Cory Doctorow is out to change the world of publishing again. Or at least, that’s the pitch for his new ebook and audiobook Kickstarter for Attack Surface, the third book in a series he began with Little Brother all the way back in 2008. He is offering ebooks and audiobooks of all three books in the series as rewards, and has already considerably surpassed the initial goal. I’m a little skeptical about some of the changing the world part, but we will see.

An attention-getting announcement

As I’ve said in the past about self-publishing Kickstarters, one of the most important aspects of getting people to kick in is getting the word out. And Doctorow has a unique method of doing that. Today I received an email in my inbox that was in reply to a message I sent Doctorow all the way back in May, 2008 about having trouble getting a download link to Little Brother to work. The email began:

Hey, Chris!

I know it’s been a VERY long time since you sent me this email, but I hope you’ll forgive my following up. This isn’t an automated message. This is me, manually replying to every email anyone ever sent me about Little Brother. Seriously. I’m doing this thousands of times (my “Little Brother” folder has more than 14,000 emails in it!), by hand.

That’s pretty clever, I have to admit. It’s a way of targeting the message directly at people who have expressed an interest in related books in the past. And putting in the effort to do it one reply at a time, even if it’s just a matter of typing “Hey, [person’s name]!” and then pasting in the rest of the message, will more than likely bypass spam filters set up to look for people abusing mailing lists.

And even 14,000 replies wouldn’t take that much time to send. If it took 10 seconds per email to hit reply, type name, hit paste, and hit send, doing it 14,000 times would work out to about 39 hours, or one week of full-time employment. (And that’s assuming he actually is doing it all by himself, rather than having volunteers help.)

As for the content of the message itself, demonstrably sending it in response to an actual email from the person (which he quotes at the bottom) is a heck of an attention-getting opener for the message, not to mention demonstrating that Doctorow is willing to put in real effort on the Kickstarter project in general. So it grabs attention right off the bat. It might even interest bloggers enough to write about it on their ebook blog!

What’s it all about?

So, let’s look at the book itself. Scheduled for publication on October 13, Attack Surface is the third book in the Little Brother series, following after Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013). This book is a standalone adventure focusing on a supporting character from earlier books. Masha Maximow is a hacker who works for a transnational cybersecurity firm, creating tools to let oppressive regimes monitor dissident activity. One day she discovers that a childhood friend is leading a BLM-style uprising, and that movement is being targeted by the tools she made.

It’s hard to imagine a more timely subject for a novel, even if Doctorow actually wrote it a couple of years before the current tumult. If you had even the slightest doubt to the relevance of cyber-espionage tools in the here and now, remember that we may have Russian hackers to thank at least in part for Donald Trump’s rise to power. And the relevance of “BLM-style uprisings” goes without saying.

Little Brother wasn’t really my favorite Doctorow book, and I’ve never gotten around to reading Homeland. But who knows, maybe I should go back and take another look, even if I don’t decide to kick into this Kickstarter.

But what does the Kickstarter itself have going for it?

Kickstarting idealism

Cory Doctorow being the long-term digital freedom fighter that he is, you have to expect his Kickstarter to be about more than just selling his book. And it pretty much is. The biggest bee in Doctorow’s bonnet is that, while Amazon will happily sell ebooks DRM-free, it won’t do the same thing for Audible audiobooks. To a true believer in digital freedom like Cory Doctorow, this is simply intolerable.

Hence, Doctorow’s own books aren’t on Audible, and won’t be for as long as he has any say in the matter. He keeps the audiobook rights, produces the audiobook editions himself, and sells them through his own website instead. He had been going to do the same thing for Attack Surface, but saw an opportunity to generate some up-front income with a Kickstarter—as well as offering a discount to people who ordered early.

That much you can read on the Kickstarter page itself. In the email I received, Doctorow waxes a bit more idealistic:

And here’s the groundbreaking part. For this Kickstarter, I’M THE RETAILER. If you pre-order the ebook from my KS, I get the 30% that would otherwise go to Jeff Bezos – AND I get the 25% that is the standard ebook royalty.

