DRM vs. the Tip Jar

I am a bit of a Stoic, in the classic sense of the word.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex philosophy, what I mean when I say this is that, in order to get the most satisfaction out of my life, I devote a certain amount of time and mental energy toward envisioning how things (anything, most things, some things) might go wrong, and how I’ll deal with it if it does.

This, I am told, is weird and counter intuitive and even sounds depressing to a non-trivial percentage of people (or at least a high percentage of vocal people), and I understand their reaction; I’ll admit this approach to the life’s daily events has a tendency to, let’s say, flatten the peaks of whatever high points come along during the day.

The flip side is that it also softens the blow of the low points, because I’ve mentally prepped myself for unfortunate events – often something far worse than what actually happens. (I have a pretty good imagination, so when I tell you I envision things going wrong, understand that I take things quite a bit further than “what will I do if I get a flat tire during rush hour?”

It may not work for everyone, but it works for me – in short, I make plans to deal with the worst that might happen, and as a result I’m generally pretty pleased with an otherwise unremarkable day: the house didn’t burn down, everyone’s healthy, and my kids didn’t run into traffic while I was getting the mail. Yay!

I will admit, there are downsides, the primary one being the fact I go through the day expecting people to, collectively, be kind of horrible.

But people aren’t entirely horrible – it’s possible they aren’t even mostly horrible – and when you prepare for the worst (as I do) and instead encounter the best, it’s worth talking about.

I want to tell you a story about people not being horrible, and how it’s changed the way I approach making stuff and putting it out in the world.

When HarperCollins published Hidden Things, I didn’t expect anyone to buy the audiobook rights – it rarely happens with first-time authors – and of course no one did.

But I still wanted an audiobook of Hidden Things to exist, so I asked the agent representing me for that book to ask HarperCollins for the audiobook rights back, once it was fairly clear nothing was going to happen on that front. They said yes, paperwork was signed, and it was done: I could do whatever I wanted with the rights, limited only by my finances and ability.

Now, I had the funds available to pay for the recording and production of an audiobook, but I didn’t like that option for two main reasons:

  1. I didn’t want to get bound up in some kind of financial bottom line with the project, where I only judged it “good” once I’d (for example) made as much money as I’d spent on the thing.
  2. It sounded boring.

So instead, I started up a Kickstarter to fund the audiobook development. (You can check out the video for the project over here.

The main reason I did this was because it meant I didn’t have to worry about the financial bottom line, because the project would be in the black from day one, thanks to backers who essentially “preordered” the audiobook through the kickstarter.

This gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and I wanted to use that freedom to explore ideas that I believed in very strongly in theory, but which I hadn’t been able to test out where it really mattered.

Specifically, I wanted to release the audiobook in as many formats as a could, in ways that would make the story available to anyone, anywhere, without running into problems with Digital Rights Management and all that other “treat the customer like a criminal” bullshit the publishing industry does (because they didn’t learn anything from the music industry failing at the same thing, ten years previous).

In this, I took my cues from Cory Doctorow, who is something of an evangelist of the anti-DRM movement, and who makes all his books freely available for download off his personal website and yet still manages to pay the bills.

“DRM does nothing but punish honest people,” a paraphrased Doctorow might say, “so I’ll make it easy to get my stuff, no matter what, and prove ‘digital theft’ is a silly bogeyman in publishing, compared to the very real problems of inaccessibility and obscurity.”

Did I buy that? Here’s bit of my narration from that kickstarter video:

I plan to make this audiobook project a demonstration of the futility of DRM in today’s digital marketplace. I believe it is possible for a creator to ask a fair price for good work and receive that price from fans who believe in the work and want to support it.

I was pushing that line pretty hard, but you’ll notice that I was basically setting up the kickstarter to help make that happen. I didn’t say it in so many words, but the underlying message was something like this:

“Listen: if I have to pay for this myself, it’s going to go out as an audiobook, and that’s it. If the kickstarter funds it, and I know I’m not going to lose a bunch of money, then it’s happy fun peace love time in here.”


