Hachette to Tor authors: you must keep the DRM on your ebooks

You'll recall that Tor Books (and its sister science fiction imprints of Macmillan publishers around the world) has dropped DRM on all of its titles. Hachette, one of Macmillan's rivals in the "Big Six" pantheon of publishers, is famously pro-DRM (one Hachette author told me that her editor said that Hachette's unbreakable policy, straight from the top, is that no books will be acquired by Hachette if there are any DRM-free editions, anywhere in the world).

My latest Publishers Weekly column reports on a leaked letter, signed by Hachette's Little, Brown UK's CEO, that has been sent to authors whose books are published by both Tor and Hachette imprints in different territories. In the letter, Hachette instructs the author to demand that Tor leave the DRM intact on the books that both publishers produce, and warns that future contracts will require that authors who sign with Hachette in one territory only use pro-DRM publishers in other territories.

It's an astonishing combination of chutzpah and denialism:

I’ve just seen a letter sent to an author who has published books under Hachette’s imprints in some territories and with Tor Books and its sister companies in other territories (Tor is part of Macmillan). The letter, signed by Hachette’s Little, Brown U.K. CEO Ursula Mackenzie, explains to the author that Hachette has “acquired exclusive publication rights in our territories from you in good faith,” but warns that in other territories, Tor’s no-DRM policy “will make it difficult for the rights granted to us to be properly protected.” Hachette’s proposed solution: that the author insist Tor use DRM on these titles. “We look forward to hearing what action you propose taking.”

The letter also contains language that will apparently be included in future Hachette imprint contracts, language that would require authors to “ensure that any of his or her licensees of rights in territories not licensed under this agreement” will use DRM.

It’s hard to say what’s more shocking to me: the temerity of Hachette to attempt to dictate terms to its rivals on the use of anti-customer technology, or the evidence-free insistence that DRM has some nexus with improving the commercial fortunes of writers and their publishers. Let’s just say that Hachette has balls the size of Mars if it thinks it can dictate what other publishers do with titles in territories where it has no rights.

Doubling Down on DRM

Update: In a pair of tweets, the @HachetteUK account sends this correction: "Sorry to be a pedant, but in your DRM article you refer to Ursula Mackenzie as our UK CEO when in fact she is the CEO of Little, Brown UK, part of the HUK group. Our Group CEO is Tim Hely Hutchinson. Thanks."


  1. “We look forward to hearing what action you propose taking.” 

    I somehow don’t think they expect the answer to be, I’m going with a different company not bent on pissing off consumers.

  2. Why couldn’t you include some sort of DRM in order to honor future contracts in good faith and send everyone who buys the book (and publish it on the author’s website) the key to unlock the DRM?  It could be a simple phrase, like ‘Fuck you Hachette’ or ‘Fuck DRM’.  

    1. I can’t comment on the details of the contract; but when people demand ‘DRM’ they usually have something strong enough to expose the fangs of the DMCA(and foreign equivalents in suitably supine countries) in mind. Since the battle to actually build effective DRM has largely been lost(outside, perhaps, of the horrifying world of lockdown appliances), the preferred standard now seems to be ‘something we can hang a lawsuit on, ideally with some consumer-tracking ‘analytics’ sauce added…’

    2. That wouldn’t be honoring the agreement in good faith. A party to a contract can be liable if they take acts to undermine the contract in this manner. Rather than risk liability for breach, I’d just advise those authors to publish with someone other than Hachette. You hardly need a company like Hachette these days to begin with.

  3. Sounds like an ugly Hachette job to me.

    Seriously though, thanks for the heads-up.  Now I’ll know to avoid doing any business with Hachette.     

  4. I honestly don’t understand this way of thinking. I mean, I routinely strip the DRM off of all the amazon kindle books I buy. I don’t do it to distribute the books, I do it because I want to make sure I have a non-DRM copy for personal use. But it’s trivial to do this, the latest DRM removal software even has a GUI. I mean, even if there was perfect software and hardware control and this weren’t so easy, the analog hole on books is enormous.

    Given that, and given that it only takes *one* person to strip the DRM from a book and redistribute it, I’d say that requiring DRM on a book really only hinders authors and average users. It doesn’t prevent piracy, it even encourages it a teensy bit- as with software, a cracked copy with no copy protection is usually easier to use than the copy-protected one.

