David Pogue tries DRM-free ebooks, sells more books than with DRM-crippled ventures

Tech writing superstar David Pogue writes about his experiment with DRM-free ebook publishing. He concludes that even though his DRM-free book was pirated all over the net, the sales were as high as he expected them to be, based on his previous books' sales. Pogue goes on to talk about what he's learned here -- that DRM-free isn't necessarily bad for sales -- and invites other publishers to try it out. One thing he badly misses, though, is the technical failure of DRM to prevent piracy. Pogue's previous, DRM-crippled ebooks were also pirated, after all, because DRM isn't hard to break (ebooks are vulnerable to a particularly fiendish technical attack called "re-typing"). So when Pogue puts DRM on his books, he only locks down the readers who are honest enough to pay for his stuff in the first place. The people who cheat and download without paying get the copies that the DRM has been removed from.
My publisher, O'Reilly, decided to try an experiment, offering one of my Windows books for sale as an unprotected PDF file.

After a year, we could compare the results with the previous year's sales.

The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It's all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying.

The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year.

That's not a perfect, all-variables-equal experiment, of course; any number of factors could explain the results. But for sure, it wasn't the disaster I'd feared.

Should e-Books Be Copy Protected? (Thanks, Hugh!)


  1. There’s a fair amount of data here for ebooks, but would it also apply to other types of content? Specifically, I’m thinking of video. The anime industry’s had a major problem with fans having already seen shows online well before they even get licensed for American distribution (and the vast majority of anime fans do pirate). The most progressive (and successful) player, FUNimation, has been offering both streams and download-to-own files on their site, but I’m pretty sure the latter is DRMed.

    Would it be beneficial to start selling the downloads DRM-free? I doubt it could make the piracy problem WORSE.

  2. FWIW

    Where I work many people download and check out tech e-books. This is all done at home as the company would not approve. Now the interesting thing is the company pays for your home connection. You can not bring any pirate books to work (or software etc) but all you have to say is that you found a book readable and it gets bought. They/we all know how you found it but if you get caught it is your fault as it is banned.

    On a different note: I work in an office full of programmers of all sorts ie web to mainframe. Everybody still prefers p-books to e-books.

  3. Cory, the implication I get from articles like this is that you think online drm-free publication is a viable way to make money, despite the risk of piracy many publishers are afraid of.

    If you were advising the publisher of a new Andy McNab book, or new Tolkien Encyclopedia, or anarchist’s cookbook, would DRM-free downloads be a good method of delivery?

    Do you not think that examples like this article only represent canny publishers taking advantage of the current situation, and DRM-free publishing in this way is not a longterm solution?

    DRM-free seems, to me, to primarily benefit books that;

    Will sell very well through word of mouth.
    Do not have big advertising budgets.
    Have worldwide appeal.
    Appeal to 25-40 age range.

    Which is not all books. So what would you say to publishers who don’t fit the points above and think DRM-free is fine but not for them?

    Do you think DRM-free profits will fall as the number of people willing to download a book rises SLOWER than the number of people willing to copythieve a book? And book-pirating infastructures become better?

  4. Maybe they only sold well because users who were buying them didn’t know how easy it was to get pirated version?

  5. To be fair, David did allude to the systemic failure of DRM: “In time, everyone realized the silliness of this exercise. It inconvenienced only the law-abiders; the software pirates had plenty of simple, convenient ways to duplicate the songs anyway.”

  6. Both comments so far make excellent points.

    These kind of off-the-cuff experiments just raise more questions as far as I am concerned. What if this book had been a breakthrough bestseller, but only the core readership paid and the potential audience didn’t?

    But the biggest hidden factor that has yet to be measured sensibly is the emerging generation of content users. If you have a teenager, are a teenager, or work with them, it is quite clear that a time is coming when the general consensus is that paying for content is a completely foreign concept. The fact that we currently still have a percentage of people that still equate a (fair) price for creative works does not strike me as being necessarily relevant, or reflective, of what will soon be the dominant audience.