Yeah. That was me.

See, it all seemed to make sense to me, and as a reader/listener/consumer, I know first hand how much DRM infuriated and frustrated and insulted me.

But when you bring this argument up in publishing, there’s a some nodding and agreeable murmurs and then a WHOLE LOT of what I’ll call “expectation management,” and mostly it boils down to this:

“That’s a fine idea… if you’re Cory Doctorow,” they say. “Once you have a hundred thousand happy-mutant BoingBoing readers buying his stuff, even though he’s giving it away for free on his website, just to prove him right, then of course he can say DRM is bad and trusting people works better.”

And I understand that mindset – I really do. You can’t come into the publishing world with a horror novel and expect your career to describe the same basic arc as Stephen King: that would be stupid and unrealistic, but people still do that, every day, so you have agents and editors and publicists trying to help a new author understand they aren’t Stephen King. I get it.

But at the same time, this didn’t feel like a “you’re not Stephen King” situation. This wasn’t about the writer as much as it was about the readers – it wasn’t what a person could do, but what people would do.

In other words, I was pretty sure everyone who was telling me “that only works if you’re Doctorow” were wrong.

So I put my hand out, asked for some help, got it, and made the audiobook the way I wanted. I “gave it away for free” via a podcast that anyone could listen to, then remastered it and released it on Audible for what I suppose are normal audiobook prices, while continuing to make the free podcast available.

And I did more than that. Once the podcast was done, I put the whole thing up on Podiobooks. If you don’t know what Podiobooks is, it’s kind of given away in the name: audiobooks, in podcast format, and the thing with Podiobooks is, everything is free: listen all you want, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. More than that, the guys running the site even do the work of getting the stuff up on the iTunes as well, also for free.

Did you get that?

I had my book on Audible (US only, because of DRM), iTunes (ditto, I think), and Downpour (eventually) but I also had free podcast versions on my website and on Podiobooks AND AGAIN on iTunes (sitting there, free, right next to the pay remastered version).

Clearly, I’m not going to make a dime, right?

Not so.

Sales through Audible have been steady. I don’t get much of the proceeds, because everyone involved takes their cut first but, well… I don’t care – the whole project is in the black: I’m enjoying the “long tail” of digital sales, from day one. Given the option to buy something or just take it and walk off, people have been pretty nice and bought it. Yay.

But that’s not the thing I want to tell you about.

See, the people behind Podiobooks aren’t a charity. You can listen to everything for free, yes, but they do ask listeners to pay for the stuff they like. I’ve listened to Hidden Things over there, and about halfway through there’s a little reminder from the Podiobooks spokesperson saying:

“Hey guys, if you like this… you really ought to show that by giving the author something for all their work. We take a percentage, yeah, but most of it – a whopping eighty percent – goes to the author.

And then there’s a similar reminder at the end.

In short, there’s a tip jar. Just a tip jar and a reminder.

That tip jar and reminder has earned me more money than Audible by an order of magnitude – maybe several orders of magnitude; I’m kind of bad at math. It continues to earn me more, every month.

No DRM. No treating every customer like a potential criminal.

Expecting people to be awesome, and finding out that, by and large, they are.

I’m a believer.

In a few months, I’ll be releasing the last of the things funded by the Hidden Things kickstarter – an ebook + audiobook collection of short stories set in the Hidden Things world. It’s called Little Things. Again, released as a podcast, then put up everywhere, but still free if you want it that way, and available anywhere.

Because seriously: fuck DRM – I trust you guys.

You’re awesome.

Hidden Things Audiobook – Podcast – Episode 2

Welcome back to the Hidden Things audiobook podcast, made available DRM-free thanks to the support our amazing Kickstarter backers.

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New episodes every Monday and Wednesday. “The Hidden Things in HIDDEN THINGS” every Friday.

You can subscribe to the podcast with your preferred podcast app right here. The whole story will be available as a complete audiobook in mid-August.

HiddenThings pb c
Can’t wait that long? You can pick up the book on Amazon! 

Now, on to the story!

