Chokepoint Capitalism Strangles Us All

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Yves here. As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow explain in a new book, market concentration and legal practices that lower the power of individuals and small fry have moved the economic balance of power to big players, even in markets where you’d think “talent” would have a lot of bargaining power. Stephen King became a voice against predatory capitalism. From the USA Today summary of his testimony against the proposed merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House:

“My name is Stephen King. I’m a freelance writer,” King said as he began his sworn testimony as a witness for the U.S. Justice Department….

King’s appearance in U.S. District Court in Washington — highly unusual for an antitrust trial — brought a narrative of the evolution of book publishing toward the dominance of the Big Five companies. As government attorney Mel Schwarz walked King through his history starting as a new, unknown author in the 1970s and his relationships with agents and publishers, King homed in on a critique of the industry as it is now…

“The Big Five are pretty entrenched,” King said….

King’s displeasure about the proposed merger led him to voluntarily testify for the government.

“I came because I think that consolidation is bad for competition,” King said. The way the industry has evolved, he said, “it becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find money to live on.”…

King expressed skepticism toward the two publishers’ commitment to continue to bid for books separately and competitively after a merger.

“You might as well say you’re going to have a husband and wife bidding against each other for the same house,” King quipped. “It would be sort of very gentlemanly and sort of after you, and after you,” he said, gesturing with a polite sweep of the arm.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

We live among thieves, constantly preyed upon — so constantly, in fact, that it’s almost invisible. Everyone writes these days about the rip-off price of drugs, so let’s look elsewhere. We pay $100 or more per month for Internet and cable service that costs (combined) less than $40 in Europe before upgrades. That’s theft, yet few complain, and when they do, it’s with a voice that pre-accepts surrender.

Most people are familiar with the price of sneakers — from about $125 to $250 or more for a “luxury” pair, unless you shop for discounts. Yet the cost of manufacture in near-slave worker countries is just the cost of materials — perhaps $15 — and by the time shoes get to the U.S., the cost is perhaps $25per pair. The rest of the cost is people with their hand out — brand owners and retailers. And before you hear someone talk about the cost of “jobs” or “wages” in retail or online outfits, consider how low those wages actually are. You’re financing a lot of profit at $250 per pair.

And in the retail marketplace, Amazon, with its half-trillion dollars in revenue each year, is the apex predator of our time, yet Jeff Bezos, the obsessed monomaniac who created it, remains surprisingly popular among the company’s younger victims:


To take another example, this time from the world of TV production, according to Publishers Weekly the creator of the series Cold Case estimates that her agency, one of the largest in the world and an eager acquisitor of its competition, made 94 cents out of every dollar she earned from the show. Yet we admire the climate that makes this kind of conglomeration possible in all industries.

The current state of conglomeration in the book publishing industry (source)

Defying the Devil You Decry

Which brings us to the point of this piece, and one of those places where a comment about the world folds back on the comment itself.

Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow have written a book that takes on the predatory nature of modern capitalism as it impacts what they call “creative labor” markets. We would call this the broad, deep and thickened soup of content we consider “entertainment,” the consumable mental food that serves our leisure.

Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back has been written, agented, and sold to a publisher (in this case, Beacon Press, owned by the UU church). It’s printed and will be ready for sale on September 27 from Amazon, or better, from the publisher here.

Yes, it’s available on Amazon. As predatory as Amazon is, they don’t — yet — control all access to hard copy books. Supporting them supports a beast, but there are still other online stores and brick-and-mortar establishments from which to buy.

But unlike Amazon, Audible, an Amazon acquisition, does control almost all access to audiobooks — not just access to the audiobook market but, through its control of that market, to audiobooks themselves.

As Doctorow explains:

Audible has a hard and fast rule: if you’re a publisher or writer who wants to sell your audiobook on Audible, you have to let it be wrapped in “Digital Rights Management,” aka DRM: digital locks that permanently bind your work to the Audible platform. If a reader decides to leave Audible, DRM stops them taking the books they’ve already bought with them.Publishers and writers can stop selling their books on Audible, but their readers are unlikely to follow them to another platform – not if that means giving up their expensively-acquired libraries. [emphasis added]

This means that if a writer’s audiobook isn’t available on Audible, most of the market is unavailable to the publisher of that audiobook. Which also means that it’s nearly impossible to sell audiobook rights to a publisher if you don’t want the audiobook to appear on the very platform that’s marked as the enemy in the book you’re writing. Doctorow is adamant that his audiobooks not be available on Audible. How then to even publish an audiobook, if no publisher will touch it?