  7. “If you have a teenager, are a teenager, or work with them, it is quite clear that a time is coming when the general consensus is that paying for content is a completely foreign concept.”

    Agreed. A lot of 12 – 15 year olds assume that anything on the internet is free; they don’t understand the laws of owning ideas/content, and why should they?

  8. My only problem with DRM-free is it devalues works in others minds. If it is easy to pirate, then it is easy to see it as having no value. If there is no risk associated with it, there is no fear of pirating the work.

    Personally, I find organizations like the EFF and otherwise abhorent in their push for INFERMATIORSSS WUNTS TO BE FREEH simply because they aren’t also promoting the fact that authors *DESERVE* to be paid, and the end use should not be the one determining how the authors get paid (i.e., as a songwriter with arthritis, I write songs for others, but I’m certainly not going to be on stage performing them…so going to my friends shows is NOT going to benefit me what so ever). I just see this as a slippery slope.

    If there was actual push of the fact that creatives were providing a valuable service and it deserves to be paid for, I’d be all for this…but at this point, I am of mixed emotion over it. DRM-free SHOULD BE the norm. At the same time, few value the works and this removes an impediment to those that find no need to pay for it.

    I will say this, I torrent books all the damn time. I value books…and I pay for them. Again, this is where the mixed emotions come in. Every new physical book should come with an electronic reader version as well. I don’t care to carry my library with me everywhere, and my Nook is a good alternative. I still prefer paper and disagree with Pogue’s notion that:

    “But if you own an e-book reader, you’ve already got the book in the desired format! You wouldn’t go out and pay for the paper edition; avoiding paper is the whole reason you bought a Kindle in the first place.”

    Nope…we got it for convenience…it isn’t the preferred reading mechanism. Until I can post sticky notes with the ease and highlight the hell out of the PDF / MOBI / TXT that I can paper, it is inferior…will the technology be there in 10 years? Probably, right now, it is a pain in the ass to annotate ANYTHING (and I know friends that borrow my books almost simply for the annotations).

    I really hope society comes around to actually valuing creative works, but until then, I’m still up in the air about DRM-free. I love the idea, I just don’t think society cares about anything that can be duplicated for free…I just see a future where creative workers are valued less than unskilled physical laborers.

    1. @ Clif Marsiglio:

      I’m not sure that free content does devalue content. Value to us increases when content is free, and what we know about the cost to make something doesn’t change if it’s free.

      I think giving something for free only reduces its value if we’re completely unaware of the cost to make it. i.e. I have little idea about the value of a golf club because I don’t know the costs. If I was given loads of free golf clubs they’d likely be devalued in my mind.

      But that doesn’t apply to books; most people DO know the rough cost of making a book. In fact, we do get free books all the time as gifts, and that doesn’t devalue them. When we do recieve books or films for free (e.g. with a magazine) we assume the costs have been recouped elsewhere, not that the book cost nothing to produce.

      The trick for publishers is to find that elsewhere. Unfortunatly it might not exist yet. But none of this is going to make someone’s life’s work valueless in the eyes of readers. In fact, free content can be judged by readers without reference to cost, which is perhaps more interesting. Was this book worth reading, rather than was this book worth paying for?

    2. As a songwriter, you belong to a trade whose entire existence depends on a copyright exemption that forces you to license your works to performers, a copyright change that was made over the objections of songwriters (“If these infernal talking machines are allowed to continue we will lose our voiceboxes as monkeys lost their tails when they came out of the machines”) to force them to license their works for use on new technology (record players). This change has made songwriters rich and happy for decades.

      It is precisely this sort of copyright regime that EFF has advocated — blanket licenses for internet music. No one at EFF in my many years of association with that fine organization ever said anything about information wanting to be free (and none of the extremely well-spoken staffers have an accent like the one you attempted to transliterate, though I confess I can’t really tell what it’s supposed to be).

      As to risk and reward: how can an artist’s legal product ever hope to compete with pirate editions if the pirate editions come in superior, unlocked file-formats? No one ever got a rootkit by illegally downloading a Sony BMG musician’s CD — only the suckers who paid good money for the music got infected.

