O'Reilly drops ebook DRM, sees 104% increase in sales

It's been 18 months since O'Reilly, the world's largest publisher of tech books, stopped using DRM on its ebooks. In the intervening time, O'Reilly's ebook sales have increased by 104 percent. Now, when you talk about ebooks and DRM, there's always someone who'll say, "But what about [textbooks|technical books|RPG manuals]? Their target audience is so wired and online, why wouldn't they just copy the books without paying? They've all got the technical know-how."

So much for that theory.

Instead, expect to hear DRM apologists (either DRM vendors or technologically naive people in publishing who believe what DRM vendors tell them) now saying, "Oh sure, it works for O'Reilly, but those are tech books. Regular trade books can't possibly work the same way!"

During the past 18 months we've seen a dramatic shift in customer preference from print to digital when looking at sales from oreilly.com, which is a substantial sales channel for us. And looking across all of our sales channels for individual ebooks -- including mobile apps -- 2009 ebook revenue was up a staggering 104% on 2008 (which was more than 50% above 2007).
2009 O'Reilly Ebook Revenue up 104% (Thanks, Andrew!)


  1. How do you know that this is due to the removal of DRM?
    Wouldn’t you expect exponential growth in e-books right now?

  2. No offense, but this is not necessarily cause and effect. Sales of e-book readers have also gone up in popularity, exposure and sales, which would tend to increase sales of e-books with or without the removal of DRM.

    That they have removed DRM means that people that can’t afford to buy it, can ‘borrow’ the current edition. In the future, if they are making money and enjoy the author’s books, they will buy it in order to support the author.

  3. The increase in sales is just as easily attributable to an increase in the popularity of e-book readers. It’s nice they dropped the DRM, but there’s not enough there to claim that it had much to do with the increase in sales.
    If you compare this graph with a graph of e-book sales overall (http://www.idpf.org/doc_library/industrystats.htm), there’s not much difference between them. This post, while encouraging, is a little dishonest.

  4. I’m a firm believer in anti-DRM, but I’m also a firm believer in stats/econometrics and I must point out that correlation does not imply causation. One cannot necessarily imply that the lack of DRM is the cause of the increase in sales. bOINGbOING is nerdy enough to know that one cannot draw such an inference…I’d hope.

  5. Mmhmm. And in the las 18 months, how many ebook readers have hit the market? I realize that O’Reilly stuff isn’t the pleasure reading that people most people have in mind when they pick up a kindle — but ebook sales would of gone up in the last year and a half regardless of DRM.

    People can’t be trusted to manage their own data, and EULAs and DRM are in place to make sure our purchases are protected.

    1. People can’t be trusted to manage their own data, and EULAs and DRM are in place to make sure our purchases are protected.

      I honestly hope you were being sarcastic.

      We have many instruments to protect our purchases: regulations to set a standard for quality, warranties to replace anything that doesn’t live up to standards, insurance to replace things when the unexpected happens, and a legal system to take care of people who don’t deliver on any of these things. All of these help protect my purchases, insuring that I actually get value out of what I have purchased.

      But how does an EULA or DRM protect my purchase? The EULA precludes me from utilizing my purchase in the way that I intend to, and it prevents me from returning an item that doesn’t live up to standards or suing when the company fails to support their product. It forces me to agree to waive many of my rights as a consumer, after I have already made the purchase. The DRM interferes with my ability to utilize the product, limiting the scope and platform that it may be used on, and in many cases, it means my product will fail to operate, even if I had purchased a perpetual license.

      EULAs and DRM are there for the seller, not the purchaser. They allow the seller to limit the typical uses of a product to those that they find most profitable. They prevent the purchaser from making backup copies, ensuring that additional purchases will need to be made to replace things that have been lost or broken. And they eliminate the used market, encouraging more purchases while depriving the seller of their rights of ownership.

      EULAs and DRM don’t protect my purchase; they protect the sellers’ best interests.

