How Maine is keeping working writers (and others) from making money

Maine is a state that values hard work. Most Mainers, no matter what their political affiliation, agree.

It’s necessary to work hard in a state that has a small economy, vast stretches of empty space with very little public transportation and other issues that make a more leisurely, high-paying life difficult. The evolution of the digital age has helped a lot of Mainers — and there are many — who either have to forge their own career or work a second job. The new “gig economy” is perfect for the state.

Or maybe not.

Many who laud self-employed workers, artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs would probably be surprised to know that legislation passed three years ago and championed by Gov. Paul LePage keeps hard-working self-employed writers, artists and entrepreneurs from making money. Money that our counterparts in neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts happily rake in.

As a published author, I’m always looking for ways to expand my platform and get my work out to people who may enjoy it. I consider writing a career, though my mystery novels bring in a tiny fraction of the money my late journalism career did. When writing colleagues from other states over the past two years trumpeted the benefits of creating audio versions of novels and the joys of podcasting, I was all in. I’m a creative person who likes to do new things, loves to mess around with technology and all its benefits and, as I said, is always looking for ways to get my work to people who can enjoy it. As a writer with a very small publisher, the digital sales world is essential to me given the difficulty of getting books into stores.

Amazon keeps a huge chunk of what listeners pay for the audio books produced by Audible which is the only game in town for digital audio. Royalties for writers and producers are small. But it pays a $25 bonus to writers and producers when a new subscriber to the service starts with that writer and producers book. Since I partnered with a professional narrator, Trudi Knoedler, on my two books, we were each in line to get $25 whenever a new Audible listener bought one of my books. The bonuses are a lure to authors to produce their books with the service — a way to make more money so the tiny royalties don’t hurt so much. The fact I, not my publisher, own the audio rights to my books seemingly made this a great opportunity for me.

 

The cover for the audio version of Cold Hard News.
The cover for the audio version of Cold Hard News.

So imagine my surprise a year ago when the audio version of my first book, Cold Hard News, came out and I found that I wasn’t eligible to get the $25 bonus for new subscribers who bought my book first. Trudi, who lives in California gets it. But I don’t. I now have two books out on Audible — No News is Bad News came out two months ago — and while it’s not a fortune that ACX, the production arm of Audible , is keeping from me, it’s money that I could use. If I lived in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, or almost any other state, I’d be getting it.

Six states are shut out of those bonuses. I tried to find out last year from ACX  what the Maine state legislation is that keeps us from getting the money, and got a boilerplate response telling me I wasn’t eligible because I live in Maine. I already knew that. Further research didn’t turn up any legislation I could find that covered that type of payout.

Surely, it’s some kind of mistake, I thought. There’s some legislation that deals with some other thing and this bonus — so minor in the world of big money, but meaningful to writers — is collateral damage that no one was aware of.

I still hadn’t found the answer last month, when I attended a panel on how to create a podcast. My sister had been after me for some time to do one, but I didn’t feel the time was right. Now I did. Not only would it be a nice addition to my author platform, but it would be a lot of fun. The speakers on the panel, Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn, the creators of the Crime Writers On… podcast, talked about how they monetize theirs with an Amazon button. That button allows listeners to go to their website and click through to Amazon to shop. A small portion of what those buyers spend goes to the podcast owners. It costs the shoppers nothing and everyone is happy. Easy peasy. Or so my sister and I thought.

We’re producing our podcast, Crime&Stuff, on a shoestring. A little, tiny broken one that you have to tie halfway up the shoe. We have a “recording studio” in a conference room at Think Tank Coworking, made possible through the generosity of  Director Patrick Roche. We bought some equipment and paid for basics for a website for a year, a total of about $300. We created and maintain our website ourselves and my sister, Rebecca, designed our logo (necessary to get a podcast published on iTunes). We researched how to “do” audio, downloaded the software, and are learning as we go. We have no money for a sound engineer or any better equipment than what we’ve got, including the ancient balky laptop that serves as our soundboard, the website creator, as well as my main writing computer. We joke that it’s the podcast you’d do if you didn’t have anything better to do, but the reality is most people who don’t enjoy banging their heads against a concrete wall the way the Milliken girls do would probably not do it.

candslogofinal-1071x1071-2Don’t get me wrong, I’m not whining about the work. We are having a lot of fun and no creative process comes without an effort. But the thought was sweet of being able to make a few dollars to help offset our costs, and maybe even compensate us a little for the hours a week a it takes to record, edit and produce it, update the website and everything else.