This is Episode 2, brought to you by Kickstarter backer Brennan Taylor.

Hidden Things Audiobook – Podcast – Episode 1

At long last, we’re kicking off the (DRM-free!) podcast production of the Hidden Things audiobook, made possible by the support of our amazing Kickstarter backers.

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New episodes every Monday and Wednesday. “The Hidden Things in HIDDEN THINGS” every Friday.

You can subscribe to the podcast with your preferred podcast app right here. The whole story will be available as a complete audiobook in mid-August.

HiddenThings pb c
Can’t wait that long? You can pick up the book on Amazon! 

Now, on to the story!

This is Episode 1, brought to you by Kickstarter backer Tobias Ferber.

It’s the Little Things…

I purposefully set up the Hidden Things kickstarter project with a fairly short fundraising timeframe. For one thing, publicity ‘stuff’ is a kind of exhausting, and I want to keep the energy level high throughout the project, so short and sweet is the order of the day.

Which brings me to the first stretch goal.

Little Things short story collection – text and audio: Do you miss Calliope? What about Vikous? Ever wanted to take a Dragon bowling? ME TOO. Little Things will be a 50+ page collection of short and short-short stories set in the Hidden Things world, packaged with the audiobook, read by the author. Unlocked at $1450.

I’m happy to have the chance to talk about this for two reasons. First, it means we’ve already hit the main project’s funding goal, so Yay! Second, it’s something that just seems like a ton of fun to me.

So fun, in fact, that I’ve already started writing some of the stories that will go into the collection. Some. I can’t write them all, right now – at least one of them will involve input from a backer, and I haven’t asked them what they want, yet – but I thought you might like to see a partial … list of ingredients — the stuff I’ve thrown in the mixing bowl, so far.


Detective Johnson.

A very special photo booth.

Glass shards.

Old scars.

Broken bones – the small ones, in your feet.

A mask.

A tack hammer.

Clown makeup.

Someone who doesn’t need clown makeup.

The world’s second largest ball of twine.

… and a Dragon. Of course.

I’m not sure I should say more. These are short stories after all: give away too much, and you’re already at the end.

Little things can be pretty amazing.

I will say this: I am having an absolute blast writing them, and I really hope I get a chance to share them with you as part of this project.

Here’s what needs to happen.

Right now, we’re roughly $200 shy of this stretch goal. There are lots of ways to get there, and we have fifteen days to do it. I think there’s an excellent chance it can happen… if I get some help from all of you – if you meet someone who would love this project and tell them about it.

Think of these poor stories, these Little Things, suck in limbo.

I mean, I’m not saying I’m holding them hostage. I’m not evil.

But, in the coming months, I’m going to need to focus on this project, and if these stories don’t end up as part of the project, they’re going to have to wait awhile. No one will be more bummed about that than me.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we can hit this stretch goal.

We can make the world of Hidden Things a little bigger.

Interested in backing this project? Head to the Kickstarter page to find out more!

Want to find out more about the Hidden Things novel? We’ve got you covered.

Hidden Things audiobook: Hunting the HISSSSSSS

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve already begun some preliminary recording work with Tim White, who’s doing all the sound engineering work on the project. I’ve known Tim for years, and we’ve done some recording in the past (mostly for his podcasts, where editing my tangents becomes something of a challenge) — he’s even helped me set up my own recording tools.

And, having worked with him, I had no doubt he was exactly the person for the audiobook project.

We met for the first recording test back in early September. Tim had just finished rebuilding his recording studio from scratch (following a move) and he was eager to… umm… you know. Set some levels? Track some masters?

People, there’s a reason we’re paying Tim to do the audio stuff.

Anyway, we got together, arranged everything to our satisfaction, and the end product of that first session was splendid; after a few weeks worth of quality time with my laptop, Screenflow, and Prezi, it became the audio for the Hidden Things introduction video.

Once that was done and the project was submitted for final approval from the Kickstarter folks, we decided to celebrate with the first recording session for the book itself.

Which is where we meet the villain of the piece.


