Pluralistic: 17 Aug 2022: Chokepoint Capitalism Kickstarter is live

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An image of a mobile phone playing the Chokepoint Capitalism audiobook, along with the title and subtitle of the book: 'Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back.'

Kickstarting the "Chokepoint Capitalism" audiobook (permalink)

My next book is Chokepoint Capitalism, co-written with the brilliant copyright expert Rebecca Giblin: it's an action-oriented investigation into how tech and entertainment monopolies have destroyed creators' livelihoods, with detailed, shovel-ready plans to unrig creative labor markets and get artists paid.

'Are you a writer, a musician, an artist? Is Big Tech eating your brain and sucking your financial blood? Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin’s new book, Chokepoint Capitalism’, tells us how the vampires crashed the party and provides protective garlic. Your brain must remain your own concern, however.'—Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale

Ironically, the very phenomenon this book describes – "chokepoint capitalism" – is endemic to book publishing, and in audiobook publishing, it's in its terminal phase. There's no way to market an audiobook to a mass audience without getting trapped in a chokepoint, which is why we're kickstarting a direct-to-listener edition:

'I loved this book. It brings a clear and rigorous vision of the chokepoint controls that are breaking our spirit and an equally clear path forward.  It speaks directly to creators, would-be artists, writers, and musicians, and all who want a free society alive with culture, dissent, creativity. It helps us all see the locks and chains, and the ways to chisel through them.' —Zephyr Teachout, law professor and author of Corruption in America and Break ‘Em Up

What is "chokepoint capitalism?" It's when a multinational monopolist (or cartel) locks up audiences inside a system that they control, and uses that control to gouge artists, creating toll booths between creators and their audiences.

For example, take Audible: the Amazon division controls the vast majority of audiobook sales in the world – in some genres, they have a 90%+ market-share. Audible requires every seller – big publishers and self-publishers alike – to use their proprietary DRM as a condition of selling on the platform.

'Creators are being ground up by the modern culture industries, with little choice but to participate in markets that weaken their power and economic return. In this brilliant and wide-ranging work, Giblin and Doctorow show why, and offer a range of powerful strategies for fighting back.'—Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, Harvard Law School

That's a huge deal. DRM is useless at preventing copyright infringement (all of Audible's titles can be downloaded for free from various shady corners of the internet), but it is wildly effective at locking in audiences and seizing power over creators. Under laws like the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, giving someone a tool to remove DRM is a felony, punishable by 5 years in prison and a $500k fine.

This means that when you sell your audiobooks on Audible, you lock them to Audible's platform…forever. If another company offers you a better deal for your creative work and you switch, your audience can't follow you to the new company without giving up all the audiobooks they've bought to date. That's a lot to ask of listeners!

'This compellingly readable indictment shows how ‘consumer welfare’ regulatory theory has allowed Big Tech to choke creators and diminish choice. Giblin and Doctorow demonstrate that the goal to lower consumer costs means ‘you get what you pay for’: paying less for cultural goods leads to getting fewer creative outputs and enterprises.  Chokepoint Capitalism couples its legal-economic critique with provocative, sometimes utopian, prescriptions for fairly remunerating authors and performers.' —Jane C. Ginsburg, Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law, Columbia University School of Law

Amazon knows this: as their power over creators and publishers has grown, the company has turned the screw on them, starting with the most powerless group, the independent creators who rely on Amazon's self-serve ACX system to publish their work.

In late 2020, a group of ACX authors discovered that Amazon had been systematically stealing their wages, to the tune of an estimated $100,000,000. The resulting Audiblegate scandal has only gotten worse since, and while the affected authors are fighting back, they're hamstrung by Amazon's other unfair practices, like forcing creators to accept binding arbitration waivers on their way through the chokepoint:

The great myth of the American economy is that it rewards creators and producers. But Chokepoint Capitalism dares to tell the real story of how it actually rewards the all-powerful middlemen fleecing both workers and consumers. This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who senses that the predominant economic mythology is a lie, who wants to know what's really happening in this economy—and who is ready to finally start fixing the problem.'—David Sirota, writer of Don't Look Up and founder of The Lever

I have always had a no-DRM policy for my ebooks and audiobooks. Amazon's Kindle store – another wildly dominant part of the books ecosystem – has always allowed authors to choose whether or not to apply DRM, but in Audible – where Amazon had a commanding lead from the start, thanks to their anti-competitive acquisition of the formerly independent Audible company – it is mandatory.

