Tor founder Tom Doherty on publishing without DRM


Two years ago, Tor Books, the largest sf publisher in the world (and publisher of my own books) went DRM-free; yesterday, Tor's founder and publisher Tom Doherty took to the stage to explain why he dropped DRM from his books. Doherty spent some time talking about the business outcomes of life without DRM (in short, there's no new piracy of Tor books as a result of publishing without it), but really focused his talk on the community of readers and writers, and their conversation, and the role Tor plays there. Doherty's philosophy is that books get sold by being part of a wider context in readers' lives -- being something they talk and think about and share, and that DRM just gets in the way of that.

Meanwhile, Hachette -- publishing's most ardent DRM advocate -- and Amazon continue to duke it out in a ghastly and abusive public spat in which Amazon is attempting to extort deeper discounts from Hachette by de-listing, delaying and obfuscating its titles. If Hachette books were DRM free, the company could announce an "Amazon-refugee discount" of 10% of all its ebook titles at Google Play, Ibooks, and Barnes and Noble, and offer a tool to convert your Kindle library to work on one of those other players. But because Hachette allowed -- insisted! -- that Amazon put its own DRM on Hachette books, the only company that can authorize converting Amazon Kindle titles to work with other readers is Amazon.

Good luck with that.

Doherty spent a good portion of the speech discussing the community that these arguments exist within: a publishing community that consists of all levels of participant, from “bookseller, author, reader, and semi-pro.”

As it turned out, framing DRM within this larger context was quite intentional and key to understanding the motives behind the move. Publishing, Doherty argued, has always been a community of support and conversation, driven and refreshed by the excitement generated by the authors and their stories. During the speech, the publisher related a story about how the success of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time was built on the excitement that every aspect of that publishing community brought forth:

“...like any #1 fan, I just wanted the whole world to know about this story, this world [Jordan] was creating. From page one of Jordan’s first Wheel of Time book “The Eye of the World,” at about the length of a novella, there was a natural breakpoint. To that point there was a satisfying story that really involved me. There was no way I was going to stop there and I didn’t think others would either. So we printed I think it was 900,000, long novella-length samplers, and gave them to booksellers in 100-copy floor displays to be given free to their customers. We gave them to fans with extras to give to friends, to semi-pros, and readers at conventions and anyone in the publishing community who we thought would feel the excitement that we felt. [...] We’re a community of many people, many of them here to talk about the stories that we find to be terrific.”

And from there you get #1 New York Times bestselling writers like Brandon Sanderson, notably inspired by The Wheel of Time. You get communities like Tor.com, where readers have been talking non-stop about the fiction that excites them. You get authors like Jo Walton finding new fans by engaging in a substantive manner with those communities. Although we now have digital spaces to house this kind of interaction, it has always been taking place in the physical spaces of the science fiction/fantasy publishing community, Doherty argued. It is, in fact, “a connection they make naturally. Barriers, whether it’s DRM or something else, disrupt these natural connections.”

Removing Roadblocks to Community: Tom Doherty on DRM at Book Expo of America [Chris Lough/Tor.com]

Notable Replies

  1. And you get loyal readers like me -- someone who refuses to buy "books" that have an unknowable expiration date and who refuses to work around it by breaking even stupid laws like the DMCA anti-circumvention provisions.

    I have books in this house older than the United States (some by centuries). Still perfectly readable as originally published. I refuse to conspire in breaking that literary chain of culture.

  2. I remember when the perpetual second fiddle Sci-Fi publisher Baen brought out their DRM free eBook store. At the time I think they were the only one in the industry who did it, and everybody thought they were nuts. They would even give full CDs full of books away for free. All of the other publishers, if they were doing eBooks at all, were pushing their own proprietary eBook readers with uniformly horrible DRM. The industry consensus was that Baen would be pirated to death in a year.

    A couple of years later Baen was the only company making money on eBooks and everybody else had lost a bunch of money on expensive DRM solutions. Of course most of the publishers still wouldn't go along with the no-DRM idea, it was just too crazy.

    Sadly, Amazon came along and bailed them out instead of forcing them to see that DRM is inherently self destructive, and now Amazon has them by the balls.

  3. Of course, it is beyond trivial for anyone who knows how to type words into a keyboard, to circumvent Amazon's (et al) DRM schemes and freely convert their titles to their hearts content, even on Amazon's very own eReaders.
    Uhm, or so I heard :smiley:

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