When I researched the monetization, though, I found out that just like those $25 bonuses from Audible, Mainers are shut out of the Amazon Associates program.

I worked a little harder this time to find answers, now that I knew the program had a name, and here’s what I  found out: Amazon ended it’s program with Maine because the state in 2013 amended its sales tax law to try to get more money from out-of-state online sales.

Here’s how Booksellers This Week described it at the time:

Maine amended its sales tax law “to require remote retailers with a network of online affiliates acting as sales agents in the state to collect and remit sales tax to the state. Now, as it has done in a number of other states with similar laws, Amazon has fired” the Mainers in the Associates program.

And a 2013 Portland Press Herald story at the time said::

“LePage … has said (the amendment) will ensure that companies that do business in Maine pay sales tax. The governor, along with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has argued that uncollected sales taxes put Maine-based businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The law passed with broad bipartisan support, but was opposed by lawmakers in the House who are aligned with the conservative tea party movement.”

The story said the state estimates it loses about $20 million a year from out-of-state online purchases that aren’t taxed. Mainers making the purchase are supposed to report them when they file their state taxes. The state estimates less than 10 percent do, according to the Press Herald story.

“Amazon’s decision appears designed to limit its exposure to the portion of Maine’s law that broadens the definition of a company’s physical presence in the state,” the story says.

The story also quotes a LePage tax policy official as saying that while the law’s goal is to get some of the lost revenue from online sales, they still don’t expect to get much. So, not a whole lot of benefit for the state from the amendment.

Meanwhile, Amazon keeps rolling along, dropping its Maine associates probably not much of a big deal and the sting of Maine’s law a little mosquito that it can wave away. Whatever you may think of Amazon, writers — from the self-published to the small-published and even the big-published — rely on it. So do other entrepreneurs and artists, particularly those who benefited from using that Amazon button on websites and blog posts to reap a little bit of the millions and millions and millions of dollars Amazon pulls in a year from people like me and you. Because I betcha you use it even as you sneer at it.

My audio book partner in California felt so bad she was making more money off the recordings than I am, she offered to split hers with me. I told her no. She worked hard to make them sound good and deserves to be compensated. No reason someone in California should be making less money because of a Maine law.

I never thought I’d ever agree with the tea party on anything, but it seems to me as though the state passed a law that it doesn’t expect to benefit much from. Designed to keep Maine companies competitive, it’s taking money out of the hands of the get-up-and-go hard workers who are putting their hearts, creativity, time and money on the line to make a living in the state of Maine. Doing it while we watch our counterparts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and 42 other states make money that’s being withheld from us.

Part of me wonders if the governor and Legislature understood what the fallout would be when they decided to give a big middle finger to the Internet despite the fact it would have little impact on revenue.

I plan to write to my representatives asking they reconsider the amendment, or somehow fix it in a way that may soften Amazon’s stance and help out the Mainers who are losing money while still accomplishing the goal they’d hoped for in the first place. I’m not sure what that solution is, but I have to believe it exists. Other states seem to manage it.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize Amazon, too, is punishing the little guy by “firing” its Maine Associates. Somehow, though, I think my plea will resonate more with my fellow Mainers, no matter what their politics. Mainers who admire people who aren’t afraid to put it out there and are only asking they can get something in return for their hard work.

If you agree, let your representatives know. The writer, artist or entrepreneur in your life, or down your street or across the coffee shop from you, will appreciate it.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Both books are also available in digital audio through Audible and iTunes. Listen to her and her sister, Rebecca, an artist, on their podcast Crime&Stuff.

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