Because Audible won't carry my DRM-free audiobooks, audiobook publishers won't pay for them. I don't blame them – being locked out of the market where 90%+ of audiobooks are sold is a pretty severe limitation. For a decade now, I've produced my own audiobooks, using amazing narrators like Wil Wheaton, Amber Benson and Neil Gaiman.

'We all know something is wrong about every click, stream, and purchase we make—unfairly depriving value creators of their worth, while enriching the wealthiest and most extractive entities in human history. Instead of just complaining about the corporate stranglehold over production and exchange, Giblin and Doctorow show us why this happened, how it works, and what we can do about it. An infuriating yet inspiring call to collective action.'
—Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and Survival of the Richest

These had sold modestly-but-well, recouping my cash outlays to fairly compensate the readers, directors and engineers involved, but they were still niche products, sold at independent outlets like, Downpour, and my own online storefront:

Twenty years of internet copyright wars got us nowhere—creators are still getting the shaft. Giblin and Doctorow persuasively argue that copyright can’t unrig a rigged market—for that you need worker power, antitrust, and solidarity.'—Jimmy Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia

But that all changed in 2020, with the publication of Attack Surface, an adult standalone novel set in the world of my bestselling YA series Little Brother. That time, I decided to use Kickstarter to pre-sell the audio- and ebooks and see if my readers would help me show other creators that we could stand up to Audible's bullying.

'Capitalism doesn’t work without competition. Giblin and Doctorow impressively show the extent to which that’s been lost throughout the creative industries, and how this pattern threatens every other worker. There’s still time to do something about it, but the time to act is now.'—Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

Holy shit, did it ever work. The Kickstarter for the Attack Surface audiobook turned into the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign in world history, grossing over $267,000:

'Chokepoint Capitalism really is a tome for the times. It’s comforting to feel validated and terrifying to realize I was right all along! And now, to action! The revolution will not be spotified!' —Christopher Coe, artist and cofounder of Awesome Soundwave

Which brings me to today, and our new Kickstarter for Chokepoint Capitalism. We produced an independent audiobook, tapping the incomparable Stefan Rudnicki (winner of uncountable awards, narrator of 1000+ books, including Ender's Game) to read it.

We're preselling the audiobook ($20), ebook ($15), hardcover ($27), and bundles mixing and matching all three (there's also bulk discounts). There's also the option to buy copies that we'll donate to libraries on your behalf. We've got pins and stickers – and, for five lucky high-rollers, we've got a very special artwork called: "The Annotated Robert Bork."

'If you have ever wondered why the web feels increasingly stale, Chokepoint Capitalism outlines in great detail how it is being denied fresh air. Over the past two decades, we have seen an immense consolidation of power, depriving us of fresh visions for what the web could be and contorting art and culture to flatter the objectives of a few platforms. This book does a remarkable job of identifying the blockages and surfacing ideas on the margins that could reroute us. I’m grateful it exists!' —Mat Dryhurst, artist and researcher, NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music

Robert Bork was the far-right extremist who convinced Ronald Reagan to dismantle antitrust protection in America, and then exported the idea to the rest of the world (Reagan tried to reward him with a Supreme Court seat, but Bork had been Nixon's Solicitor General and his complicity in Nixon's crimes cost him the confirmation).

Chokepoint Capitalism is more than a clarion call for a new, necessary form of trustbusting. It’s a grand unified theory of a decades-long, corporate-led hollowing out of creative culture. It will make you angry, and it should.'—Andy Greenberg, writer for WIRED and author of Sandworm and Tracers in the Dark

Bork's dangerous antitrust nonsense destroyed the world as we knew it, giving us the monopolies that have wrecked the climate, labor protections and political integrity. These monopolies have captured every sector of the economy – from beer and pro-wrestling to health insurance and finance:

A prototype of 'The Annotated Robert Bork.'

