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Giving Away the Store

Giving Away the Store

Are markets and tools for independent authors doing us a favour or is it the other way around? (Free hint: it’s the latter.) So why are they acting like they’ve got us by the short hairs?

Locked In

It seems like every week there is some new tool or service for people who want to publish their own work. For independent authors, this is great news. However, I’ve noticed a disturbing new trend among these new offerings: as a participant or user, you are required to give away some of the rights to your work for no real compensation.

Amazon’s KDP Select was the first to catch my eye. I know plenty of people who made some of their books available exclusively on Amazon as per the requirement for the Kindle Select program, and have seen an increase in sales. Others have seen very little return for removing their books from other markets. Whether it “works” or not, to my mind the exclusivity requirement isn’t worth any amount of marketing advantage; requiring me to remove my work from other markets is a deal breaker for me.

However, it seems that the KDP Select model is catching on. Apple’s new iBooks Author requires books which are made using this tool to be sold exclusively in Apple’s iBookstore. You have the option to offer it for free at the iBookstore and sell it elsewhere, but if you want to charge for it on the iBookstore, you have to give Apple the exclusive contract.

Like Amazon, here Apple is making a very interesting statement – your independent work is valuable, so valuable indeed that we want to be the only ones who can sell it. This is essentially the same as a publishing company requiring exclusive rights to your work, a typical part of a traditional publishing contract. But those contracts also involved providing the author with something for those exclusive rights – cash.

Apple and Amazon are offering their marketplace and their tools as if they were equivalent to a publishing advance. Certainly we all may disagree on how much Amazon’s market or Apple’s software is worth, but I’d argue that even the most meagre advance from the traditional publishing industry is worth more than what these companies are offering independent authors.

It’s not just exclusivity that’s a problem. Recently, those of us who market our work by making serialized audio podcasts of our stories have been following the story of ACX. ACX is an Amazon company which is a clearinghouse for audiobooks, sold on Audible and iTunes. They are marketing themselves as an option for independents and small presses, but recently have made it clear that they are not willing to work with any novel which is available as a podcast for free. (See also, Scott Sigler’s take on this.)

While ACX doesn’t require exclusivity, they do put restrictions on authors and small publishers which severely limit the control we have over how we distribute our work. Like Apple with its iBooks creator and Amazon’s KDP Select service, ACX is, without offering an advance or any other compensation, restricting our rights to our work if we agree to use their services.

When we agree to limiting terms such as exclusivity with a market, independent authors are giving Amazon, Apple or whoever exactly those things that we don’t like about traditional publishers: the right to control how we distribute our work with little in return. 

As independent producers, we need to think twice before agreeing to these limiting terms. Clearly, these companies think that our work is valuable – they wouldn’t be asking for exclusivity otherwise. If enough people refuse to use tools or services which limit our distribution option, these companies will be forced to change their terms of use.

We need to remember that we are the ones with the valuable commodity here – our creative output – and that we don’t owe anything to Apple or Amazon for letting us publish through their markets. They get a financial cut of our work anyway – restricting our distribution rights is well beyond reasonable.

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