/ Cory Doctorow / 2 pm Fri, Jul 20 2018
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  • Google launches a DRM-free audiobook store: finally, a writer- and listener-friendly Audible alternative!

    Google launches a DRM-free audiobook store: finally, a writer- and listener-friendly Audible alternative!

    A decade ago, when Amazon acquired Audible, the two companies promised that they'd phase out their DRM, which locked listeners into using their proprietary software and devices to enjoy the books they purchased. Audible never made good on that promise, and stonewalled press queries and industry requests about when, exactly, this fairtrade version of their industry-dominating audiobook store would finally emerge.

    Ten years later, Audible controls more than 90% of the audiobook market, making it the last bastion of DRM in audiobooks -- competitors like Downpour and Libro.fm sell all the same books without DRM, and the audiobooks you get at your local library have been DRM-free for years.

    It's not surprising that Amazon would choose to use an illegitimate, anticompetitive technology to lock its customers (and suppliers) in. Once you control 90% of a market, you are more likely to lose users than gain them, and so anything you can do to lock those users in to your platform helps you more than it hurts. It's a signature Big Tech move, the kind of thing that monopolies use to shore up their dominance for the long term.

    I saw this writing on the wall more than a decade ago. I've given up hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income by refusing to allow my audiobooks to be sold with DRM. I even created my own audiobook store so I'd have somewhere to sell my books. Every time I've dealt with someone from Amazon, I've asked them to look into the long-promised DRM-free store for me, and every time, they've promised they would -- but no one has ever gotten back to me.

    It's a far cry from the Amazon MP3 Store, which pioneered DRM-free music downloads the same year the company bought Audible. Back then, Amazon's slogan was "DRM: DON'T RESTRICT ME." Of course, Amazon's DRM-free music store was a collaboration with the record labels to break Apple's monopoly over online music (and a couple years later, Apple followed them into DRM-free land and dropped DRM from all their music). When Amazon is trying to seize control, DRM is the enemy; when it attains control, DRM is a must-have.

    Now it's Amazon's turn in the hot seat.

    Google has just launched a DRM-free audiobook store that duplicates nearly the entire catalog at Audible. When you buy your audiobooks from Google Play you can download them to any device, play it on any device, convert them, archive them, back them up. If you decide you don't want to use Google products in the future, you won't lose your audiobooks. It's fucking amazing.

    Google's native audiobook player has a lot of cool bells and whistles, of course (access through Google Assistant and Google Home, synch across multiple devices, tunable playback speed), but the most important thing is that you aren't restricted to using that player. If you don't like those features, or if you like someone else's features better, you're able to jump ship, and take your books with you.

    I've gotten to know a lot of people in the audiobook market, and they've all been praying for an alternative to Audible. When Google quietly informed the publishing world that they were launching a DRM-free competitor, I immediately heard from multiple, competing major publishers who wanted to buy the rights to sell my books, now that there was a store with major backing where they could be sold.

    After considering several offers, I've signed up with Macmillan Audio to publish my next audiobook as a Google Play exclusive (at least for launch time -- and I'll still be selling it through my own little author-operated store).

    What's that audiobook? Well, that's the other cool thing I get to talk about today. My novella "Authorized Bread" has been bought for a pleasingly large sum of money by Tor Books in the USA, with UK/Australian/NZ publication by Head of Zeus and German publication by Heyne. There's an accompanying screen deal whose details I'll be announcing shortly. It'll be published early this fall, with an all-DRM-free Macmillan audio edition.

    "Unauthorized Bread" is a story about refugees, inequality, DRM, and class struggle. Its heroine, Salima, is an Arab woman, and I have Macmillan's commitment to hire a voice actor of Arabic origin to narrate the audiobook. And just as I was able to do with my self-funded indie audiobooks, I'll be in the studio while the audiobook is recorded, able to give advice on line readings.

    Today is a day that a lot of people have waited a long time for. Market concentration is a modern scourge, but even by contemporary standards, the audiobook market is a disaster, with a single company in a position of total dominance that it uses to squeeze writers, actors, production staff, publishers, and, ultimately, customers. Anyone who signs an Audible-only deal for their books after today is an idiot; and anyone who buys another DRM-locked Audible book after this is just asking to be kicked in the pants by a giant, uncaring monopolist that has abused its dominance for a decade.

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