  6. It’s interesting you mention RPG books. I would LOVE to buy an electronic version of the 3 “core” books for D&D. I don’t want a PDF. I want a searchable, scrollable reference document that can live on my phone so I don’t have to carry a bag of books, a clip board, dice, etc to play. I would pay the cover price of the Player’s Handbook if it was in an iphone app that navigated in the same way as say… the settings app on the iphone. Basically a bunch of HTML files embedded in a webkit. It’s not like I could copy those files out.

    And just a little more rambling on the formatting of RPG e-books. I don’t want a PDF! I want to read it on my computer! If I print it out, I’m going to be printing on my shitty home printer. I don’t need a completely full color book. Give me a basic black and white PDF if you have a print version, but make another version that’s in a more scalable format so I can read it on something digital like a laptop or my phone or whatever.

    1. PDF’s done right *are* scalable. It’s just too many don’t do it right

      (hint: Every window on a Mac, and probably the iPhone too is a PDF)

        1. PDF is a first class foundation level technology in MAC OS X.

          Simply put, by the time you want to print or make a pdf the majority of the processing has already been done. And they get away with all that ordinarily resource hogging processing by spreading it out over the execution of the program.

  7. Stats for the full year aren’t available yet, but overall US ebook revenues for Q1-Q3 2009 were 200% up on Q1-Q3 2008, so O’Reilly are in fact lagging behind. The figures you quote could perfectly well be interpreted to suggest that dropping DRM has cost O’Reilly 1/3 of their potential sales.

    I think it’s more likely that O’Reilly’s customers were well ahead of the curve on adopting ebooks, but my point is that this single statistic doesn’t really show anything useful.

  8. To be quite blunt, the DRM didn’t do a single thing for them. Their stuff has been copied online for years.

  9. Given the amount of bitching (valid and otherwise) about metrics – is it not time for someone (BoingBoing, hint hint) to hunt down the people and businesses doing proper research into this area? I find it hard to believe that there aren’t any businesses that are conducting (valid, rigorous) experiments and using hard metrics to actually work out the value of DRM/no DRM to their businesses. Where are these people?

    1. Where’s the incentive?

      For those on the side of “remove DRM” there is no financial reward to say “DRM is not helping, get rid of it”.

      For those on the “DRM is good” side, if they did do a study and it showed DRM was bad, they would lose out. The only thing they stand to do is gain, but that’s predicate on DRM being good, and why test something out when you can just claim it’s true and people will believe you?

  10. Totally biased fallacious argument as eBook sales have increased dramatically over that time. As a full time author I am a firm believe in copyright protection – ooh I am SO untrendy and unfashionable!

    1. trend and fashion have nothing to do with it. DRM is useless and harms only those who actually pay for content. i pirate everything i want and DRM never stopped me. it is just a minor inconvenience at the most. on the other hand when i bought a cd that would not play on my computer i was pretty pissed off. i am never going to make that mistake again.

      as for books, i buy many dead tree ones but ebooks i just download for free. see if DRM is going to stop me. (clue: it will not.)

    2. ..and I am an avid reader who will never buy your content unless I can crack the DRM. If I buy your book in a digital format, I want the guarantee that I can resell the file/online access to the file to recoup my cost (and delete my copy/access) and that I will own it, with full rights to transfer it to any platform.

      DRM is the only reason I continue to crack software.

      Oh, BTW….correlation is not causality…shameshame boingboing!

  11. Was it DRM that caused the increase in sales or, was it the increased consumption of ebook readers especially, mobile phone ebook readers?

    I did not see the connection between sales increase and DRM. Perhaps, the data are being interpreted though rose coloured spectacles?

  12. With all due respect, there is no proof the increase is in any way caused by not having DRM. I agree DRM is evil – and thanks to Cory’s teachings, it is so easy to explain to my non-techie friends – but let’s follow the method and not even suggest implication when there is only correlation.

