Fair trade ebooks: how authors could double their royalties without costing their publishers a cent

My latest Publishers Weekly column announces the launch-date for my long-planned "Shut Up and Take My Money" ebook platform, which allows traditionally published authors to serve as retailers for their publishers, selling their ebooks direct to their fans and pocketing the 30% that Amazon would usually take, as well as the 25% the publisher gives back to them later in royalties.

I'll be launching the platform with my next novel, Walkaway, in late April, and gradually rolling out additional features, including a name-your-price system inspired by the Humble Bundle and the Ubuntu payment screen.

Selling your own ebooks means that you can have more than one publisher -- say, a UK and a US one -- and sell on behalf of both of them, meaning that readers anywhere in the world come to one site to buy their books, and the author takes care of figuring out which publisher gets the payment from that purchase.

It's all an idea whose time has come! My UK publisher, Head of Zeus, is just launched a very similar initiative for authors who don't want to host their own stores: BookGrail.

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.

London Book Fair 2017: Cory Doctorow Unveils His Latest Publishing Experiment—Fair Trade E-Books [Cory Doctorow/Publishers Weekly]

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  1. I'm a traditionally-published author of middle grade children's books. I'm decidedly what would be called "mid-list." I'd love to use this platform. Please keep us posted on how to apply/register/participate. Even if just people on my distribution lists got my books there, it would help me make a living at this.

  2. Are people familiar with Bandcamp? It's a minimal middleman between music artists and consumers. It gives consumers better prices, artists bigger cuts, and the option to pay more for the product than cover price. Maybe that is another model to consider.

  3. I love this, I don't mind paying for a good book but not if most of the money doesn't go to the author. I would also love it if authors had 'Donate' buttons on their websites so those of us who have found the EPUB copy and loaded it onto their non-kindle ereader can support their favorite authors directly. If file sharing of movies and music has taught us anything it's that people who share the most spend the most on the things they have enjoyed.

  4. This is a great idea. Also, I haven't visited Boingboing in awhile, but it's nice to see that Cory/Xeni/Mark/and the gang are still kicking ass after all this time. Remember the DRM/Sony wars of 2005? Good times. You rock!

  5. I was riffing on the old advertising slogan, "we cut out the middle man to pass the savings on to you." Ebook prices are outrageous no matter who profits, but the authors should certainly get a larger slice of them than the publisher or the retailer.

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