Pando

After fighting all year with Amazon, Hachette partners with Gumroad to sell books directly to readers

By David Holmes , written on December 8, 2014

From The News Desk

While it lacks the sexiness of "Uber vs Lyft" or "Apple vs Samsung," few tech fights hold larger implications for the future of media than "Hachette vs Amazon."

The world's fourth largest book publisher and Jeff Bezos' Everything Store have been sparring all year long over the terms of their distribution deal. At various points during the battle, Amazon has played dirty -- often at the expense of customers -- removing pre-order buttons, increasing shipping times, and reducing discounts on Hachette books, which include titles by David Baldacci and Malcolm Gladwell. And although the two have finally reached a peace agreement, neither party is exactly popping champagne in celebration.

Today, amid this uneasy detente, Hachette has announced a partnership with a platform that couldn't be more different from Amazon: Gumroad.

Gumroad is a site that allows artists, musicians, and writers to sell their work directly to fans, bypassing the big distributors like iTunes and Amazon. The partnership takes advantage of Gumroad's integration with Twitter's new "Buy Now" button, which will allow fans to purchase books like Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking and The Onion's The Onion Magazine: The Iconic Covers that Transformed an Undeserving World directly from those authors' tweets.

While Gumroad lacks the ubiquity and name recognition of Amazon or iTunes, it's beginning to attract more and more artists, both big-time and obscure, thanks to its creator-friendly platform. The company only keeps 5 percent of every purchase plus $0.25 per transaction, putting more money in artists' pockets. Not only that, but Gumroad also makes far more data available to creators than the larger distributors do, which is something artists like hip-hop/R&B star Ryan Leslie have found hugely valuable. And finally, the platform makes it easy for artists to sell unique packages to fans. For example, everyone who buys Palmer's book through Gumroad will also receive a signed photo and a page from her original manuscript, complete with notes from her author husband Neil Gaiman.

So how worried should iTunes and Amazon be of sites like Gumroad?

"I think with iTunes, Amazon, and these players, they’ve done amazing things at pioneering digital distribution at scale," says Ryan Delk, who does Growth for Gumroad and led this partnership. "[But] I don’t think by any means that innovation in the digital distribution space is over."

While Gumroad is well-suited to small, unsigned artists, it's increasingly grabbing the attention of more established acts, like Eminem, Ryan Leslie, and now Hachette, which is arguably its most significant partnership yet. But as Gumroad strikes deals with more old media gatekeepers like record labels or publishers, what's to stop it from becoming like Spotify or Pandora -- in other words, just another cog in an industry that constantly screws over creators?

Delk says Gumroad will be careful to choose partners that share its creator-first mentality -- and Hachette has already proven its pro-artist bonafides by fighting one of the most powerful companies in the US to protect its authors' livelihoods.

"In all these industries whether it’s music or publishing, [labels and publishers] all play a very vital role," Delk says. "Part of why we’re looking at Hachette is that they’re really really excited about helping their artists make more money."

Changing media distribution models on a large scale won't happen overnight. There are entrenched interests -- both on the platform side with iTunes and Amazon and on the production with record labels and publishing companies -- that won't back down easily. But by striking deals like the Hachette partnership, wherein platforms, publishers, and creators can collaborate on distribution and still all get paid a fair amount, Gumroad is slowly shaping the future of creative industries. And for the first time in many years, that future looks pretty bright.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]