Stupid DRM, abusive EULAs, hopeless ecommerce: why I'm not even going to try to sell my short story collection audiobook downloads

In my latest Publishers Weekly column, I explain why I'm not even going to try to sell downloads of the audiobook of the my forthcoming experimental short story collection, With a Little Help: Apple won't carry it without DRM; Audible won't carry it without an abusive EULA; and all the major digital delivery systems are crufty and needlessly complicated.
For my next book, Makers, we tried again. This time Audible agreed to carry the title without DRM. Hooray! Except now there was a new problem: Apple refused to allow DRM-free audiobooks in the Apple Store--yes, the same Apple that claims to hate DRM. Okay, we thought, we'll just sell direct through Audible, at least it's a relatively painless download process, right? Not quite. It turns out that buying an audiobook from Audible requires a long end-user license agreement (EULA) that bars users from moving their Audible books to any unauthorized device or converting them to other formats. Instead of DRM, they accomplish the lock-in with a contract.

I came up with what I thought was an elegant solution: a benediction to the audio file: "Random House Audio and Cory Doctorow, the copyright holders to this recording, grant you permission to use this book in any way consistent with your nation's copyright laws." This is a good EULA, I thought, as it stands up for every word of copyright law. Random House was game, too. Audible wasn't. So we decided not to sell through Audible, which I was intensely bummed about, because I really like Audible. They have great selection, good prices, and they're kicking ass with audiobooks.

With a Little Help: Can You Hear Me Now?


  1. Maybe I’m getting old (only 30 and a curmudgeon?) but… Digital media is a curse. There are too many ways for people to restrict your freedom to do what you please with the products you pay for. In essence you don’t own anything you buy with digital media purchases. The invisible hand of a corporations dictates how you may listen or read and will delete or restrict your use if you disagree.

    Give me analogue thank you, a hard copy of something I can keep and do with what please. To touch, smell and feel or set on fire if I want. Hell physical objects might even appreciate in value while i own them depending on what it is and then I might just decide to resell it! Try doing that with an MP3 or an EBook… not going to happen.

    Don’t even get me thinking about the digital dark age either…

    1. I’m with you. I’ll take my book and CD, thank you. I’m much happier going to physical stores and pawing through dusty books, magazines, records and CDs til my fingers are black and crusted with the dust and dreams of the ones who browsed before me.

    1. Cory,

      You can sell your audiobook as an app at this point. For instance, this guy is doing that…
      One of the features of the app can be… a way to get the MP3’s out of it.

      Apple is happy, they get their DRM.
      You are happy, you give the user a way to get their MP3’s.

      This is evil and retarded on so many levels…

  2. Great article Cory, I must say I agree with you entirely. If I buy an audio book or song I should be able to put it on any device I own to listen to at my own convenience. Since I own an ipod, I haven’t had an issue with files I get off itunes, but if I migrate to something better in the future I will curse myself for locking myself into apple’s DRM.

  3. There is one option you haven’t tried: create a new distribution channel. Ok, that’s sort of like telling people who complain about the high cost of prescription drugs to start their own pharmaceutical company. But with a distinct difference that goes to the heart of your complaint: This should be simple.

    Starting with your idea of free downloads away and asking for donations, maybe you’re not the only one with this itch that needs scratching. There must be others who just want a simple way of publishing that might bring in a few bucks.

    Find some enterprising, clever person (or people) and tell them if they build a distribution web site based on your business model, and you’ll happily be their first author. Tell them to keep it simple (like Craigslist or Google) to keep the time and money required as low as possible. Odds are no one will get rich. But maybe it will thrive enough to attract more authors and musicians and pay someones salary.

  4. Just to play devil’s advocate (actually in this case maybe that should be devils’ advocate)…
    At least in the US – copyright law give the copyright holder EXCLUSIVE right to create copies of a work. Fair use is a gray area, but given that the percentage of a work copied is one variable, copying an entire commercially available work may very well not fall under fair use. So, couldn’t a strict application of the ‘just follow copyright law’ be the same as ‘you may not make any copies of this item?’

