaged me looking for help getting weird, uncompressed audio formats to play on their devices.
And this wasn’t the only tech challenge. The mobile duopoly (Google's Android and Apple's iOS) has made sideloading media a confusing mess. Long gone are the days of the original iPod, when you plugged a device into your laptop and all your files automatically raced down the wire and tidily organized themselves. Today, you need to download the files to your laptop, unzip them, locate the folder, plug in your phone, select "file transfer" from a hidden menu, navigate your device's complex filesystem, and drag the files over. Then you have to locate and install an audiobook player. Then you have to navigate your device's complex filesystem again, to tell the player where to look for your audiobooks. And this is the easy way to sideload media! If you happen to download the ZIP file directly onto your phone, you have to install an unzip utility, navigate the filesystem (again!) to find the ZIP and decompress it, then you need to download a file-management tool and move the uncompressed file into your audiobooks folder.
It's a mystery why this is all so complicated. And actually, it doesn’t have to be. You can skip all of this nonsense and just sell the files within an app that can handle all the downloading, unzipping, and playback behind the scenes. But every in-app purchase comes with a 30% commission to Apple or Google, which would explain why these two tech giants have completely enshittified direct downloading: the worse the direct download experience is, the better handing over a third of your gross revenue starts to look. It's the mobile duopoly's version of the airline industry continuously dreaming up new petty cruelties for their coach fares.
Another mistake: I closed the Kickstarter just a few days before Attack Surface's on-sale date. After the Kickstarter closes, there's a delay while pledges are collected and backer surveys are sent around, which meant that I didn’t get to fulfill orders until after the book went on sale to the general public. My backers were gracious about this. But I felt like a fool.
Furthermore, all of this happened while I was promoting the book from lockdown, doing live events every evening and press all day. It was a lot. This was in the early days of Zoom events, and booksellers understandably wanted every attendee to buy a book—which meant that my backers, who had already bought books, weren't exactly welcome, which made me feel like an even bigger fool.
I resolved to do better on my next project. Last summer, Rebecca Giblin and I published Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back, our nonfiction book about market concentration in creative labor markets and how it screws artists and creators. Obviously, there was no way we were gonna sell that one on Audible. Thankfully, Beacon, our publisher, was happy to let us Kickstart the audio.
We got Stefan Rudnicki, the multi-award-winning co-owner of Skyboat Media, to read it for us. And this time, we partnered with Libro.fm and Kobo for our digital downloads. Both companies agreed to send our backers download codes to get the audiobook or e-book within their apps. We also gave backers the option to get plain ZIP files with the MP3s or e-book files, and I went with Sendowl for this. Sendowl charges a lot for bandwidth, but they have good digital tools, which I already use for my e-book/audiobook store.
We also decided to sell print books. After shopping around widely for fulfillment, we settled on Porchlight. They offer good wholesale discounts and low-cost shipping, plus they're a BookScan reporter, which meant that the thousand-odd hardcovers we pre-sold all went over the BookScan scanner on the on-sale date.
For signed, personalized hardcovers, we went with Los Angeles's Book Soup, a great local store (and one that also reports to BookScan). Rebecca and I spent an afternoon signing 400-odd hardcovers when she came to L.A. for our tour. The Book Soup staff were incredibly organized, flapping the books and inserting the personalization info into all the books before we got there. And they were kind enough to order a bunch of store stock that we signed as well. I love a well-organized bookseller!
We also decided to sell our backers stickers and pins promoting the book. The backers liked them, but on balance, I think they were a mistake. Manufacturing stickers and pins exposed us to a whole other set of supply-chain risks, and shipments that included stickers or pins were ineligible for media mail shipping, which significantly increased shipping costs on those bundled orders. What's more, juggling all the different SKUs (e-books, audiobooks, hardcovers, signed hardcovers, pins, stickers) significantly increased fulfillment complexity.—so much so that we screwed up a set of backer surveys and had to ask our backers to fill in fresh ones, which created all kinds of conflicts that we're still working out.
But despite all these challenges, I made a lot fewer errors with this effort, and I learned some important lessons:
- Adding non-book items to a book campaign produces new supply-chain risks and adds significant costs to shipping.
- Too many SKUs creates shipping and survey chaos. If you're going to add extra SKUs, make sure they'll be profitable enough to pay for the professional help you'll need to manage them.
- Fulfilling orders of print books, especially signed ones, is hard when your backers' survey responses trickle in. Prepare to keep schlepping back to the bookstore to fill in personalizations long after the campaign is over.
- While backers really like getting their audiobooks as Libro.fm download codes, they're comfortable getting zipped e-books rather than Kobo codes. Perhaps that’s because the Kindle app actually makes sideloading relatively easy.
As I write these words, I'm about a week into the Red Team Blues Kickstarter, and I've just crossed the $100,000 mark. Almost all of my big-ticket items have sold out. I’ve done some press about the campaign, DMed my mutual follows on Twitter (the ones who haven't jumped ship yet), and messaged all the backers from my previous two Kickstarters.
For this one, I've dropped the pins and stickers. But for complex reasons, I started the recording and campaign process a bit too late, I'm afraid, meaning that I'm almost certainly going to be wrangling fulfillment issues while I'm on tour for the book, which I don't relish.
Once again, I'm partnering with Libro.fm, Book Soup, and Porchlight for fulfillment, and I'm going to use Sendowl for MP3s and e-book fulfillment. My U.K. publisher, Head of Zeus/Bloomsbury, is setting me up with their wholesaler, Gardners, to do signed and unsigned fulfillment in the U.K. and E.U. while I'm there for my tour. And I've already learned a vital lesson from this campaign: start earlier.
As I write this, we're about to record. I'll be managing the process from the sofa outside the recording booth, with an ear cocked for lines I want picked up. At the same time, I'll be managing the campaign as it ramps up.
I write when I'm anxious, and right now these are anxious times. I have seven books in production right now, four of them coming out in the next 12 months. And believe me, the run up to a book's on-sale date is busy enough without managing a crowdfunding campaign at the same time.
In an ideal world, I'd have the Kickstarter 90% done two months before the book goes on sale, polish it up and hit go six weeks prior to the on-sale date, wrap up after four weeks, have surveys in hand a week before the tour starts, and finish all the fulfillment before I hit the road. That would be the plan, anyway. We'll see if I can get there with my next three campaigns: The Internet Con, due out from Verso in September; The Lost Cause, due out from Tor in November; and The Bezzle, due out from Tor, in February 2024.
The good news is, I am getting better at this. But I'm pretty sure I'll continue to make new mistakes. And when I do, I'll be sure to take notes and write about them so that you, too, can learn from them. It may not be easy to route around corporate giants like Audible, but I want you to know that it can be done—and I assure you, it can be done by anyone with sufficient hustle and attention.