    1. I don’t understand this way of thinking.

      I have a Kindle, but I have opted never to spend even one cent on content that is protected by DRM.  I borrow books from Amazon’s Kindle lending library,  check out ebooks from my public library, and download free books from Amazon.  I won’t spend money supporting a business model that includes DRM.

      If you’re buying books and stripping out the DRM, aren’t you effectively telling Amazon that DRM is OK?

      1. It’s a tough balance. There are books I’d like to read. I have a choice between:

        1) stealing them via torrents
        2) getting them from a library (my public library has a cruddy selection)
        3) hoping the book exists in the kindle lending library
        4) actually getting the book from the library
        5) buying the book in DRM format
        6) buying the book in dead-tree format
        7) not reading that particular book

        In options (2) and (3), I can still strip the DRM and keep the book indefinitely. As a tangential question: if I do so, is it wrong?

        I’m not doing (6). Dead-tree format is effectively the ultimate expression of DRM these days. You don’t have any capability to format-shift without a serious investment in time and possibly money (high-quality rapid scanner).(4) is pretty unlikely as well- while my library (san francisco) has a good selection, it is spread all over the city in little libraries. Which is fun for visiting a library and browsing, but means that if I want a specific book, I have to order it and wait. 

        So, given the choice, I’m basically having to decide between stealing the book (or effectively stealing it by pulling it from a lending source but reading it outside of the timebombed file, which is just as DRMed, and just as much of a statement that DRM is okay to places like Amazon, especially since to get the good lending library access you’re paying for Prime), and buying a DRMed copy.

        I figure with the DRMed copy, the author is probably getting some amount of money. I know a few authors (and librarians, and copylefters, and so-on), and don’t feel particularly “right” about any choice, but feel least wrong about the DRM purchase.

        1.  Author royalties are significantly higher on e-books than on print copies. Confronted with options that deprive a creator of income, I think that buying a DRM’d e-book and then stripping it for personal use is the most supportive thing you can do. Publisher, seller, and writer get their due, you get an authorized copy, the stripped copy is not publicly accessible, and the income potential is not attenuated.

        2. “In options (2) and (3), I can still strip the DRM and keep the book indefinitely. As a tangential question: if I do so, is it wrong?”

          Is it wrong? IMHO, no, but it could be illegal, especially with respect to the maximalist copyright agenda the US is pushing in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

          See, for example, EFF’s analysis of TPMs in TPP: https://www.eff.org/node/58380

          It’s of particular concern in New Zealand since our copyright law currently allows circumvention of TPMs if the purpose is for otherwise non-infringing use, but the US position is largely that circumvention of TPMs is never permitted.


          1. And to extend to the even more unsound: My mate is happy to lend me his dead tree edition of a book.

            Can it be moral to borrow the book, but download a copy and read the downloaded version, without cracking the spine? Exactly as much money changes hands.

          2. @twitter-188896634:disqus  – best comment on this thread!Very good question. Personally I think people should be able to have digital non-drm’d copies of all their legit or borrowed (e.g. from library) books stored on their home systems. If you buy a book, publisher should give you a code so you are forever able to redownload it in case you lose it or want to view it on a different device. Direct sales from an author would mean there is little reason not to tell someone to go to the author’s site. 

            In other words I would like to see ebook readers be able to use an open standard to buy directly from authors not just to amazon via your kindle (which is such an amazing instant satisfaction). The nice thing about amazon is it helps you discover books you didn’t know were there. But what we really need are ebook readers that are not specific to a single storefront like B&N, Amazon or Apple. It would also be nice to get RSS feeds on such readers from authors, libraries and brick and mortar bookstores.

            I think if you borrow an ebook from a library, you should be able to keep a copy yourself too and not feel sneaky about doing what is natural and conducive to learning and  allowing libraries to buy books from more authors. In other words, library buys enough books to lend x simultaneous instances (copies), and say an instance gets reserved for 1 week when checked out. There is no need to expire books on the user side. Similarly I don’t see moral issues with sharing books between friends and family. It’s what books are for.