Doctorow has solved that problem by using Kickstarter to finance his own audiobook production. You can read about that effort here.

The Meal That Wants to be Eaten

But it’s an amazing world we live in, isn’t it?

We are the meal that admires the banqueter. We honor thieves who rob us night and day. We see our predators as heroes. We take their pathologies as virtues — what would you call a person who lived solely for money, if that person were your neighbor? — and we teach their very worst practices at our best institutions, like money-hungry Harvard University, itself a study in pathology if you think it through. After all, it took until late last year to convince that school to stop investing in the death of its graduates’ children:

How do we get out of this mess? How do we find our way home? Giblin and Doctorow have some ideas; their book may be a good place to look for answers. I have other ideas.

How did we get into this mess? That’s a question I hope David Graeber can answer.

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    1. Carolinian

      I prefer to read my books after checking them out of the library. Or, these days, checking the ebook out using my computer and not even going to the library.

      King’s complaint goes to the welfare of rich authors like himself but the book publishers are consolidating even as their importance as gatekeepers is diminishing. Indeed books themselves seem to have greatly diminished in importance compared to the 1960s and 70s when they were cultural touchstones.

      Here’s suggesting we are better off the way things are now even if the prospects of making a living out of book writing have diminished somewhat. But then for the vast majority of authors when were those prospects particularly bright?

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Good for you!

      I like to listen to audiobooks during long drives and late night drives in my car. I also enjoy listening to audiobooks at night when my eyes are tired, or while I do other work that requires little mental attention — like picking through dried black beans to look for rocks and bad beans before I use them to make dinner. I collected CD roms for audiobooks until Audible came along. I can still find audiobooks on CD rom but now it is a matter of poking around used bookstores, checking the Goodwill auction sites, and finding web sources for mp3 files. I also try to download mp3 versions of podcasts when I can. Until youtube made it a big pain, I used to stream video lectures and interviews to a program that generated an mp3 or mp4 version I could put on a stick and listen to or watch in the more comfortable chair in the living room using the sound system on my flat screen tv [which I refuse to hook up to the web].

      I also like to read books and have a large collection of books which together make up the largest part of my worldly goods.

  1. SpiegelSpike35

    Cory Doctorow’s other writings on the topic have also made me think about how fragile digital resources are.

    Audible *does not* sell physical tapes of audiobooks, and it *does not* provide them to libraries. If you want to listen to them, the only option is an Amazon controlled app. And even then you don’t really own it – you have the limited right to listen through their finely controlled app at their pleasure. And they might retract that right at any time. (Steam, a video game platform, recently retracted a game from people’s libraries that they had paid for. No reason Audible can’t do the same.) And if in some (hard to imagine) future, Amazon goes defunct, all your titles are gone. Poof. Not so for physical tapes.

    1. Carolinian

      Of course nothing is easier to hack than a book for those who care to do so. At one point the entire Project Gutenberg (older books with expired copyright) could fit on a thumb drive.

      And many ebook readers can read the book to you using a “text to speech” engine that is quite intelligible if lacking in personality. In general tech increases our options rather than diminishes them.

      1. CaliDan

        That there are legit only a handful of approved artists in every creative field who can make a living solely doing their art (see: Manufacturing Consent) is a chokepoint, hence the book, hence the article. That means the rest have to have shitty day jobs or give up being an artist altogether. And it’s not because there’s a dearth of excellent artists, it’s because the system by which art is canonized, monetized, and distributed (or hacked) is increasingly monopolized, reductionist, and inhuman. So I say unequivocally that we––the artists and the consumers––are not better off.

        I would also like to suggest a distinction between options and choices

        1. Carolinian

          Hasn’t the publishing industry always been a “chokepoint” operating according to the demands of commerce as much as art? What I’m arguing is that our digital world has provided more outlets for artists to have their work seen rather than fewer. As for getting people to pay for it, guess that depends on your talent. Has this ever been different?

