Middlemen without enshittification

Not every author can be a DIY author.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readFeb 19, 2024


A black and white picture of Crad Kilodney — a middle-aged, gruff-looking white man in his 30s — in a toque and winter coat, wearing a sign around his neck that reads ‘Shabby ‘No-Name’ Writer — Buy my book — $2.’

I’m on tour with my new novel The Bezzle! Catch me next in SALT LAKE CITY (Feb 21, Weller Book Works) and SAN DIEGO (Feb 22, Mysterious Galaxy). After that, it’s LA, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

Enshittification describes how platforms go bad, which is also how the internet goes bad, because the internet is made of platforms, which is weird, because platforms are intermediaries and we were promised that the internet would disintermediate the world:


The internet did disintermediate a hell of a lot of intermediaries — that is, “middlemen” — but then it created a bunch more of these middlemen, who coalesced into a handful of gatekeepers, or as the EU calls them “VLOPs” (Very Large Online Platforms, the most EU acronym ever).

Which raises two questions: first, why did so many of us end up flocking to these intermediaries’ sites, and how did those sites end up with so much power.

To answer the first question, I want you to consider one of my favorite authors: Crad Kilodney (RIP):


When I was growing up, Crad was a fixture on the streets of Toronto. All through the day and late into the evening, winter or summer, Crad would stand on the street with a sign around his neck (“Very famous Canadian author, buy my books, $2” or sometimes just “Margaret Atwood, buy my books, $2”). He wrote these deeply weird, often very funny short stories, which he edited, typeset, printed, bound and sold himself, one at a time, to people who approached him on the street.

I had a lot of conversations with Crad — as an aspiring writer, I was endlessly fascinated by him and his books. He was funny, acerbic — and sneaky. Crad wore a wire: he kept a hidden tape recorder rolling in his coat and he secretly recorded conversations with people like me, and then released a series of home-duplicated tapes of the weirdest and funniest ones:


I love Crad. He deserves more recognition. There’s an on-again/off-again documentary about his life and work that I hope gets made some day:


But — and this is the crucial part — there are writers out there I want to hear from who couldn’t do what Crad did. Maybe they can write books, but not edit them. Or edit them, but not typeset them. Or typeset, but not print. Or print, but not spend the rest of their lives standing on a street-corner with a “PUTRID SCUM” sign around their neck.

Which is fine. That’s why we have intermediaries. I like booksellers (I was one!). I like publishers. I like distributors. I like their salesforce, who go forth and convince the booksellers of the world to stock books like mine. I have ten million things I want to do before I die, and I’m already 52, and being a sales-rep for a publisher isn’t on my bucket list. I am so thankful that someone else wants to do this for me.

That’s why we have intermediaries, and why disintermediation always leads to some degree of re-intermediation. There’s a lot of explicit and implicit knowledge and specialized skill required to connect buyers and sellers, creators and audiences, and other sides of two-sided markets. Some producers can do some of this stuff for themselves, and a very few — like Crad — can do it all, but most of us need some help, somewhere along the way. In the excellent 2022 book Direct, Kathryn Judge lays out a clear case for all the good that middlemen can do:


So why were we all so anxious for disintermediation back in the late 1990s? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t because we hated intermediaries — it was because we hated powerful intermediaries.

The point of an intermediary is to serve as a conduit between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers, audiences and creators. When an intermediary gains power over the audience — say, by locking them inside a walled garden — and then uses that lock-in to screw producers and appropriate an ever larger share of the value going between them, that’s when intermediaries become a problem.

The problem isn’t that someone will handle ticketing for your gig. The problem is that Ticketmaster has locked down all the ticketing, and the venues, and the promotions, and it uses that power to gouge fans and rip off artists:


The problem isn’t that there’s a well-made website that lets you shop for goods sold by many small merchants and producers. It’s that Amazon has cornered this market, takes $0.51 out of every dollar you spend there, and clones and destroys any small merchant who succeeds on the platform:


The problem isn’t that there’s a website where you can stream most of the music ever recorded. It’s that Spotify colludes with the Big Three labels to rip off artists and sneaks crap you don’t want to hear into your stream in order to collect payola:


The problem isn’t that there’s a website where you can buy any audiobook you want. It’s that Amazon’s Audible locks every book to its platform forever and steals hundreds of millions of dollars from creators:


The problem, in other words, isn’t intermediation — it’s power. The thing that distinguishes a useful intermediary from an enshittified bully is power. Intermediaries gain power when our governments stop enforcing competition law. This lets intermediaries buy each other up and corner markets. Once they’ve formed cozy cartels, they can capture their regulators and commit rampant labor, privacy and consumer violations with impunity. That capture also lets them harness governments to punish smaller players that want to free workers, creators, audiences and customers from walled gardens. It also hands them a whip-hand over their workers, so that any worker who refuses to aid in these nefarious plans can be easily fired:


A world with intermediaries is a better world. As much as I love Crad Kilodney’s books, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the only books on my shelves came from people prepared to stand on a street-corner wearing a “FOUL PUS FROM DEAD DOGS” sign.

The problem isn’t intermediaries — it’s powerful intermediaries. That’s why the world’s surging antitrust movement is so exciting: by reinstating competition law, we can keep intermediaries small and comparatively weak, so that creators and audiences, drivers and riders, sellers and buyers, and other groups seeking to connect will not find themselves made subservient to middlemen.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: