What dropping DRM across the industry would do for publishing

My latest Guardian column, "Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers and publishers," looks at the wider consequences of Tor Books' dropping DRM on its ebooks, and what it would mean for writers and publishers if DRM was dropped across the industry:

oat. Back when ebook sales began to kick off, most major publishers were still DRM believers — or at least, not overly skeptical of the claims of DRM vendors. They viewed the use of DRM as "better than nothing".

When queried on the competitive implications of giving control over their business relationships to DRM vendors, they were sanguine (if not utterly dismissive). They perceived "converting ebooks" as a technical challenge beyond the average book buyer. For the absence of DRM to make any kind of difference in the marketplace, they believed that book buyers would have to download and install a special program to let them convert Kindle books to display on a Nook (or vice-versa), and they perceived this to be very unlikely.

But it's only the widespread presence of DRM that makes "converting ebooks" into a technical challenge. Your browser "converts" all sorts of graphic formats — GIF, JPEG, PNG, etc — without ever calling your attention to it. You need to take some rather extraordinary steps to find out which format of the graphics on your screen right now are using. Unless you're a web developer, you probably don't even know what the different formats are, nor what their technical differences are. And you don't need to.

Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers and publishers


  1. As a developer who has worked on eBooks, let me say the following:

    1) HTML is… HTML.
    2) ePubs are collections of HTML files with a bit of extra structure.
    3) Mobipocket files, used for the Kindle, are ePubs that have been simplified slightly and compiled by a program that understands the notoriously arcane .mobi format (it’s called Kindlegen).

    Really, when you boil them down to basics they are more-or-less the same file.

    The exception to this parade of related eBook formats is the venerable PDF, which holds flow and layout information, and so presents static pages instead of reflowable ones. But in general, there are two ‘real’ eBook formats: PDF, and “some variant of HTML”.
    DRM only serves to provide levels of vendor lock-in, as well as whatever benefits may be stipulated by your preferred champion in the metric ton of arguments surrounding the whole piracy issue.

  2. Ill take Epub any day, but thats just my preferrence.

    Why is PDF still even an option? Why hasn’t it died? What useful niche does it fill?

    1. There are too many niches to count. Bear in mind that ePub is very limited in terms of typographical and layout control.

    2. Because pdf is formatting hard coded. The author or publisher wants it to look a specific way every time. epub is a “flow” format. The hardware or software reader reformats the content. Each has an advantage. Surprised someone cannot come up with a combined format container that uses either method depending on what the consumer wants at the moment on his or her device.

    3. The scientific community set PDF as the standard for publishing on the interwebs since the nineties, and once that’s set in stone, it’s very difficult to change or update.

      1. I suspect they originally aimed for Postscript, this by way of TeX.


        Most likely because of early solid support for formulas and such.

        The whole setup then basically guarantees that what you see is what comes out the other end of a printer.

    4. Every way of presenting text that isn’t a paragraph (eg tables, graphics, footnotes, etc) gets totally b0rked when ereaders reformat epubs to fit their screen size and the reader’s preferred font size. Not to mention the huge PITA of writing, say, mathematical notations, or even less-used typographical characters. PDF sets these in stone.
      For novels, however, epub is my preferred format as well, with a little bit of Calibre-assisted regexp to remove those pesky page-numbers. 
      (I read the slushpile for a French editor, so I get sent a lot of .doc and .pdf manuscripts. The regexp wizard in Calibre has done wonders for my reading experience).

  3. Having used Calibre, I’ve realized that converting one ebook format to another while making nice output is harder than you think. Though if you don’t have to worry about PDF it probably isn’t too bad.

    1.  I’ve never had a problem converting epub to mobi or vice versa – they convert flawlessly (IMO) without any fuss.

      PDFs… well that’s because it seems anytime I see a pdf it’s actually a scanned in document… and that’s most of the problem. 

      It is hard to believe that it costs all that much to convert a book to an ebook though.  I keep hearing this and imagine that they just don’t know enough about the new thing called the internet to really understand how to do it.

      1.  Here is a hint (for you publishers out there) – Hire Amazon’s mechanical turk service.

      2.  Take a paperback of said book and rip each page out.

      3.  scan said pages into files – one file per page.

      4.  Offer the turk … lets say 1 buck to convert said scan to typed page.

      5.  Offer the turk … say .25 per typo/error that is found reading typed results (compared to page).

      6.  Get finished output… in like 2-3 hours.

      7.  Take now typo free ebook and format however you want… yep this could still be your skunk in cost…

      8.  Profit?

      Seriously – how hard can it be to get an ebook that is 99% error free?

      1. You know, there’s a reason why publishers employ professional proofreaders. Spotting every typo in a 300-pages MS is hard, and untrained proofreaders tend to insert their own on top of the author’s, typesetter’s and agent’s. I don’t really think Amazon’s Turks are up to that particular challenge.
        A good crowdsourcing mechanism might be the answer, at least for authors with a large connected fanbase. Charlie Stross does it on his blog – makes posts like this one called “typo hunt” when one of his books goes from hardback to paperback. Don’t really now how well it works for him, but it’s practically free (you still have to spend time trawling through the comments). I also seem to recall Cory doing something similar for his recent essay collection “With a Little Help”.

        1. Exactly, it _is_ pretty hard. Publishers exist for a reason, self-published books are often full of typos and other errors. Cory tried the crowdsourcing approach with one of his books; some typos were reported and fixed, others weren’t fixed (it’s not easy for the author to process an avalanche of bug reports, especially when he’s prone to miss them even when reported), others were fixed for some formats/editions but never propagated to others, a great many still remain.
          A good editor and proofreader will increase a book’s quality tremendously.