          1. JBird4049

            >>>Has this ever been different?

            Yes. Thirty, even twenty years ago, there were vastly more publishers with their editors, advertisers, and advances with all of them in competition and many specialized genres. Same with bookstores. Just at San Francisco (and the rest of the Bay Area) where the number of bookstores is nothing as it was. I mean bookstores that were before the Second World War with many that had in business since shortly after. Mostly gone including those weirdos that only focused on mystery or science fiction. I could find something just by driving around most any city and stumble on a bookstore or three.

            The same thing can be said in music, radio, and sports. Individual companies bought up other companies, fired their staff, and centralized the production of media. There are precious few disc jockeys remaining with the musical individuality of each region gone away. It is a reason why I stopped listening to the radio. The blandization (new word?) of broadcast radio. The disappearance of the jazz, classical, rock, even split into different nichés: “welcome to station X where we play nothing but the best of 50’s Calypso!”

            All this is not obvious, but trust me, one of the drawbacks of being in my fifties is remembering all those stores stuffed with books or music, or all those nonexistent empty spaces. In a real way, I had access to a far greater variety of media then that I have now. Now, I have to be to order that one book, graphic novel, LPs, and think even CDs or else not get it or a while because reprints are less of a thing. And the people making the media had far greater support from the publisher.

            And before anyone says that downloads or worse streaming is what everyone wanted, I remember working in music stores when people preferred a physical copy, when the greedheads jacked up the costs of something like a compact disc that took pennies to print and maybe a couple of dollars for the packaging and the shipping, to $12.99, 14.99, 15.99 all the way to $21.99. IIRC, even more for some really hot item. They jack up the price of cassettes to force people to buy the cds, and then pushed streaming while paying less and less for the artists, musicians, producers, and everything else that made good music. But it sure was massively profitable for the music industry for about two decades.

            I go on. And on. The only real thing I want people to understand is that in every field someone has become a gate keeper, ceased spending money for the future, or look for any talent, and made the industry a façade, even book publishing. Where before there were many gatekeepers, it is down to less than a handful. It is part of the financialization of everything where the goal is to choke out as much profit as possible even if it ultimately kills whatever is being made, created, or expressed. It all about profit and humanity can go die.

    2. Anthony G Stegman

      How much different is this from how John Deere operates. Farmers can spend $250K for a piece of John Deere farm machinery, but they don’t really own it since John Deere fully controls its maintenance and repairs. One can say the same about Tesla (just to use a prominent example). Anything that requires software to function can be controlled remotely. Telsa “owners” operate their vehicles at the pleasure of Tesla. And so on, and so forth.

  2. The Rev Kev

    It strikes me as strange that no matter if you are talking about writers, musicians or any other talented people, the inclination of capitalism is to reward executives with fabulous wages while paying poverty wages to those that produce the actual books, music, etc. or even just to cheat then outright. Like how Disney says that they don’t have to pay Alan Dean Foster a dime, even though they are collecting money off the sale of his books every day. It is like capitalism is not happy until it can eat its seed corn and salt the fields to boot. So maybe this helps explain how movies for example has such crap script writing these days. The good ones have been chased out.

    1. YankeeFrank

      Writing for Hollywood, like all the creative endeavors, has been taken over by the spoiled dilettante children of the upper middle classes and wealthy. I recall a lunch with some midwestern milquetoast I had 20+ years ago — a young man who was going to Stanford U to study comedy writing. Yeah who knew. It was an okay lunch with not a single joke or laugh.

      Now I watch Kyle Dunnigan, Kurt Metzger, Tim Dillon, etc, all very talented comedians and comedy writers, all on YT sweating for nickels and dimes, utterly ignored by Hollywood. For me its okay because Hollywood is designed to reduce offense and neuter funny but they certainly have to hustle while talentless hacks write all the terrible movies. Its abundantly clear that when entertainment became a prestige job for rich kids it was all over. Its not the whole story but its a lot of it.

      I could go on all day about the music industry and what its done to music, which was my art, but I’ll spare you.