  9. Although I do support DRM-free content, this post is perhaps misrepresenting the facts. When Pogue said sales remained high despite releasing a DRM-free PDF on the internet, he specifically means paper book sales, according to the article. Perhaps saturation of ebook readers is low enough right now that most people will still buy the paper book rather than try to download and read on a computer screen, or are even aware to look for a digital version of the book in the first place. In time, however, when a sizable percent of potential readers can easily download all their books on an ebook reader, the real test, which wasn’t performed here, will be to compare sales of DRM-free ebooks with downloads of non-purchased versions of the same ebook. That, however, will be harder to track directly.

  10. People talk about removing DRM like the DRM is actually doing something. I’ve yet to hear of a single case where DRM successfully prevented everyone from ripping and sharing any work that has ever been published. DRM simply does not work, and it will never work. Anything you can play on a screen, or listen to on a speaker, you can re-record with no copy protection. No matter if they released the book with DRM or without DRM, if anybody cared about it then it would be out there to download with no DRM.

    More DRM isn’t going to do anything, and more laws aren’t going to make DRM work. DRM isn’t free, either; publishers have to spend money to research and implement it, and it doesn’t work. How would you like it if you paid two thousand dollars for a top-of-the-line home security system, only to come home after work and find your house empty? Publishers need to stop throwing their money away on snake oil.

  11. I view the problem as the marketers not having figured out the correct price point. Since there’s no physical book involved and no retail bookstore to pay rent and salaries for, it makes sense to charge a lot less for an e-book than a paper book.

    The e-music folks didn’t figure that out, and there’s a large incentive for people to download MP3s for free because they can’t buy them at a price equal to the artists’ percentage of a CD sale. I considered AllOfMP3’s prices reasonable, but the money wasn’t going to the artists.

    If the record labels had each made their own AllOfMP3 and sent 90% of the proceeds to the artists, they could have defeated Napster at its own game.

    I’d be happy to pay a few dollars for a book in PDF form if the money all goes to the person who wrote the book, rather than the folks who get rich off others’ creative work. But paying as much as a paper book for a DRM-laden file is not sensible.

  12. a copyright change that was made over the objections of songwriters “If these infernal talking machines are allowed to continue we will lose our voiceboxes as monkeys lost their tails when they came out of the machines”

    Whuh? Even replacing ‘machines’ with ‘trees’ this doesn’t make sense. Why would songwriters complain about performers being made to pay for songs?

    1. Because they didn’t want any music being released on records, because it was a form of “theft” from the sheet music industry, which was the only music industry that anyone believed in at the time.

      That quote was from John Philip Sousa, BTW.

  13. I can only hope that the continued sales of DRM-free works is due to the continued honesty of the book-buying public, and the ability of that public to conveniently obtain the work by a paid method.

    If downloading works for free becomes more convenient for the market as a whole, ‘honesty’ will be the only thing standing in the way of faltering sales.

  14. Cory, I think your analysis of Pogue’s argument is spot-on. A quick visit to various eBook oriented fora illustrates your point to a T; a not insignificant minority of the posts are of the form “I bought ____ from ____ and want to read it on my ____, what can I do?” They far outweigh the “where can I find a free copy of ____?!” You’re right in that people willing to pay for these things are being penalized; it’s a severely flawed model that makes it easier to steal the product in a form you can use than buy it.

    Of course, I am one of those who believes the companies will cling to their DRM for the near future and just wish they could use a device independent standard (EPUB anyone?), DRMd or otherwise. I’d love to buy from Amazon’s/B&N’s collection to read on my chosen device. But to do so, I would have to buy it and break its DRM encryption (via methods of hazy legality) which–to most companies–would make me a pirate anyway, right? So why waste the energy?

