Well… I’ve been in another noisy argument about whether or not to apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) to our eBooks. Actually, it was more than a mere argument; I recently took part in the sort of passionate debate that used to be the province of theological battles and political squabbles.
New proverb: don’t discuss religion, politics, or DRM at a party.
DRM is applied to an eBook file to protect it from different forms of “piracy” — making (and distributing) multiple copies of an eBook is the most obvious kind of theft. There are several DRM schemes out there; most involve content encryption and an additional “wrapper” of coding that’s added to the eBook file.
DRM-ing an eBook typically creates an “island of compatibility.” An eBook with DRM protection can only be read on the specific eReader devices — of one particular flavor — that you’ve registered with the eBook distribution platform (e.g. Kindle, Nook, Apple iBook).
Choosing whether or not to DRM an eBook is ultimately the publisher’s (or self-publisher’s) decision. There’s a box to check — or uncheck — when you upload the appropriate source file to your eBook distribution platform(s).
Given the intense advocacy for and against DRM-ing, the decision isn’t an easy one.
For starters, let me say that my recent debate opponent was not a late-blooming novelist. In my experience, it’s hard to get mature authors riled up over DRM.
On the one hand, most late bloomers share an almost visceral commitment to protect the intellectual property they create. (We seem to get more annoyed off than any other category of authors when/if we discover that our novels have been pirated.)
On the other hand, many late bloomers are pragmatists who intentionally forgo DRM because they…
- Worry that DRM will negatively impact eBook sales.
- Use Smashwords as their eBook distribution platform, and Smashwords doesn’t provide a DRM option. In fact, the company argues that not applying DRM is a virtue.
Having “mixed emotions” about protecting their eBooks probably explains why late blooming novelists tend to choose one route or the other without becoming vocal advocates of either path.
For the record, let me say that I favor DRM protection. All our eBooks are DRM-ed. I’ll explain why in the paragraphs that follow, but I won’t try to prove that I’m right. I especially don’t want to trigger a serious debate here — although I’d love to see lots of replies that present different viewpoints.
My decision was based on a simple observation. Few owners of eReader devices seem to know — or care — about DRM. (We’ve never received a single complaint.) The days are long over when DRM caused usability issues and eReader crashes, so there’s really no reason for a customer to reject DRM unless s/he has “untoward designs” on an eBook file.
Bottom line: DRM is essentially transparent to a law-abiding consumer.
The claim that customers automatically reject DRM-protected books might have been true five years ago, but I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s true today. I also find it hard to believe that applying or not applying DRM will have any impact on the “buzz” that creates a best-selling novel. Consider: virtually every eBook sold by a traditional publisher is DRM-ed, including lots of blockbusters.
One well-publicized exception is O’Reilly, a leading publisher of books about technology. They don’t DRM — and have done well. But so have lots of publishers who do DRM.
I admit that I can’t prove that DRM-ing our books didn’t cost us sales. But neither can the anti-DRM folks prove that leaving an eBook unprotected will increase sales. The evidence to support this “strategy” is anecdotal at best, and boils down to personal opinion.
I opted to DRM our novels even though I know that DRM is fairly easy to defeat. A technically savvy person can quickly find (on the Internet) “hacking” software to remove DRM.
I decided that although DRM is useless against a determined intellectual property pirate, it will prevent “good-intentioned” thievery by “well-meaning” people who see nothing wrong with providing free copies of eBooks to their friends, their students, or the members of their book club. (I’m skeptical that “honor system” statements — e.g. please be a good person and don’t copy this book — can stop this kind of pilfering.)
The one anti-DRM claim that did get me thinking was the notion that eBook piracy is a good thing. The idea is that stealing an eBook is just another form of sampling and/or lending — free book promotion that should be encouraged, because it helps to build a novelist’s readership base.
In the end, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. We’ll try to prevent piracy and use traditional book promotion techniques to build our readership base.
And so, we do DRM. Do you?