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Brandon Sanderson Withholds Five Books From Amazon Over Gouging Indie Authors

"Surprise! Four Secret Novels by Brandon Sanderson." Image: DragonSteel Books.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the biggest Science Fiction/Fantasy authors. From personal experience, if you go to Macmillan publishing’s TOR office, the walls are lined with Sanderson’s Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive series. That’s why it’s such a big deal for him to take a stand against Amazon’s treatment of authors.

The project that started it all

In March 2022, Sanderson announced five secret projects that fans on Kickstarter would back. During the pandemic, the bestselling author wrote nonstop. Sanderson wanted to give his fans access to his work without any of the red tape of publishing by creating a 12-month subscription option to receive the books and exclusive merchandise. 

The Kickstarter project was a success, earning $41,754,153 as of the beginning of January 2023. Since the launch, Sanderson wrote a post on his blog revealing the publishing process and his decision not to make these new books available on Audible. 

The Amazon problem

Calling Amazon an industry problem isn’t a surprise. There’s only the follow-up question: Which industry are you referring to, exactly? Amazon sells books at a loss (which kills the bookstore industry), forced smaller brick-and-mortar stores to sell its merchandise on the site, and AmazonFresh bought out WholeFoods, cutting into local produce. For the purposes of this article, it’s the publishing industry.

When it comes to the publishing industry, Amazon does its best to make publishing work harder to exist. The way that Amazon can sell books at a loss is a slap in the face for the industry, so much so that an alternative website was created that supports local indie bookstores, called Bookshop, that makes titles available.

In Sanderson’s blog post, he revealed that audiobook platform Audible—owned by Amazon—would barely give the author any royalties. The fact that he’s a bestselling author and receiving this deal is concerning because … what are smaller authors being offered? Probably worse, considering Amazon has historically been difficult for writers to maneuver.

Publishing industry standards

The next step is for the author to make his work available even for those who didn’t back his Kickstarter project. He aims for them to be available on the 10th or 11th of each month, available in English on all platforms for now.

So what are the industry standards regarding audiobook royalties for authors?

First off, authors get an advance. Let’s say $50,000. The author doesn’t earn royalties until the book makes that much money. From there, the author then receives royalties, which is a percentage of the net sales. Net sales are the money earned after business deductions: sales, refunds, allowances, discounts, paying employees, etc.

According to Sanderson, Audible offered the author 40% in royalties. This is less than an independent bookstore does per item, which is 50%. Keep in mind this is the deal for a world-famous author. Smaller authors probably get paid less. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that there are little to no alternatives. Major publishers, like Sanderson’s, use Audible to host their audiobooks.

Sanderson decided to shop around to see what other alternatives were out there with a project unattached to his publisher. He had the freedom to choose where his books would be available. This process led Sanderson to find that Speechify offered him 100% of royalties, which he countered for 70% (industry standard). He also received an offer from Spotify, but that number is under lock and key thanks to an NDA. 

Will this actually lead to change?

When one of the biggest contemporary authors starts to speak up about publishing malpractice, there is typically a shift in the industry. Sanderson was able to step up and be transparent about his experience as an author. He also risks taking a profit loss from his titles because he believes this change needs to happen.

To continue this conversation and push Audible to offer authors equitable pay and stop becoming a monopoly, more authors who are at similar points of their career like Sanderson need to speak up. 

(featured image: DragonSteel Entertainment)

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Nava was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, they edit economic textbooks by day and write geeky articles for the internet in the evenings. They currently exist on unceded Lenape land aka Brooklyn.