Note To Publishers: DRM Costs You Money

I recently bought a cheap e-reader from Waterstone’s, and am very happy with it so far. I’ve been using it to read books from Project Gutenberg, papers from the Arxiv, ebooks from Baen, books by Charles Stross and so on.

One thing I will be doing very little of, unfortunately, is buying new books to read on it.

This is not because I don’t want to. I currently buy several new books a month, and one big advantage of using an ereader is that I don’t have to buy as many paper copies of books as before. My flat is fast filling up with large amounts of paper, and being able to fit several thousand books into something smaller than my hand is very convenient.

But the software my ereader uses, Adobe Digital Editions, doesn’t have a GNU/Linux version. This is slightly irritating, as all major ebook devices at the moment are based on GNU/Linux, so it would make sense for the software they use to run on GNU/Linux as well as Windows and Macs, but it’s not the end of the world – I probably wouldn’t want to run that software anyway, as I prefer Free Software (free as in speech, the Adobe software doesn’t cost anything financially). The PDF and ePub readers on my desktop PC aren’t the same software the ereader uses either, and that’s not a problem.

The problem is that the books you can buy from shops that sell in Adobe’s format (such as, and barnes and noble, to take some of the bigger examples) are almost all DRM’d, and require Adobe’s software to be installed on the computer on which you buy it.

This means that if I want to buy a book from Waterstone’s or somewhere, I have three options:
1) Buy the bulky, expensive, paper copy which will take “2-3 weeks” to get to me assuming it’s not lost in the post
2) Install WINE on my desktop, install Adobe Digital Editions in WINE (not supported by Adobe), buy the ebook, then – because you can’t synch a copy of Adobe Digital Editions in WINE with one on an e-reader) run a load of dodgy Python scripts you can find on the internet to (illegally) break the DRM and convert it into a normal ePub file, so I can read it on my e-reader. This involves breaking the law at least once, possibly twice, just to read a book I’ve paid for.
3) Just buy a different book, from the few retailers who do want my money.

It’s not like it’s impossible to release books for e-reading without DRM. The ePub and PDF files I sell through Lulu (and, I’m pretty sure, the Kindle copies of my books too) are all DRM-free. The music industry have already learned this lesson – I can buy any album I want, pretty much, as DRM-free MP3s which will work fine with any computer or device. The result of this is I’ve bought hundreds – possibly thousands – of legal MP3 albums in the last few years (since I’ve had the money, a fast internet connection, and a decent-sized hard drive). Even closer to the publishers’ wallets, I’ve spent the best part of a thousand pounds in the last four years buying audio dramas – fiction – from Big Finish, who again sell their books DRM-free. In fact, between the public domain and enlightened publishers who understand that turning away customers is a bad idea, there are enough books available to keep me reading for years without ever having to decrypt a DRM’d file.

As far as I can see all DRM on ebooks is doing is making life difficult for some customers and turning others away, while any book one could possibly want is freely available on torrent sites. The publishing industry should learn from the music industry, rather than repeating its mistakes.

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13 Responses to Note To Publishers: DRM Costs You Money

  1. Debi Linton says:

    I’ll be honest – I don’t understand the practical problem. I get the principle (LE) one , of course, as DRM is frequently problemmatic.

    Why does the operating system you are running on our desktop effect which books you buy to read on the e-reader? The only time I connect my B&N Nook to my PC is to transfer files I’ve created myself or downloaded from Freebooks.

    When I buy books, it’s from the inbuilt shop function on the Nook – don’t other e-readers have that? I would’ve thought it was the perfect way to ensure customer loyalty.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      This ereader doesn’t have a ‘shop’ function – it’s purely a storage device, not a networked one. In a lot of ways that’s good, as it doesn’t tie one to a particular vendor, but it does leave this problem.

      • Debi Linton says:

        Ah, thank you.

        When I was in the market, I was under the impression (not based on, y’know, actually looking, to be fair) that by choices were Kindle or Nook. I picked Nook because it reads epub, which Kindle doesn’t. The wifi connection and networked shop is standard for obvious reasons. ( I don’t mind giving B&N my money. We need one remaining large bookstore chain in business)

        I guess it’s lucky that just public domain books leave you with a large selection to choose from, but that’s kind of beside the point.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah, my choice was based on buying the cheapest one in Waterstone’s that would read ePubs and PDFs.