  13. DRM or not, e-books seem like a bad investment unless purchased as part of a dead-tree-book/e-book bundle. How do you resell your e-book? When I’m done with a technical dead-tree-book like those from ORA, it goes up on Amazon.com and I recover some of my costs. With e-books I am not aware of way to sell them “used”. Even if I could find a buyer, the e-books I have bought from the Pragmatic Programmers all have my name on every page. What’s to stop the next owner from putting them up on thepiratebay.org and getting *me* in hot water? Besides, what does it even mean to sell an e-book? I can easily keep a copy when I sell it, which I can’t do with my dead-tree-book.

    Looking at the ORA catalog, I find that I can buy a book I’d want for $50 dead-tree version. Or I can spend $55 and get both dead-tree and e. But e-book alone still costs $40!

    Of course, over at Amazon, the dead-tree book is only $32 new.

    None of this makes any sense at all, if you ask me.

  14. I’m not a DRM apologist at all, but I think it’s naive to assume that a highly technical audience has the same awareness of DRM as a more mainstream audience.

    In my experience, most people have no idea what DRM is until they ask why they can’t use this-or-that file on this-or-that device. Even after explaining it to them, they don’t have the same awareness of how far-reaching DRM is; it’s just one of the many frustrating little things about technology. They don’t really consider it a political issue–that there are alternatives that they could push for, either with their wallet or with activism.

    It’s great that O’Reilly ended up increasing their sales, and I hope other retailers decide to go down the same DRM-free road, but I suspect that for more mainstream markets, what will happen is that sales will actually stay the *same*, rather than increasing or decreasing. I may be wrong, but based on my interactions with non-tech people, DRM just isn’t something that influences their buying decisions much.

    (I think this is something we can change, by the way, by educating people about its effects. I really hate DRM, I just don’t take it for granted that other people hate it as much as I do.)

  15. Where’s the control group in this little equation? Do we have comparison to the increasing number of people with eBook readers? 18 months and 104% doesn’t sound like anything but the fallout from ebook readers taking off. To say that removing DRM was a direct cause of this is unfounded.
    Sales of all book types are up, I’m sure.

    1. Not to mention an unlabeled y-axis, which with anselmlingnau’s comment makes me wonder if they went from 25 books sold to 51.

  16. Gah! Did BoingBoing seriously just post this graph without the context of overall eBook sales for the same period? I’m not sure if I should feel insulted or ashamed.

  17. Dear people arguing that DRM for books is essential. Remind me, how well did that work out for the music business?

    The only thing stopping the books and movie businesses going the way of the music industry is the technology. When bandwidth is ubiquitous, movies will be shared as widely as MP3s. When decent readers come along, books will be shared just like MP3s. As music has shown, if you offer a legitimate, non-DRMed version of your product, people will buy it.

    If those industries want to save themselves from completely missing out on the opportunity to open up a new market – digital – they need to look at what happened to music and point their ship o’ strategy in exactly the opposite direction.

    1. Graham, Cory’s statistical methodology quite clearly demonstrates that ditching DRM was a disaster for the music business: global music sales plummeted by 8% in 2008, thanks to Amazon ditching music DRM, and in 2009 sales crashed a further 12% after Apple followed suit.

  18. I don’t think people are arguing DRM is essential Graham. More like it’s not such a big deal for some people.

  19. I think you guys are missing the point. It’s not that the loss of DRM caused an increase in sales, it’s that sales increased DESPITE the lack of DRM.

  20. I’m the author of the O’Reilly book, »LaTeX Hacks« (which as of now is available only in German but that is another story). This is available on paper and as an e-book. The paper edition sells really well, I’m happy to say (to the point of it having been the best-selling title in all of O’Reilly’s »Hacks« series here in Germany for some time), but it would be easy for O’Reilly to dramatically increase relative e-book sales by actually selling any e-book copies at *all*. According to the statements I get from O’Reilly, they have managed to dispose of 1 copy or so of the e-book version last year, so if they sold a humongous number of copies, like 3, this year that would be a 300% increase compared to last year and certainly worth a press release.

    It’s good to see that there is such amazing growth but in absolute terms this increase may not actually represent a very large number of books sold.

