Publishers & Authors Begin Editing Opinions on eBook DRM

Escape eBook DRM

Merging the growing trend of Mac software bundles popularized by sites such as MacHeist and MacUpdate and the “pay what you want” mentality of sites such as the The Humble Music Bundle, a new promotion called StoryBundle offers to give readers an opportunity to purchase several well-reviewed DRM-free eBooks for as little as $1.

The site gives customers the option of not only what to pay, but also how to divide that payment between the authors and StoryBundle itself. Using a sliding scale, customers can choose a whole dollar value between $1 and $100 as their payment for the books. Pay between $1 and $6 and customers receive five eBooks. Pay $7 or more and two additional books are included as a bonus.

The notion of a low-priced bundle of eBooks is interesting on its own, but I was struck by how the DRM-free nature of the books mirrors a growing trend by publishers and independent authors to make their products easily available on multiple platforms and escape the stranglehold they fear Amazon holds on the market.

Just like the battle over DRM’d music, DRM’d eBooks often lock a customer into a particular ecosystem. In the case of Amazon, its customers, absent some legal gray-area trickery, are stuck in the Kindle world. Amazon and competitors such as Barnes & Noble have taken steps to increase customer access to their books via native or web-based apps on other platforms, but customers are still forced to accept only the solutions those eBook vendors provide. Enjoy the iBooks interface and want to use it read your eBooks purchased from Amazon? Tough luck.

Unlike the music DRM battle, however, many publishers are quickly waking up to the potential pitfalls of ecosystem-restrictive DRM, not just for the sake of consumers but also as a strategic tool to combat Amazon’s market dominance.

Earlier this year, science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor announced that it was removing DRM from its entire eBook catalog, one of the first major publishers to do so.

“Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time,” Tor president and publisher Tom Doherty said at the announcement. “They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another.”

Shortly thereafter, the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) announced that it was creating a new option for its member publishers to sell their eBooks DRM-free.

“We work hard to interest readers in our authors. If DRM sours that relationship, then as a publisher, we must trust that readers will respect authors by only copying e-books for their private use,” David Caron, co-publisher of ECW Press, an IPG-distributed publisher, said at the time.

Other DRM-free eBook publishers include O’Reilly and Double Dragon, along with many smaller publishers and distributors.

While any eBook publisher executive would quickly declare that removing DRM is strictly for the benefit of their customers, the truth has more to do with Amazon than customer happiness.

When Apple launched the iBookstore in 2010, it struck deals with major publishers that limited the opportunity for companies like Amazon to offer eBooks as heavily discounted loss leaders, something that had up until then given Amazon a potential monopoly in the market. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a lawsuit initiated against Apple in May, labeled Apple’s and its publisher partners’ move as “price fixing.”

Conversely, some publishers, analysts, and politicians argue that Apple’s agreement with publishers was a necessary step to restore the balance of power between authors, publishers, and vendors. While three of the publisher-defendants in the DOJ’s suit have already settled, the case continues against Apple and the remaining publishers.

Beyond Amazon’s ability and willingness to sell eBooks at a loss, the mere timing of Amazon’s entry into the eBook market plays an important role. Despite years of attempts from companies like Sony, Amazon was the first to truly popularize eBooks on a large scale and, as a result, many eBook customers were introduced to the format via Amazon and the Kindle.

DRM Free eBooks

With the market now further matured and competing companies such as Apple and Barnes & Noble wielding credible eBook software and devices, Amazon customers, especially those who invested heavily in eBook purchases early on, are hesitant to change platforms. While those customers could always purchase a new device from each distributor, purchasing and maintaining multiple devices is a poor solution, and even a multi-functional device like an iPad is not ideal for customers on a budget or who prefer the easier-to-read E Ink screen.

For many eBook customers, each additional DRM’d eBook purchased decreases customer mobility between providers and platforms. Remove the DRM, or agree on a universally compatible DRM, and the constraints on customer mobility disappear.

Many publishers recognize this reality and, via major changes to their distribution model or via independent sales like those at StoryBundle, are fighting to make the change. While Amazon and other major eBook providers may initially resist, the end result will not only be good for consumers but for the overall health of the eBook market as well.

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