This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists who have profited so handsomely during this crisis.

Which is where you come in: if you help me pre-sell a TON of ebooks and audiobooks through this crowdfunder, it will show publishing that readers are willing to buy their ebooks and audiobooks without enriching a monopolist, even if it means an extra click or two.

I’m not entirely sure about the “first-of-its-kind” part. It seems to me that publishing and self-publishing Kickstarters have been going on quite well for some years now. Though perhaps it is unique in having the involvement of Doctorow’s own book and ebook publisher, Tor, in conjunction with his self-published audiobooks. After all, the ebooks he sells in the Kickstarter have to come from somewhere.

And I’m kind of skeptical that this Kickstarter will be sufficient by itself to “show publishing” anything, no matter how well it turns out. Doctorow is just one author, after all, and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. But I’ll allow Doctorow his hyperbole, given that he’s at least putting in the effort to make a go of this project—unlike the author behind that other Kickstarter I discussed in the link in my second paragraph.

The Kickstarter Rewards

The Kickstarter just got started yesterday, so it’s pretty new yet. Even so, it’s already taken in more than $58,000 on a $7,000 goal, and will probably take in a lot more as it runs until October 8. $1,000 of that was in the form of a one-off chance to obtain a copy of the draft of Little Brother‘s original ending, but the rest came from by-and-large regular-priced offerings ranging from $10 for the ebook of Little Brother up through $75 for a bundle of all three ebooks and audiobooks.

(There are also two $10,000 story prompt commissions up for grabs, where you get to give Cory an idea for something to write in the Little Brother universe, and have him write it. I’m a little skeptical those will sell, but you never know. I’m sure there are rich people out there who enjoy Cory Doctorow’s books too.)

For $10 you can get the ebook of Little Brother, $11 the ebook of Homeland, and $14 the ebook of Attack Surface, or you can pay $35 to get all three ebooks. As Big Five publisher ebook prices go, that’s not too bad, especially given that the retailer share of the money goes to support Cory as well. But since the first two books pre-date Doctorow’s (or his publisher’s) decision to stop giving away ebooks for free, multi-format ebooks of both Little Brother and Homeland are still available for free download from Cory Doctorow’s website. (And they’re well worth the read.) So those ebooks may not exactly be the most attractive to people inclined to pledge.

That said, Doctorow is also offering the text of the first ebook in a $1 reward on the Kickstarter—the chance to get a digitally signed copy of Little Brother emailed to you.

Your chance to get a signed ebook of the first Little Brother book: I’ll paste a copy of the text of the book into an email and send it to you, which will automatically cryptographically sign it with my private key, a fact you can verify with my public key!

I must admit, that’s a pretty clever idea. It’s maybe a little geeky to treat PGP signing as a digital “autograph,” but geeks are Doctorow’s people. It’s certainly something more tangible than the mere “thanks” a lot of Kickstarters offer for a buck. It’s only gotten 15 takers at the time of this writing, though.

For $15, you can get the audiobook of Attack Surface (read by Amber Benson—Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or for $25 both the ebook and audiobook. For $40 you can get the audio editions of all three books in the series, and for $75 you can get all three ebooks and all three audiobooks. And that’s about it for the rewards.

The Kickstarter does not yet have any stretch goals. I did dash off a quick message asking if there would be any, and Doctorow replied he hadn’t really thought of any yet. Perhaps he’ll have some ideas later on in the Kickstarter.

In any case, this is a pretty reasonably priced Kickstarter if you like Cory Doctorow’s books—and since the book is already complete and it’s already fully funded, you don’t risk anything by kicking in. And if you haven’t read them yet, the first two books in the series can be downloaded for free from Doctorow himself—so you risk nothing by reading them to see if you want to buy the third.

I wish Cory Doctorow the best of luck in this Kickstarter, and hope that it has more success changing publishing than I expect.

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