  21. I just no longer trust Cory’s claims on these issues any more than I trust Fox News on its take on politics. Not that I like DRM.

  22. Hate to say it, but correlation does not imply causation. This is more likely due to the massive increase in the sale of ebook readers.

  23. I’m not sure where you got the bit about O’Reilly dropping DRM 18 months ago. To my knowledge they’ve never used DRM.

  24. There’s only one DRM that really winds me up and that Adobe’s Digital Editions. The reason is that you cannot read them on Windows Mobile. So many European book retailers insist on using it. I’m not sure if they don’t care about Win Mobile users or if it is all a dark conspiracy to make you pay for those stupid kindle and Sony devices.

  25. Baen Books started up the Webscriptions service several years ago. They have never put DRM in their offerings. And now other publishers are beginning to make use of the service. And I have bought quite a few books through the service.

    It seems to keep growing.

  26. Right, in other words, I think we can safely say that the lack of DRM certainly doesn’t seem to kill sales especially when you combine this with data from others who’ve now worked with DRM-Freedom Files.

    Can we dare say it doesn’t seem to hurt sales to ditch DRM? And.. there’s less overhead when you ditch DRM so even more profit, eh?

  27. Okay, granted that there is little to prove a causal relationship between removing the DRM and the increase in sales. What is more interesting is that the removal of the DRM did not apparently lead to a decrease in the number of sales due to an increase in piracy.

    So if the removal of DRM did not have an effect in book sales, it also seems to be logically consistent that the previous inclusion of DRM did not increase book sales by preventing piracy.

    So,O’Reilly saves themselves the cost of implementing and maintaining the DRM system, I don’t have to worry about DRM in the books I buy, and hopefully the books become cheaper or the authors get paid more. Everybody but the DRM makers are happy.

  28. First, being against DRM is NOT the same as being against copyright. When I buy a paper book, I don’t have the right to copy it, but nobody has the right to in effect break into my house and take it back, as DRM allows, or control how I am allowed to read it.

    Second, doesn’t anyone think that ebooks could be more popular precisely because there is more non-DRM content available? Correlation isn’t causation, but correlation is certainly a reason to consider causes. Look at emusic, for example — there is a lot less sales resistance when one doesn’t need to depend on a DRM server to keep one’s music, or deal with some idiot’s restrictions on how one can play it.

    And then there’s the notion that each “pirated” copy represents a lost full price sale. Nonsense. Most wouldn’t have been purchased, and in fact in the music world copying has been shown to increase sales. While I think that everyone should pay for what they read or listen to, the situation is a lot more complicated than calling it “piracy” makes it appear. The correct term is “IP theft”.

    1. @anonymous #40

      You said: The correct term is “IP theft”.

      Wrong. The correct term is “copyright infringement”.

      The recently made-up term “IP” promotes sloppy thinking, as people apply it to patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other things, each of which have different properties.

      And infringement is not theft, despite a depressingly successful effort by RIAA and MPAA to mislead the public and the politicians.

  29. The other side of the coin: removing DRM __must have caused__ the increase in sales of eBook readers ;-)

  30. Good points. Copying something you don’t have a right to copy is indeed nothing more or less than copyright infringement. Personally, I tend to stop listening any time someone calls it “piracy”.

  31. I’m one of the subscriber to Safari (the subscription service of O’Reilly). This service (among other resvices) allows you to download a certain amount of books (or chapters) in pdf; without DRM; your name is printed on the bottom of the generated books. I’m one of the consumera that subscribed because the e-book is without DRM and I can put annotation, keeep and move the O’Reilly e-books among my devices being sure that I’m not tangled with an old device or HardDisk; or with a code that I have to remember and reintroduce.
    If the books had the DRM I’d never subscribed.

  32. If my business model depended on DRM, I would comment over and over under different identities in different wording, rehashing the same tired memes about how we can’t be sure that O’Reilly has benefited from their decision.

    Oh, wait, that’s already been done!

    And, yes, I can testify that O’Reilly got more business from me after that decision … and because of it!

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