          I’d be more than happy to buy from B&N or Waterstone’s, if I could. Luckily there *are* a few sites that sell vanilla ePubs, but very limited compared to those big sites…

          • Debi Linton says:

            It really is a shame Nook isn’t available in the UK.

            But then, I’d take Spotify in an exchange ;)

            (If I had a mobile device on which it would play, which I don’t, so that’s academic)

            • Andrew Hickey says:

              Agreed on both points – we get to choose only between the Kindle (which I won’t buy – I’m not convinced enough that Amazon will act in good faith with their customers, and it won’t read ePubs), the Sony ereaders (which look OK, actually) or cheap no-brand ones like this.

  2. The reason the big publishers won’t release books without DRM is that they’re owned by large media conglomerates, who also own TV, music, and film businesses. Policy on electronic media is set at board level for the group, and the book publishers — who are relatively tiny — do as they’re told by the folks from the film and music biz.

    Every editor and publisher I’ve spoken to is aware of the way DRM is a nuisance to readers — they all have ebook readers — but for now, speaking out against it is a career-limiting move.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Sorry this got caught in my spam-trap. No idea why.
      And I get that – I’ve read all your posts on ebook publishing – it just seems absurd that now that the music parts of Bertelsmann or whoever are finally allowing DRM-free music to be sold, they’re insisting that the publishing arms make exactly the same mistakes.
      (Incidentally, thank you for making so much of your material available totally free. After reading your free stuff (via one of Andrew Ducker’s links) I went out and bought paper copies of Accelerando, the three Laundry novels, Halting State and Singularity Sky, so that’s another data point for the argument that the free stuff does work as a loss-leader).

  3. Pete Ashton says:

    While I sympathise 100% with your point, I’m not sure this makes a good economic argument. You could say relying on out of town shopping centres is costing IKEA money as people who chose not to have a car cannot spent their cash there, to which IKEA might reply the cost of being connected to a public transport infrastructure would force them to increase prices, and they’re doing okay with the car-owning majority as customers.

    The other arguments against DRM are sound, but saying publishers are losing money because they don’t cater to their GNU/Linux desktop owning customers is likely to get the reply “yes, but it’s not that much money and we can live without it.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I get your point, but I’d argue that there’s quite an overlap between GNU/Linux users and big readers. I think the average person buys something like two books a year – certainly when I looked at the Waterstones loyalty card form, they had tickyboxes which led me to believe they weren’t expecting anyone to buy more than about ten. I buy about a book a *week*. Not only that, I have poor impulse control, so if buying a book is just a couple of clicks you can probably expect that to double.
      I believe that the mean number of books read by GNU/Linux users would be closer to my number than to the national average – GNU/Linux users tend to be more comfortable with text (because GNU/Linux is most powerful on the command line), often in technical jobs which require a lot of reading to get up to date with the technology, usually highly-educated and so on. We also tend to be early adopters.

      So let’s assume the average GNU/Linux user buys half as many books as I do – say twenty-six. That still means that turning away one average GNU/Linux user is equivalent to turning away thirteen average Windows users.

      And not only that, it’s costing them money to do so. Implementing DRM costs money on every book they sell. I’ve yet to see any evidence that it reduces ‘piracy’ by a single copy. So even if it only loses them *one* customer, they’re still actually paying in order to lose that customer. This seems to me like a bad idea.

      • Errolwi says:

        I’m sure that DRM does nothing to stop outright piracy. What it does reduce significantly is casual sharing between friends and family, which in turn has some ‘positive’ impact on purchases by others. Whether this is more or less than lost revenue due to people being less willing to pay for books that they can’t lend easily is another matter.
        At least here in NZ it isn’t illegal to break DRM for otherwise legal purposes.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I’m pretty sure that would actually have a negative effect, rather than a positive one, though I’ve not seen any studies either way – I just know that I have often borrowed books from friends and ended up buying the rest of that author’s work (as well as, often, the book I borrowed)

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