        3. “Dead-tree format is effectively the ultimate expression of DRM these days”
          okay, so you can’t copy it easy. But you can still lend or sell it to other people, or give it away, draw in it, use it for other purposes not specifically allowed by the copyright holder, even alter it! In short: You can OWN it. DRM-protected digital stuff isn’t like that, it’s more like “you have the right to read this, as long as we don’t change our minds”. I see a distinct difference there.

        4. Dead tree is absolutely not DRM.

          You don’t need a specific brand of loupe to read it. You can lend it to whoever you want. Give it to whomever you want. Offer it for sale for whatever price you want (and eventually find a buyer at that price).

          You can copy it (within the confine of the law) using copying mechanisn: photocopy, scanner + OCR, etc.

          It will not expire. It will not become unreadable when the publisher or author disappear.

          And it is the same item whether you buy it at mom and pop corner store or brick and mortar. And you can order it from a foreign country too. Reseller will ship it to you.

      2. Not all ebooks Amazon sells have DRM. Tor’s, for example, don’t.

        Amazon provides DRM only where publishers demand it. Vote with your wallet; buy from Tor and pirate/get from the library/just don’t read Hachette.

          1. Well, all of Tor’s non-DRM titles include a line to that effect in the book’s description. The same is true on bn.com, Apple’s iBookstore, and the other retailers, to the best of my knowledge.

        1. That’s why Amazon sold book that where explicitely without DRM with DRM?

          Amazon has a strong interest in keeping DRM alive. They are one of the few that rip the benefit from it with the lockin. And people don’t realise the danger of the situation. When you don’t have the choice but to buy from Amazon… it will be too late.

      3. That’s me. Have Kindle, only use DRM-free books. Despite giving so many moneys to Amazon for other things, I have not once purchased a DRM Kindle book.

        Also, technically the lending library is DRM’d, but I don’t “pay” for that directly. It’s just a side benefit of already having Amazon Prime.

        1. So all your favorite living authors can just come and crash at your place just before they starve to death, eh? 

          1. “Non-sequitur lovers society — we don’t make sense, but we sure love pizza!”
            Seriously, in what sense is your comment even related to the comment you replied to? Hint, “only use DRM-free books” is not the same as “steal books”. 

  5. I don’t find Hachette’s behaviour at all surprising. If they subscribe to the “DRM protects our profits” mind-set, why wouldn’t they get all knicker-twisted about non-DRM copies being made available elsewhere? In their world, there’s a leak in the boat.

  6. “(one Hachette author told me that her editor said that Hachette’s unbreakable policy, straight from the top, is that no books will be acquired by Hachette if there are any DRM-free editions, anywhere in the world).”

    I have some bad news for them, there already are  “DRM-free editions of their books, everywhere in the world”. They’re just not for sale, you have to get them for free. 

    Also, their out-dated imperial mindset is clearly demonstrated by their use of ‘territories’ to describe the global market.

    1. Not only that, but people like me are out here – I’ll buy it if I can get a DRM free copy.  If it’s only available commercially with DRM on it, I’ll probably just grab a pirated copy.  If after reading it I decide that it’s a really good book, I’ll see if I can get a copy from someone that at least has easily breakable DRM so I can get some money to the author.
      Honestly I’d prefer to just have a micropayment system to go directly to the author.

      1. Micropayments would be nice, but that failing IMO your best bet is buy a sliced tree edition. You can always give it to a friend, or your local library, if you don’t want to occupy your own shelf space. I prefer this to the “easily breakable DRM” option since you don’t end up supporting a corrupt business model.

      2. Honestly I’d prefer to just have a micropayment system to go directly to the author.

        If I wrote a book, I would want to hand the manuscript to a publisher and forget about it.  So that I could write my next book.

        There’s a kind of underlying assumption in some of this discussion that authors have the ability or willingness to take charge of the business end of publishing.  I would hate to see what kind of shit books we’d be reading if only business savvy authors got their works out there.

        1. Amen. Publishers can add value. I work at a “big 6” publishing house and I’ve long thought that this whole DRM/pricing kerfuffle just makes it clear that average readers don’t understand what publishing companies do. 

          1. Please, edify us! I for one would even be interested in seeing such a point of view put forward as a boingboing story rather than a comment in this thread.