Somewhere between our first and second recording sessions, something had crept into the recording studio. Something evil.

Specifically, it had crept into the microphone I used to read the first three chapters of the book, and the end result was subtle, low-grade, but altogether annoying hisssssssss that lurked in the background, mucking up the sound quality. It didn’t matter whether you listened to the recording on a phone, a computer, a laptop, headphones, stereo speakers, or your car audio (we tested all those and a few more): hissssssssss.

“I think we’re going to have to re-record,” I said. “But hey: extra practice for me!”

Tim was less sanguine.

“I’m going to find that hiss.” He promised. “I’m going to find it, and I’m going to kill it.”

The next communication I saw from him showed a picture of the microphone I’d been using, laid out like a frog in Sophomore Biology.


I’d like to say no component electronics were harmed in pursuit of a clean recording line, but that would be a lie.

That said, I’m coming down on the side of “ends justify the means” with this one: Tim informs me that the reassembled gear is crystal clear and ready to go, and I strongly suspect we’ll be back in the studio this weekend.

Most of the project backers have seen this chart already:

I think it’s obvious where most of the resources are going for this project.

I hope it’s equally obvious why. Our goal is to do the very best recording we can – that’s not empty talk: that’s hours spent bent over capacitors and very, very tiny screwdrivers.

I can’t wait to share the result.

Interested in backing this project? Head to the Kickstarter page to find out more!

Want to find out more about the Hidden Things novel? We’ve got you covered.

Hidden Things Audiobook Kickstarter: Funded

“I know, if I back it, I’ll finally have a version of the book I’ll have time to finish.”

That was the comment left by the backer who pushed the Hidden Things audiobook project through the last step to the $1200 goal, only five days after we opened the kickstarter.

That’s right: over the weekend, the kickstarter reached the baseline funding goal – no matter what else happens, the project has funded – we are going to make an audiobook, and release a free, DRM-free podcast of the story, and put out six-pack collections of those podcasts.

It feels fantastic to write those words.

The Next Hurdle

There are still eighteen days left in the kickstarter, and while I’m entirely satisfied with funding the baseline project and doing a great audiobook, the first stretch goal is tantalizingly close. In case anyone’s forgotten what it is, I’ll be talking about it — the Little Things short story collection and accompanying audio recording — in just a few days.

In other words, we are still accepting backers, we’re still working to make the best quality stuff we can, and we still have a long ways to go on the fundraising portion of the project.

But first…

It will surprise no one that Tim White and I have already started preliminary recording (if nothing else, we had to get down the audio for the kickstarter introduction video), but those first attempts have yielded exciting complications that I’m going to tell you about tomorrow.

Can’t wait? Here’s a preview:

This is part of a microphone that failed to meet Tim's performance standards. It will never make that mistake again.
This is part of a microphone that failed to meet Tim’s performance standards. It will never make that mistake again.

Tune in tomorrow for more exciting tales of audio recording.

Until then…

Hooray! We’re funded!

sean with HT

Interested in backing this project? Head to the Kickstarter page to find out more!

Want to find out more about the Hidden Things novel? We’ve got you covered.

The Hidden Things Audiobook FAQ #1: What’s DRM and Why Are You So Against It?

Those of you who started but didn’t finish watching the kickstarter introduction video (about 66% – I love you anyway) might not know that I talk at some length about Digital Rights Management and why I want to make sure that there will always be a version of the Hidden Things audiobook that is DRM-free.

The thing is, lots of people don’t really get what DRM is and why it gets me so riled up.

So let’s talk about that.

What is DRM?

Paraphrased from defectivebydesign.org:

Digital Restrictions Management or DRM is the practice of imposing technological restrictions that control what users can do with digital media.

When a program is designed to prevent you from copying or sharing a song, reading an ebook on another device, or playing a single-player game without an Internet connection, you are being restricted by DRM.

In other words, DRM creates a damaged product.

DRM is not about protecting copyright.