  15. Playing Devil’s advocate for a second, I wonder how much there’s a cultural bias at work. When Cory puts out a book as a DRM-free ebook, he is releasing it – at least partly – to a community that is aware of the issues that are important to him and which recognizes some kind of implicit contract between author and reader. The contract, as I understand it, is for the author not to treat his readers like criminals and screw them with heavy-handed DRM, and for the reader to recognize that they’ve been given something of value and to give back – by buying a paper copy, or making a donation, or whatever. Pogue is also producing works for an audience that may share that attitude (the FOSS movement has probably shaped the thinking of many computer professionals, and made them understand that the name of the game isn’t just ‘I can get cool stuff for free”, but also about giving back for what you’ve received).

    Can the positive results that Cory and David Pogue have found be reproduced in all markets, indefinitely? I already see a very different attitude among many pirates, who talk as if free music or video is something that they are ‘owed’. If pressed, they may argue that big music/film corporations are corrupt and exploit their artists, therefore they don’t deserve any money – but I wonder how many of them diligently work to make sure that those exploited artists get recompensed for their time, energy and talent in some other way. Some music fans recognize the ‘contract’, but many more are either unaware of the concept or pay only lip service to it.

    Unencumbered content (and its creators) may thrive in a culture where enough people recognize that getting something nice for free creates a corresponding feeling of obligation. It (and they) probably won’t do so well where the prevailing attitude is that we have some ‘right’ to get everything we want for nothing.

    Short form summary: “Human selfishness is why we can’t have nice things.” Discuss.

    1. Well to that regard the argument ends up being “there needs to be a way to stop theft, and DRM isn’t it.” For a buyer, DRM ends up being an extra lock on your shirt that you need to open each time you want to wear it. To a pirate, that lock isn’t there, and its the same shirt he got from the magic copy machine. And for that copy machine to work, all it needs is one shirt with the lock broken to start making more. Subsequent locks become useless because that first lock has been broken and the distribution has a new channel.

      Those who pirate will pirate and will most likely refuse to pay even if they couldn’t pirate. But those who buy may pirate and are only deterred from buying due to the extra hoops you have to jump for buying. Digital piracy isn’t like normal theft as there is no physical loss on the seller’s side from someone not paying for a product, rather just a potential sale of a product to an unwilling customer. This then turns to a problem of attracting customers rather than deterring thefts.

      I sort of feel though the only thing to drive better sales is appealing to collectability.

  16. This is the Sousa quote as it appears on his wikipedia page:

    “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

    John Philip Sousa

  17. In a weird way, “pirated all over the internet” is a mark of reputation. A torrent with lots of seeds and peers is a torrent that (probably) contains desireable stuff.

  18. DRM is mis-understood. It has nothing to do with piracy. DRM is file-format control for paid users, so they can’t move their content to another platform.

  19. i think part of the results can be accounted for by people like me: if i can’t buy it DRM-free, i’m not going to buy it. period.

  20. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of publishers’ positions by many commentators.

    When you buy a paper book you buy a single copy. It can only be read by one person at a time. If you lend it to a friend you can’t read while they have it. You can’t sell it on and keep a copy. The hassle you have to go to to copy a print book makes it pretty unlikely to be done. But in the case of an ebook which can be copied infinite times in a second…. ! So why should an ebook be any different? Just because the technology hasn’t been perfected yet doesn’t mean something isn’t coming which means only one copy can be accessed at a time.

    When it comes to value: There is a fundamental difference to music – books aren’t freely consumed by the millions over the airwaves, on tv, in film, in shops – every single day.

    Why make an ebook available at all if potential ‘customers’ take the attitude that they will copyright infringe to their heart’s content? Why should someone do all the work of producing a book to aid others to further their career/self/etc. If those others are simple going to consider it worthless?

    If you consider the academic and professional markets – largely aimed at people studying, on a fairly low income and looking to cut costs – where is the incentive for all the students on a course to buy a copy of an ebook if it is widely available for free? Surely for most the financial imperative outweighs the moral one.

    I can’t really be bothered to argue too much more because I need to get back to producing some books! But the last word I will give is a warning: the assumption that “free is better” (be that monetarily or DRM-free) is a fool’s paradise. People who write good books are clever, and they will make money from you one way or another. Or they might just not share the really good ideas.

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