          2. @boingboing-b2b956df266aa7b5e4f9f0aa4f27afa4:disqus I would be happy to talk to you about this but Disqus has decided that this back and forth is too long. Can you somehow message me?

  7. I kinda blame the authors. If they weren’t so egotistic in wanting to hawk their warez, they should stand up and find a better publisher.

    1. You can’t blame authors who have an existing relationship with a publisher for that publisher’s subsequent crazy policy changes. I’m guessing that many writers, at least when they are starting out, are just grateful to find *anyone* who will publish their work. Finding a better publisher probably comes later.

      But at least now more authors know that one possible better publisher is Tor. 
      Hachette’s DRM-obsession is probably irrational, since the vast majority of their possible readers don’t know or care about DRM, and it therefore won’t affect their sales AT ALL. But it’s a clear sign that they intend to be a controlling dick about everything in their contractual relationships, so writers should beware before signing up with them.

    2. You have never read Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi or Charlie Stross criticizing DRM. While Cory managed to put in agreement that he can redistribute his books in Creative Commons (so that you can buy whenever and get the electronic copy if you feel inclined to do so), John Scalzi or Charlie Stross didn’t. Yet they have been opposing DRM strongly and where celebrating and happy when Tor made a decision. Scalzi’s latest book was the first to be published DRM free by Tor, and he even offered to send the DRM free version when reseller like Amazon, Google, Kobo and Apple didn’t respect the agreement to drop the DRM.

    3. Sure, because writers have all the power and are in a position to pick and choose from among a burgeoning wealth of publishers eager to hear how they should run their own business.

    4. Those greedy authors. It’s like they want to eat THREE times a day! And look at the fancy writer, living under a roof. What an ago on her! 

  8. It is darkly humorous how a technology whose rhetoric focuses on protecting property rights inevitably ends up swiftly and arrogantly trampling upon the property rights of others (‘consumers’ in the greatest numbers; but also those ‘creators’ who content redistributors are always alleging the greatest concern for…)

    Yes, I’m afraid that protecting my rights to redistribute your works in a single format and region will require retroactive veto power over all contracts you may wish to make in all other regions of the world. This makes perfect sense, no?

  9. Dear Hachette people.
    If you managed to get your noses out of the accounts books, you would realise that for quite some time now, people who have *bought* books have been able to lend them to other people, at no extra cost, or give them away or sell them.
    So I would suggest that you remove yourself from the printed books market, in order to ensure that only the buyer can read what was purchased from you.

  10. Man, I feel awful for the people in charge of Orbit. They do some really good books, and the industry is not at all going to be happy with this.  It’s not a big industry, and if the Overlords at Hachette keep pushing this line, Orbit is the group most likely to suffer.

    Which really translates into Orbit authors taking the hit for the most part.

  11. Hiya Cory.  I read this article to Misty, and she was astonished of course, but then I brought this up:

    What’s the angle?
    What if this isn’t an utterly boneheaded move?

    Check this… authors have a power called a “contract breaker,” and while nasty, it pretty much works every time. An author’s agent ropes them into, say, a six book deal with a publisher.  Things go sour with that publisher and the author wants out. The author can crank out—and turn in—a book so very bad that the publisher would be harmed in every important way (prestige, money, money, and money) by publishing it. So the publisher has to break that 6-book contract in its entirety by not accepting or publishing the foul book.

    So here’s the twist.

    What if Hachette is doing the equivalent of a contract breaker shakedown, here, only not from the author’s side?

    They will have a pretense for chucking out anyone they don’t want to keep.  They’ll get a clear view of who their enemies are by who piles on (the troll gambit).  And, just as importantly, they get a head count on precisely who will make noise, who will stay loyal to them no matter what, and, who’s easy to push around.

    I mean, I’ve been in publishing for 20-some years and that kind of maneuver wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Entertainingly, I expect corporations to be brilliant and evil, not amazingly stupid, so I tend to suspect ulterior motives. It’s a good mental exercise.

    1. Hachette does not micromanage imprints like that as far as I know. It’s possible, but I expect the people working there (some of whom I do know) would resist.  

  12. None of the books I read have any DRM whatsoever. I have to return some to the library, of course. The rest I got at a used bookstore, so they were cheap. Lending these books to my friends is usually pretty easy, too: “Here you go buddy, enjoy the book.” “Thanks, pal!”

      1. No no, that’s SOCIALISM!! (git a rope)

        Oh God, protect us from those evil socialisms and we will pay you full market value for said protection as well as S&H, but no applicable taxes or duties, cause that’s SOCIALISM!!

    1. I don’t like Apple’s approach… but please bring content to those figures. Apple desktop market (which is these figures) is very specialist, most of their stuff is ipods and ipad (as the page intro states)

      1. I did bring context: they killed their own desktop market by their exclusivity. The specialist part of it has nearly disappeared over the years as Windows programs’ influence has grown in those areas.

        What about those other products you mention? The iPod and iPad are different markets and different products from what I was talking about and initially grew because they’re so good, which make my point: without an absolutely superior product, exclusivity hurts, not helps. 

        However, the tide is changing there, too: there are signs now that they’re going to lose a good part of the iPad market as other makers (Android-based, mainly) catch up, because of their closed system. Time will tell on that one. First, iTunes had to abandon selling only Apple’s exclusive music format to keep their positon, and now iPods are quickly being replaced by phones, and iPhones are now the ones playing catch-up where two years ago it was the other way around. People who bought into Apple’s DRM’d .aac format will be the biggest losers; those of us who realized protectionism doesn’t work? My 10,000-tune library is doing just fine, thank you. Right now, one single Android maker, alone, sells more phones than Apple: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2012/07/29/samsungs-galaxy-beats-iphone-idc-report-says/ That sounds like losing to me.

        Does Hachette have an absolutely superior product now; and can they keep it with their current policy? Apple’s history says “no” to the second question. If the first is also a “no”, they don’t have a chance. I would imagine it’s much easier to lose authors than re-attract them after you’ve screwed them.

        1. They killed nothing. Today, they make more money with the Mac than other vendor make money with their PCs. What they killed is the Mac clones that were eating their profits and marketshare in hardware space. Remember IBM? They used to make IBM PC computers.

          But this is not DRM. This is just like exclusive right that a publisher get for content. So best-sellers only profit the publisher that have the exclusive. The differentiator is there.

    2. Yeah, Apple’s business model has clearly hurt the company. Maybe they should bring in HP’s CEO to help them with that problem they have of drowning in cash.

    1. Some of us only read paper books. Enough to make it a multi-billion dollar industry.

  13. I gotta admit, it’s refreshing to see them honestly copping to how it’s about protecting ‘their rights’ (pedantically, their license), and not YOUR revenue stream.

    The appropriate response is:

    “Thank you for your concern in protecting my work. I trust that your DRM vendor, as well as the DRM applied by your extra-territorial peers is sufficiently robust to stand up to the task. In that light, should I agree to across the board protection of my work, I should expect recompense of 3x my advance, should the DRM fail to meet the challenge, and my work winds up in the usual piratic harbors.


  14. A questionably relevant correction and a deeply insincere apology for something irrelevant count as a stirring refutation of Corey’s entire article, right?

  15. Let me keep it simple without all the moral claims being made in other posts: Dear Hachette, it takes about 5 seconds to strip DRM from an e-book. You’re wasting effort and generating ill-will. Sincerely, a legit high-volume book consumer.

  16. Dear Hatchette,

    Do not renew any contracts I have with you. I am taking a hiatus until they expire. Do not expect any further submissions from me.

    Arthur Author

  17. But by pirating the book you are not recording your action, and thus not “voting with you wallet.” You are ducking the issue and stealing the book. I support piracy for a number of reasons, and do not consider it theft in many ways. But if you know you want something, and secretly take it without paying for it, you are stealing. The “voting with your wallet” argument is hollow. Do not buy it. Send the publisher a letter expressing your reasoning. If you don’t let them know, you’re just stealing the chickens from the coop.

  18. I get so sick of reading these comments that assume that Hachette is run by a bunch of morons stuck in the stone age.  There is a reason they came up with this terrible policy, and it’s not hard to guess at.  Take the case where Tor publishes a book in the US and Hachette publishes that same book in the UK.  Now if you’re a reader in the UK, and you are going to buy a digital copy, you have two choices – you can buy Hachette’s edition (in pounds, for a higher price), or you can buy Tor’s edition (in dollars, for a lower price).  You’re probably going to buy the Tor edition, even though you aren’t “supposed” to due to territory restrictions.  But do readers care about territory restrictions?  The author still gets a royalty, and the reader saves some money.  Macmillan gets paid and Hachette doesn’t.  Do you see how this scenario makes it hard for Hachette’s digital publishing to survive in the UK?  I’m not saying that DRM is the answer, (an alternate solution would be to price the UK edition competitively with the US edition) but can you really blame Hachette for not wanting their digital UK business to die off?

    1. What part of not understanding that digital markets don’t have borders and that they had better figure out how to deal with that in a way that doesn’t come back and bite them does not indicate that Hachette is not run by a bunch of morons stuck in the stone age?

      [sorry about all those nots. :-) ]

      1. See my response to Cameron McClure. For good or ill, e-book markets _do_ currently have borders. Which is why the rationale being suggested here — that UK readers will flock to buy the DRM-free US ebook — doesn’t actually hold water. By and large, the e-retailers won’t sell it to them.

        As to whether it’s sensible for book publishers, in 2012, to continue dividing the market up into geographically-based “territories,” well, that’s another discussion and a much larger one. But the scenario in which a UK publisher loses e-book sales to DRM-free editions _of the same titles_ published in the US by a US publisher…basically doesn’t work under the current arrangements, whatever anyone’s opinion of those arrangements.

    2. I don’t understand your argument. You’re saying that Hachette sells its edition for a higher price (dollars-to-dollars). But why? It’s the same set of words. Formatting? The hundreds of Kindle ebooks I’ve read can hardly be said to have formatting.

      So for what reason would Hachette sell its edition for a higher price other than artificial price-setting? Where’s the value added? Why would Hachette duplicate, at a higher price, what Tor sells, and then why should I be surprised that a reader selects the lower priced option?

    3. The problem is that, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether Hachette is stupid or evil. Either way, they are attempting to impose worldwide conditions(on ‘territories’ for which they haven’t bought exclusive rights, in their rather retrograde view) on authors, in the attempt to degrade the quality of ebooks worldwide to the same level as the crippled ones they are selling in the UK in order to prop up their market there. That’s not pretty.

      Honestly, stupidity would be the most flattering option here. The alternative is self-interested evil so malignant that I hope the whole enterprise founders.

    4. “but can you really blame Hachette for not wanting their digital UK business to die off?”

      Yes, since they have nobody but themselves to blame. 

    5. You’re right that readers don’t care about territory restrictions. And in fact American readers can buy British dead-tree books all they like, and vice-versa. This has been the case since long before Amazon existed.

      But this mostly _isn’t_ the case in the e-book business, at least for now. If an American reader tries to buy a British e-book whose publisher doesn’t hold US rights, Amazon will generally refuse to sell it to them. Yes, there are ways around this — get a credit card in the other country, etc. But they all require a non-casual amount of effort.

  19. Before commenting, I spent a little time reviewing recent court cases involving attempts to enforce regional distribution agreements, that is to say, to prevent grey market sales that bypass exclusive distribution agreements. IANAL, and all of the cases I could easily find specifically related to retail sales of goods that had previously been sold wholesale, but it has been a lot of years since any court (that I could find) has ruled that a regional distribution contract or law was enforceable.

    Of course, to find that out, we’d have to have one or more authors that were willing to go to court against a publishing conglomerate, and who could afford to do so. But it looks to this layman’s eyes like Little, Brown isn’t just on morally dubious ground here, they’re on legally dubious ground.

  20. That correction is quite reassuring.  At least they’re concerned about their C-level personnel, even if they’re not terribly concerned about the viability of their business model.

  21. They were a client of “anti-piracy” firm BayTSP for some time, sending DMCA notices far and wide.  They were/are big fans of DRM and in general showed very little understanding of how little they would likely gain from such wastes of energy (as said previously, it just generates ill-will not revenues). 

  22. I’m trying to think about why they would do that, while assuming they are reasonably rational.  

    All I can come up with is that they want DRM to prevent people from buying  ebooks from foreign publishers and reading them in the USA, different parts of the world have their editions priced differently and they’re afraid that a publisher will undercut their pricing leading to lost sales.  

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