    1. Yes, Fair Use is a gray dodgy area that should be redefined to allow things like making copies for personal use, but prevent copies being made for commercial use except by the copyright holder. If I want to make a copy for my laptop, my home computer, my mp3 player, printed out on a paper, etc… I should be able to under copyright law, as I purchased the right to use this product (be it a song, album, book, audiobook, podcast, movie, music video, etc…) Most major media groups (record labels and movie companies in particular) want to be able to define how you use their product (you can only use it on Tuesdays when its partly cloudy with a 80% chance of rain).

      By the same right I should not be able to make a bunch of copies of said media and then sell them to friends/ strangers without the express permission of the copyright holder. And, if I did make copies for profit with or without permission, the copyright holder has a right to a set percentage of my profits (say 50%), unless an agreement has been reached previously to my distribution (be it a smaller percentage or for free).

      The “just follow copyright law” merely tells the end user to do what they should already be doing, following the laws for their city/state/country (quite reasonable IMO), and if the end user decides to break said laws then they know the consequences they face if caught.

      1. cymk: I completely agree that fair use “should” be clarified to reflect the digital age. But… it hasn’t yet. And notice that you say “I should be able to under copyright law, as I purchased the right to use this product” — when you talk about purchasing a “right to use” you’ve moved out of copyright law and into licensing, EULAs etc… My main concern is that copyright law, as it stands, is just not written to deal with purely digital objects of commerce. This creates the need for licenses, EULAs etc that clarify the specific rights a creator is allowing or denying when you buy a work. Creative Commons licensing is a great step in this direction of developing a standard way of doing this.

        1. My mistake, didn’t realize I was treading into licensing. I merely meant to say I should be able to consume the album, book, movie, etc.. in a fashion of my own choosing, not one forced upon me by the means it which it was released. Unfortunately I don’t listen to many audio books, so I have few examples in that arena, but I should be able to put a copy of the audio book on my mp3 player, my computer, or even copy it to storage media (a CD, HDD, etc…) and listen to it at my leisure. I should not be considered a criminal because I want to make back-up copies incase of fire, theft, or natural disaster.

  5. Can’t you use some open, or that is, easily crackable DRM and add a little narration to the beginning that says, hey sorry bout the DRM, Apple/Audible is making us use it, but feel free to crack it, we won’t come after you. Or something like that. Or you could slightly compromise your morals and just DRM it, people who want your work, and want to pay for it, may not neccesarily care if it’s DRMed. Just saying. I work at a bookstore, and I’ve noticed a number of audiobooks lately that come as mp3s on cdrom as opposed to audio cds, the mp3 cds are about 40 bucks for a big book like King’s new one, and the regular audio book is like 60 or 70 bucks. If you’ve already got an audio book publisher, maybe you could get them to go with that format.

  6. Stupid DRMs abusive EULA still should not be a deal breaker for an author to not use a site like audible or itunes to sell their stuff. I believe in fighting for what is right and I don’t like to deal with bullshit, but sometimes you have to eat a little shit in order to make business progress. Yeah DRM is annoying and huge coroporations can seem clueless, but maybe you should just put up with it instead of just opting out all together…just seems kind of pointless. Besides I don’t think there is anything stoppiing you from offering the audio book DRM free on your own website.

    1. I think Cory has enough experience as a published author to make an informed decision on whether licensing agreements offend his ethical principles enough to break the deal. Maybe opting not to “eat a little shit” lets him walk away from the deal with a better taste in his mouth.

      1. Yes, a better taste in his mouth, less readers and less income. And some meaningless moral superiority for upholding “ethical principles” about stuff that is really not that important on the grand scheme of things. Just doesn’t seem worth it me.

        1. Dearie me, your integrity sells for cheap, doesn’t it?

          As it happens, the good commercial reason not to let my customers be locked into a DRM vendor or a shitty EULA is that it gives the retailer too much control over my pricing and options. If, say, 90% of my audiobooks sold are locked into Audible, I can’t leave Audible for a competitor without forcing my customers to split their music libraries into Audible and Non-Audible. Which give Audible enormous negotiating leverage.

          I’m not in this business to sell one novel in audiobook form. I’m planning on a career that will last 40-70 more years. Thinking about my economic well-being over that term is precisely why I have no interest in giving a whip hand to a mere retailer.

          1. Believe me, if I was an author or in my case a musician who could financially afford to uphold those type of principles and refuse to do business with retailers who won’t agree to my terms I would. But I’m poor and making that kind of decision could be the difference between me shopping at the 99 cent store instead whole foods. Being poor causes people to compromise their integrity.

        2. You miss the point *totally*. Sorry but you do. Download the free, fan-reading of makers, and drop cory a donation ;)

  7. I hope Apple and Audible are suitably embarassed.

    I bought an audiobook once, but didn’t listen to it in the end because even though it said ‘no drm’ it ended up needing a download to play on which they didn’t mention before the checkout. Since I use my computer for work, I try not to download too much extra software that I can’t verify. And I am not interested in files I cannot port around.

    Thanks for sticking up for the principles Cory, I hope others follow.

  8. I agree totally. That’s why I avoid itunes and all other electronic media outlets. Even though I own the content 100%, they want to tell me what I, and/or my customers can do with it. Until these companies get with the future, I just sell my stuff on my own through I can give it away, sell it at my own price, whatever. And they don’t rob me for hosting my books & recordings.

  9. I gave up on Audible when their selltrons started calling my house, despite that number being on the (US) National Do-Not-Call list.

  10. Sounds to me like there’s an opportunity for a Magnatune-like business that specializes in audiobooks … I’ve always liked their business model, the “No DRM, pay what you think it’s worth” approach.

  11. The “I don’t want anything that’s digital” comment is showing some strong support here. For all those peop…er…mutants who are interested, Read Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Age of Access”. Tangible property is no longer the focus of capitalism. It’s all information and it’s all intangible—that’s where the power lies. And where private property (the basis of tangible worth) contained the right to exclude (others from touching, looking at, doing whatever), intangibility, or at least access to intangibility (i.e. internet, cell networks, etc) needs a right to not be excluded.
    When information has become the basis for our economy—what happens to the people on the other side of the digital divide?

  12. Wow, and you didn’t even consider trying to sell it via Amazon or something? DRM-free stuff is available there. Incredible. You could even approach places such as Newegg, the Vuze store,’s official store, etc and sell through them as well. There are just tons of places you could go instead.

    Forget the iTunes store or Audible, I detest them. Foul scourges of e-commerce, both. And Apple sings a loud anti-DRM tune, but it’s the very first thing they fling into all of their software, music/book offerings, etc. I do believe there are even TPM chips in Macs.

  13. Actually, I find the ability to carry large portions of my music collection everywhere I want with me is extremely nice. The ability to organize my stuff and have it STAY ORGANIZED is also fantastic, as is the ability to apply multiple tags and find it whichever way makes sense to me at the moment.

    Digital media is fantastic. Not to the exclusion of all else, because I do enjoy the feel and smell of a book, and sometimes physical existence just grants something more specialness to me. A piece of colored vinyl in a lovingly crafted jacket is just… so much easier to appreciate than a folder of mp3s acquired in a giant mega torrent.

    Blaming digital media for the clumsy/crazy/greedy/stupid/arrogant ways in which governments and corporations respond to its’ possibility isn’t fair. It does irritate me that rather than trying to adapt and continue to add value to the transaction, the music recording/distribution industry has just tried to lobby for regulations that detract value from the transaction.

    I’m just gratified to hear that some of the artists creating the content are also looking for ways to step around the lumbering giants.