      1. Susan the Other

        I don’t think profits drive the entertainment business. Because it is so expensive to put on some big extravaganza or actually do a good movie. I’ve heard it said that only re-runs make a profit. Which is interesting to think about. The revenue must then be coming from leverage and the imperative to keep growing bigger. (Capitalism in a nutshell.) Or the old comfortable stuff, which sells. It still sells volumes of advertisements on TV. Because people really like to numb out. Last nite on NOVA there was a doc on the history of writing. Really interesting. The conclusion to how moveable type printing became a commercial success was not that you could throw any wonderful new book out to the reading public, but that you could finally print up millions of copies of the good old Bible. That made the printing industry viable. Medieval reruns.

        1. JBird4049

          The Bible was the start and not the end. The printing press meant cheaper books which meant more people could buy them. That meant more people learning to read and demanding something other than the Bible. That pushed the creation of more publishers who went looking for the next writer. And got more people to write.

          It also helped the sciences because now someone studying, say flowers, would be able to compare what was in his new book with the flower in his yard. If it was wrong, he could write about it. The verification of facts, and the spreading of knowledge, because of the new books.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Speaking of the crap script writing, Bezos is the worst. I’d been enjoying The Expanse TV series from the Scifi network. Bezos bought it after Scifi stopped producing it, and the last three seasons have been on Amazon’s TV platform. I refuse to pay that guy a dime, so I had someone with a little tech savvy borrow the newer seasons from the internet library for me. The latest scripts read like they’d been produced by some AI cliche generator that’s missing a few vacuum tubes – absolutely execrable writing. The actor whose character got killed off because he failed some woke test should be counting himself lucky not to be associated with the series any longer.

      For those who don’t want to pay the monopolists, I highly recommend the internet library (hopefully you get the euphemism) for streaming. And for books, direct from the publisher is a great option, as well as the Alibris website which last I checked hadn’t been taken over by Amazon yet –

      Chokepoint Capitalism isn’t available there yet, but it should be once it’s released later this month. I’ve ordered from them many times and been very pleased with their service, for both new and used books.

      1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

        The Internet Library is a place I go to frequently to check out the latest bestsellers on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Paramount Plus, HBO Max, Hulu, Disney +, Apple TV, etc.

        Saves tons of money each month!

        Oh! And you’re right about the Expanse too. Once it got to Amazon it got more West Wingy with the belters and Mars and earthers and polished and lost that craziness in the writing. The main villain and his sons plot line is ok but I would’ve gone a whole other direction with the plot.

    1. YankeeFrank

      I had a prescreen interview for a programming job at Audible recently. The guy couldn’t make the job sound at all interesting and that’s his job. I was so bored listening to him I cut the call short. For some reason I pictured the Newark NJ corporate park (where their office is) with a thousand Indian java coders all eating at a cafeteria together in between tiny enhancements to the tech vampire squid relentlessly jabbing into anything that smells like writers’ income and thought it’d be better to be homeless.

  3. Tom Pfotzer

    In our own interest, we must design and build a commons, and learn how to operate that commons, and then actually operate it.

    “Commons”, in this context, is:

    1. A repository of open-source technology, contributed by individuals. “Technology” includes any form of creative work, including books, sub-assemblies, products. The “open-source” part means you create something and then publish it under a limited-use license or usage-control mechanism.

    2. An allocation mechanism that accurately delivers revenue back to the creators of the commons-contributed element. This is the hard part; it’s easy to do if the product is physical (a simple purchase and physical hand-over transaction), and much harder if the contributed element is software or a design – e.g. something easily appropriated without attribution


    In order to capture the benefits of the value we create, we’re going to need to own – outright, or via shares in a commons enterprise – the production mechanism and the means of distribution. This is the “commons” infrastructure that needs to get built.

    If you don’t have a relationship directly with your customer, you’re dependent upon the goodwill of people that often don’t have goodwill toward you. That’s why we don’t get paid for what we create.

    We have very few viable, operational examples of commons-owned transactional systems where a product gets created, made available to anyone for limited use, rewards are propagated from user back to creator, and no rent-extraction distorted the creation-reward feedback transmission.

    The commons has been systematically and continually shredded by these piranhas but there are several examples, such as Linux, of commons elements which have survived the onslaught.