          1.  You’re successfully arguing in favor of editors and proofreaders, not publishers. Self-publishers are learning the value of a good editor. Publishers will be going the way of newspapers and printed road maps.

  4. Dropping DRM across the industry would obviously cause the sky to fall.

    Yours truly,

  5. The article says all sorts of things about why DRM makes ebooks difficult for consumers to use, and how easy it is to circumvent DRM and use pirated copies instead.

    What I didn’t read was anything about how publishers are protected without it.

    I published an independent magazine from 1992-2000, and I want to relaunch as a digital magazine for tablets. The first step is to re-release our old issues, but if I were to put them out as unprotected PDFs, they’d get shared and enjoyed, but when would they be paid for?

    When we make new magazines, is our only option to load them up with massive amounts of ads so that we can afford to give them away for free? What about if we start publishing books? Those can’t have ads in them, or at least, I wouldn’t let them.

    I consider myself an avid reader, not 100-150 books a year avid, but 40 or so. I buy a paperback or a hardback, and it’s mine for as long as the paper survives (which is much longer than digital media survives, but that’s another story). I don’t have to worry about any of the problems with DRM, and the publisher doesn’t have to worry about me making a million copies to hand out on streetcorners.

    I agree with all the arguments for why the death of DRM would be good for readers, but I didn’t read an explanation of how it would help publishers.

    1. Do you expect to make a bunch of money on 20-year-old magazines? Is that a likely source of revenue for you? I mean, maybe the content is so good that people have a core group of fans clamoring for your zine to return, but that seems unlikely. And if there’s not a pre-existing group of paying fans, how do you expect new audiences to even find out that the content is any good? On the other hand, IF there is some good content in those old magazines, and you can get word out that your new venture is making this awesome content available, might you not sell a new generation of readers on the quality of your work by making it as widely available as possible?

      As for new magazines, yes, perhaps ads should be part of your business plan. Or, if it is important to you to be seen as independent from advertising, pitch your excellent quality content as something that your readers should consider supporting. The NPR model isn’t perfect, but they give the content away for free every day. Or just go ahead and charge for your magazines. Dropping DRM doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to charge money. Without DRM, sure, some people might share your content outside of your intended paid channels. Your fans will recognize that paying for the content is what supports future content creation. The others weren’t going to pay you anyway.

      The fact that DRM-death is good for readers means that it is good for publishers–publishers are in the business of serving their readers. Selling them files that they can’t be sure will always work for them, or that somehow compromises their systems in one way or another, is not in the service of your readers. Many of those would-be readers will choose to walk the other way if you treat them like dirt.

      1. The argument that it’s okay to steal if you weren’t going to buy something otherwise has never made any sense to me.
        I’m not saying that DRM is working as it now stands, but the fact that it’s flawed doesn’t lead to the conclusion that everything should be free.

        If you open a bookstore, and just across the street someone has all the same books on a table for free, why should anyone go into the store and pay for things? You’re suggesting that the honor system is a viable business model.

        If people aren’t interested in buying a book or a magazine, then it’s up to me as the publisher to put out a better product that they will buy. It’s not up to the reader to say “I don’t think it’s good enough to buy it, so I’ll just go download a pirated copy instead.”

        For the moment, DRM is the only method of enforcing that. It’s a shitty method, and needs to be changed. Removing all barriers to copying books and sharing them for free with the world isn’t the only answer. Maybe digital watermarking, if strong enough, would allow books to be free of file restrictions while still protecting the creators of the books, I don’t know.

        1. I made no claims that it’s “okay to steal”. I only mean to say that you should be realistic about what audiences are going to be willing to pay under any circumstances for the content you produce. And I do think that the honor system is a viable business model, one out of many that do not require DRM to function and profit. Seek out some of the many successful examples that have already been tried.

          DRM is not enforcing anything right now. It’s just an annoyance. But indeed, under a perfect DRM scheme that is unbreakable (good luck!) the reader who doesn’t think your content is good enough to buy is not going to say “I’ll just go download a pirated copy instead.” Instead they’re going to say “Oh look, here’s something else wonderful to look at!” Your main competition is not the pirates of your content. Your competition is the infinite variety of other options for content that are available to your would-be readers. Putting up barriers to those readers is not in your best interest. If you can develop an audience for your work you can figure out the method of supporting that work that works best for you, but first you need readers, and DRM is a good way to alienate and reduce the overall pool of potential readers.

    2. Your argument is that you can’t squeeze more money out of some old, tired project?  Well, you’re winning the argument, but maybe not for the side that you claim to espouse.

  6. Most people don’t really read books. A typical book buyer can be expected to buy a single book every year or so. On the other hand, a small minority are avid readers, the sort who’ll buy 100-150 books a year….

    …it’s likely that anyone who spends $100 or more on an ebook reading device is an avid book reader already…

    Just as a note, I don’t know if this is correlation exists. Sitting on the Toronto subway I see people with Kindles, but they’re exactly the same demographic that reads the lates, hottest books purchased from Chapters.  Those are the two or three book a year readers. I have no quantifiable reason to believe this, but from appearances, Ereaders remain a luxury and convenience product, and something of a status symbol both economically and intellectually.

  7. Absolutely.

    And if the industry is really that scared of Amazon, this is the way to beat them. If anyone can read any e-book on any e-reader, Amazon has lost its power.

    And when you get right down to it, publishers do have the whip hand here. They can inform Amazon of the format that Amazon’s readers will be required to support. There’s nothing Amazon can say about it. If they want to sell Stephen King, they have to get it from Scribner’s. They can’t go to the other Stephen King publisher down the street.

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