  14. Why not distribute your audio book on Emusic? They are entirely DRM-free, they work with Linux, Mac, and Windows, and I don’t recall their EULA being abusive (because, y’know, I obviously read the whole thing and consulted my lawyer). Their prices are roughly equal to Audible’s too.

  15. Why don’t you just sell your audio downloads through They have a very decent simple digital selling platform that I have used with good results. I haven’t found a gotcha yet in their system. You should be able to sell your files under any terms you decide upon.

  16. Lock-in is the business model, it just so happens that in the bygone publishing era it came free with the nature of the physical medium. Now it’s a choice, and none of the majors are giving it up. Just more grandpa-think from the “business leaders.”

  17. @Cory – your stand with Audible is not out of character, and it is impressive. May I ask why you (nearly) cheerlead Audible for not letting you publish things your way, yet (somewhat regularly) tear on Apple for essentially the same offense?

    I think it is a matter of how much each company does well/poorly but I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

    1. “May I ask why you (nearly) cheerlead Audible for not letting you publish things your way, yet (somewhat regularly) tear on Apple for essentially the same offense?”

      Yes, you can ask this, but the answer is, I don’t “nearly cheerlead Audible.”

  18. I guess I’m not understanding why Apple and Audible are even coming up in the conversation. An audiobook is an MP3 file, correct? Aren’t there plenty of ways to sell and unrestricted MP3 file? is one. A download page that is only made available after a PayPal payment is another. I’ve used that one in addition to Lulu and it worked really well for MP3 downloads.

    But is the real problem that one considers iTunes and Audible to be the only real games in town? Is that it? Doesn’t that conflict slightly with being something of a rebel?

    Forget Apple and Audible. Why mention them ever again? DIY. DIY. Do…it…your…self.

  19. respect to cory for his choice. at least he practices what he preaches.

    i’m no audiobook fan but as sure as hell would never buy something that would risk becoming obsolete or impossible to use cross-platform. so as a potential customer i think that he is making the good choice. it will cost him the non savvy crowd tho’.

    personally if i had to choose i’d take the EULA over the DRM. EULAS are de facto useless since i doubt anyone would care if i burn an mp3 on cd and even if he did i can’t see how he could enforce it, whereas DRM can be really annoying to transfer between players, cds etc.

  20. Why not sell it on BANDCAMP? It’s awesome. (No I’m not joking – even though it’s a music site I don’t think they’d mind at all)

  21. Others have said it, but why can’t you just sell an mp3 on your own site? Are listeners so stupid that then can’t deal with downloading a file, and need a little “here is your library of audiobooks now buy some more” application (with the associated platform lock-in and bloated infrastructure)?

    On the NIN site, one puts in payment details, chooses one’s preferred format, and receives a link to the mp3 (or whatever you chose, or to a .zip for an album). The link is unique and works for 24 hours or something. Such a system is basically trivial to implement, especially if you handle payment with something like PayPal, and would cost you very little.

  22. Cory, there are nice alternative sites like Podiobooks — I would donate to you if you were on a site like that. These guys rock, have a great model and could probably use the cred you would bring them (I’m not affiliated, just a fan). Check out “Quarter Share” by Nathan Lowell.

  23. There are alternatives. If these sites won’t work with you, go around them. I just made a free audiobook for SFFaudio and some sites I could upload to have a requirement that I brand the book with their site info – even though they don’t support the original site’s program. Nah gah happin’. I uploaded to sites that accept the mp3 clips as is. I’m not selling it – but if I were so inclined – I could market it through the alternative links and create demand/sales that I can use when bargaining with the stubborn sites next time.

  24. I wanted to reiterate Hosidax’s suggestion – I got hooked on podiobooks a while ago and have, thus far, purchased a dozen or so ‘books’ from them. I don’t know what kind of return most authors get from them, since it’s a “payment optional” model, but surely there’s someone out there who offers a model that works with what you’re trying to do…

    Appropriate captcha: “today enfolds”.

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