    There are lessons to be learned from these success stories, strategies to be developed for those cases where things don’t work (e.g. propagation of rewards back to the creator), testing to be done to find mechanisms that can survive the corrosive acid of the predators.

    We need to become experts at commons-building, commons-protecting, and commons-operating.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      My comment is a little peripheral to this post — but fits your comment. I highly recommend following the link to the source of the graphic “current state of conglomeration …” and from there follow the link to the Gephi software the Pratt student used to generate the graphic.

    2. Valerie from Australia

      I totally agree, Tom. I kept thinking of Aaron Swartz as I read your ideas. Some brilliant guy (full of integrity) like Aaron could get the wheels in motion for a Commons. Surely, there are more people like him out there.

      I think we consumers, play a big role in making something like this happen. Those of us who are used to getting things for “free” – or cheap – and paying the costs in ways that are more costly than money – such as our private information sold to strangers – need to recognise that we have to pony up for the things we consider valuable. I think more and more of us are doing this through our financial support of alternative media sites like NC, but we can do this in other areas as well.

      There is so much corruption out there – like the Audible trap – it is hard to keep up and be aware of what is going on. I simply try to buy as little as possible from large businesses. It is a small start but certainly not enough.

      One last thing, being part of a community working together to make things better is inspiring. I am a primary teacher and I have been gratified to note how many of my students, when they are made aware of injustice and exploitation, want to be relevant and positive forces for change. They are willing to sacrifice and to work for something without getting compensation or a reward. I think we have it in us a species to do this.

  4. Culp Creek Curmudgeon

    Beacon Press also published the Pentagon Papers. Full disclosure, I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

  5. Anthony G Stegman

    At some level the masses of people are also at fault for monopolization. The majority of people gravitate towards what is familiar. What is familiar is what they see every day. What they see every day is the same old thing. Think Starbucks, McDonalds, Amazon, Disney, and the like. The masses aid and abet monopolization by their consumer behavior. It will be very difficult to engage the masses in efforts to stem
    industry consolidation. They like things the way they are.

    1. tegnost

      while I agree in principle, Micky d’s is a bit out of place here in that a MD’s wants a jackybox and Burger Queen (r.i.p to an old folk) and an arby’s to fill out 4 corners increasing share for everyone while the other three use market power, ie, money…from starby’s setting up shop near locals intending to starve them out, and amabomb/mickey mouse just buying the competition and saying “resistance is futile…”

  6. sharonsj

    I spent 30 years in book publishing as an editor, agent, and small press. Plus I’m a published author. Every company I worked for either doesn’t exist or was swallowed by a larger one. Many companies I worked with suffered the same fate. My small press was bankrupted by the middleman supply system. I’ve spent the last four years doing short stories instead of books and that market is just as insane.

    And I don’t even want to get into the problems with the self-publishing market which in some ways resembles the screen-writing/film situations. I, a movie buff, spend 20-30 minutes trying to find a movie I even deem watchable. Then after another 20 minutes of actually watching, I turn the movie off because the script (and often the acting) is dreadful. The worst ones are where the director, the producer and the writer are usually the same person. Even when recognizable names are involved, I end up wondering how the damn movie was ever greenlighted in the first place.

    And I see no solution to any of this because of the digital age.

  7. digi_owl

    The model can likely be applied to many markets.

    Look at Microsoft for example, they control the Windows OS but facilitate competition in both hardware below it and software above it.

    And using Kickstarter likely just move the chokepoint from publisher to them.

  8. The letter F

    Who does Cory Doctorow think he’s kidding?

    Apparently he’s finally been affected; but him and Tim Wu were obsessed with supporting Big Tech for what, two decades???. Despite the well documented violations and inequality that have never ceased occurring from it?

    Worse, they made a ton of BANK off it. Tim Wu appointed by Biden? An honest person does not get appointed by Biden, et al.

    f Doctorow, Wu, et al, and the Trojan Horse they rode in on, about two decades, or more, ago.

    If anyone wants to read his book, I would suggest they don’t spend a dime on it.

    Those dying deaths of despair have, innately, known since birth—that Capitalism, and certainly Big Tech, was vile, and deadly to them.

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