Companies present that argument to make DRM appear beneficial to creators, but in order for that to be true, DRM would have to work as advertised, and it doesn’t. Instead, what you get are digital product that are ‘broken’ from the point of view of the average user, thanks to DRM that is absolute child’s play to circumvent for anyone with actual criminal intent.

While DRM is advertised as a mechanism to prevent copyright infringement, the only thing it does effectively is restrict all of the incredible possibilities enabled by digital technologies… and then sell some of those options back as severely limited services to honest customers.

So, here’s what DRM actually does:

  1. Treats all users like criminals, but in an ineffectual way that fails to stop criminals and both insults and frustrates honest customers with crippled, broken products.
  2. Extends corporate control over the legitimate uses of products legally purchased, so that those same corporations can then (maybe, if they feel like it) extend you some the rights you should already have, usually with an additional ‘premium’ markup.

If you want an example, think about what a big deal it was when Amazon added the ability to share our Kindle ebooks with our friends. (You know: that thing we’ve been able to do with regular books, forever.)

Except… we can’t share all our ebooks. Just some.

And only for a few days.

And only once, per friend.

Unless you want to buy Amazon Prime.

Or your friend does.

Consider: DRM has broken most of our digital products so badly that this level of “freedom” makes us happy.

So, to hell with that.

When I hand you a paper copy of Hidden Things, you can do whatever you want with it. Read it to a crowd (by all means). Read it to you friends and family. Lend it to your friends and family. Give it away. Sell it. Chop it up and add it to a salad. Wear it as a hat. Even, if you choose, scan the whole thing and make 100 (or 1000 or ?) copies.

Anything you like. I will probably never know and I almost certainly will not care one way or the other. As much as trust comes into the equation, I trust you.

I want to give you this audiobook in the same way. I want to hand you this product and, with it, trust you as a customer, and a fan, and hopefully a friend.

Yes, someone (anyone) could grab copies of these unbroken, dare I say libertine audio files and hang them out on Pirate Bay or any one of a thousand Torrent sites.

But they could do that anyway, because DRM doesn’t work.

And I’m not going to hold a shotgun on everyone else in the store, just because one person out there might decide to be an asshole.

That’s not how this is going to happen.

Does this sound good? I hope so. If you want to support the project, and maybe show other creators out there that there’s nothing too scary about trusting your customers, check out the kickstarter page.

And watch out for the Hidden Things.

HTAudio-cover draft Q

Interested in backing this project? Head to the Kickstarter page to find out more!

Want to find out more about the Hidden Things novel? We’ve got you covered.

The Hidden Things Audiobook Project

I’m a writer.

I write for a living and, more than that, I write because I love it. I always have: my first coherent story (a taut action-mystery-thriller in the ageless style of Alvin Fernald) is… let’s say “stored for posterity” in an old steamer chest in my garage. Handwritten, hand-bound, and illustrated in pen AND crayon – indisputably the best work I produced, circa 1979.

I’m proud of that little book, and the kid that wrote it. I’m proud of all the stories I’ve written since (even the ones consigned to my “still needs work” folder), the ones I’m working on right now, and (of course) Hidden Things. It’s a hell of a thing, to hold a book in your hands and see your words made solid in the world.

Things that make me happy.
Things that make me happy.

But I’ve never quite felt I was done with Hidden Things. Not quite.

Because for me, part of a story is telling it; actually speaking the words. Putting your characters’ rage and fear and joy into the air. Making listeners laugh, or cry, or groan. It’s simple: I was surrounded by storytellers as a kid, and that was what they did.

Now, I get to do it too.

Thanks to the efforts of my amazing agent and the fine folks at HarperCollins (who returned audio rights to me simply because I asked for them), I now have the opportunity to record the Hidden Things audiobook and make it available exactly the way I wish every audiobook could be.

I’m going to tell you a story.

More than that, we’re going to make it happen, together. Please, visit the Hidden Things Audiobook Kickstarter page to find out how.

I’m excited.

I’m a little scared.

I could not be happier.

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Interested in backing this project? Head to the Kickstarter page to find out more!

Want to find out more about the Hidden Things novel? We’ve got you covered.