"The Annotated Robert Bork" is a series of five shadow-boxes containing two-page spreads excised from Bork's 1978 pro-monopoly manifesto The Antitrust Paradox, which we have mounted on stiff card and hand-annotated with our red pens. The resulting package is a marvel of museum glass and snark.

'Chokepoint Capitalism is not just a fascinating tour of the hidden mechanics of the platform era, from Spotify playlists to Prince's name change, but a compelling agenda to break Big Tech's hold. It presents a clear new way to think about corporate power—and a path to taking that power back for cultural creators and all of us.'—Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and cofounder of Avaaz

Bork's legacy is monopolistic markets in every sector of the world's economy, including the creative industries. Chokepoint Capitalism systematically explores how tech and entertainment giants have rigged music streaming, newspapers, book publishing, the film industry, TV, video streaming, and others, steadily eroding creators' wages even as their work generated more money for the monopolists' shareholders.

'If you’re halfway through this book and aren’t boiling mad over the way contemporary capitalism has deformed and crippled culture, get your head checked. Chokepoint Capitalism is a Why We Fight for a long-overdue uprising. Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow lay out their case in plain and powerful prose, offering a grand tour of the blighted cultural landscape and how our arts and artists have been chickenized, choked, and cheated. But it’s more than just a call to arms; it also provides a plan of battle with inspired strategy and actual tactics—ways that we can all channel that anger and make real change.'—Kaiser Kuo, host and cofounder of The Sinica Podcast

But just as importantly, our book proposes things we can do right now to unrig creative labor markets. Drawing on both existing, successful projects and promising new experiments, we set out shovel-ready ideas for creators, artists' groups, fans, technologists, startups, and local, regional and national governments.

'Chokepoint Capitalism is a masterwork.  Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow lay out in chilling detail how the deck is stacked against artists, the relentless corporate drives to control production and distribution through technology and deregulation, and how oligopolies deprive gifted artists of fair compensation by eliminating true competition.  But they don’t stop there: this is also a useful handbook to take on that power structure.  Giblin and Doctorow remind us that when individuals understand the value of their work, they can create the necessary leverage to challenge the status quo and retake what is rightfully theirs. Both frightening and uplifting, it’s a necessary read for any artist in the entertainment industry.' —David A. Goodman, writer, executive producer of The Orville, and former president of the WGA West

Artists aren't in this struggle alone. As we write in the book, chokepoint capitalism is the final stage of high-tech capitalism, which atomizes workers and locks in customers and then fleeces workers as a condition of reaching their audiences. It's a form of exploitation that is practiced wherever industries concentrate, which is why creators can't succeed by rooting for Big Tech against Big Content or vice-versa.

It's also why creative workers should be in solidarity with all workers – squint a little at Audible's chokepoint shakedown and you'll recognize the silhouette of the gig economy, from Uber to Doordash to the poultry and meat-packing industries.

'The story of how a few giant corporations are strangling the life out of our media ecosystem is one of the most important of the decade, and Giblin and Doctorow tell it better than anyone. Searing, essential, and incredibly readable.'—Adam Conover, comedian and host of The G-Word

40 years of official pro-monopoly policy has brought the world to the brink of collapse, as monopoly profits and concentrated power allowed an ever-decreasing minority of the ultra-rich to extract ever-increasing fortunes from ever-more-precarious workers. It's a flywheel: more monopoly creates more profits creates more power creates more monopoly.

The solutions we propose in Chokepoint Capitalism are specific to creative labor, but they're also examples of the kinds of tactics that we can use in every industry, to brake the monopolists' flywheel and start a new world.

Anyone who cares about culture can see that something is deeply amiss in the ‘creator economy’ that today’s artists are obligated to participate in. Rather than simply lamenting the problem or falling back on clichés about starving artists, what Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow do in Chokepoint Capitalism is to make clear the overall pattern that drives the exploitation of artists, from music to gaming to film to books. And they lay out a credible, actionable vision for a better, more collaborative future where artists get their fair due. Every creator will find inspiration here.'—Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch

I hope you'll consider backing the Kickstarter if you can afford to – and if you can't, I hope you'll check out one of the copies our backers have donated to libraries around the world:

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 512 words (33298 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 504 words (29639 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe

Upcoming appearances:

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Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla