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The Death of (the Debate Over) DRM

Smart and smartly written recent posts by Brett Sandusky and Jessie McDougall, and comments by Brian O’Leary following these posts, got me wondering again about the debate over eBook DRM–a debate that has going on for millennia when measured in digital book years. It’s a topic I’ve thought about first as a publisher and now as an industry observer, specifically, “What are the benefits and risks to publishers of going DRM-free.”

Every chance I get I like to ask folks in publishing to explain to me the possible rational(s) for sticking with DRM. The only coherent answer I’ve ever here goes like this:

While it’s true that DRM doesn’t really have anything to do with piracy, that’s really not the question. The question is, would causal file-sharing–which DRM-free eBooks would more readily allow–negatively affect sales.

Now how do you design a test for that? How do you prove that a loss of sales won’t occur? A true test of actual behavior isn’t possible and I don’t think a self-reported survey of consumer behavior will cut it. What makes it worse is that one has to ask if DRM is really an impediment to unit sales or price. Try testing that one.

I’m sure this is all pretty obvious stuff, but where does it leave us? I personally feel (not know) that the likely advantage of publishing DRM-free outweighs the possible loss of sales, especially for early movers who sell direct to consumer. If I were a publisher I would go that route if my authors were willing, but that’s neither here nor there.

To be honest, when I put myself in the publishers’ shoes, I find myself strangely sympathetic to their situation. The simple truth is when you run a business it is nearly impossible to make a decision–even if you feel in your bones like you must–that may fundamental and negatively affect your business model unless there is a clear, demonstrable, and predictable benefit. This difficulty is naturally more pronounced in large corporations than small businesses because of the fiduciary responsibility that CEOs have to stock-holders’ short-term interests that sole proprietors are not as encumbered by. It’s all very well and good for me to think publishers are cutting their own throats by sticking to DRM (which I do), but all I really know about DRM is I wouldn’t want to be the CEO of a major publishing house who has to try to explain to his board of directors and shareholders why DRM-free is the way to go right, especially at this point in the industry’s history.

What then about those smaller publishers who have gone DRM-free (or are soon too)?–including Harvard Business Review Press, Carina Press, O’Reilly, Baen, etc. Doesn’t their apparent success make it easier for other publishers to go the same route? Maybe not. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • The benefit to publishers of dumping DRM varies on genre. Most readers of commercial fiction don’t really care about DRM. But genres such as science fiction and fantasy, which readers collect, hoard, and reread are more appealing to customers if they are DRM-free; they own the files so it removes the anxiety that one’s library may disappear if your eBook retailer of choice goes belly up. Genres like technology and business are more valuable to their readers and tend to have higher list prices so eBook customers of these types of books may expect that they should be able read and shared these titles across many platforms with ease.
  • While Tor/Forge’s authors all seemed quite happy to have their eBooks available DRM-free, not all authors or agents feel the same way.
  • Publishers who actively sell direct-to-consumer will see direct benefits of the going DRM-free.

These variables combined with the decision-making dynamics of publisher both large and small make it very hard to evaluate whether going DRM-free makes sense in any particular case. For large publishers, if going DRM-free is seen by Amazon as a threat to the Kindle’s increased hegemony, the whole move may simply be a non-starter.

So, when and why will the debate over DRM die? Here are some possibilities:

Scenario 1: Major publishers have a profound change of heart about how to deal with Amazon’s increased market share and they go all in, investing in a niche-oriented direct-to-consumer strategy that hinges on selling DRM-free, making the whole debate go away. They’d be chaos and it might be a desperate move, it might be the way things go if the alternative clearly looks worse.

Scenario 2: Amazon comes to so dominate the print book and eBook market that their interest in platform protection sweeps aside any publishers who try to sell DRM-free. Publishers would then look more like content providers for Amazon and so have little business concerning themselves with DRM.

Scenario 3: More and more niche publishers go DRM-free, seeing a potential sales benefit either due to the genre distinctions above, because they want to expand their direct-to-consumer sales, or both. Seeing their competitors seemingly thriving, other smaller and medium-sized publishers to do the same. This then put’s additional pressure on the major publishers, who decide which books to publish DRM-free on a genre-by-genre basis. As more books are published DRM-free, customers come to expect that own their eBook files and ought to be able to share them and the major publishers move to a DRM-free model for all their publications.

 Regardless of the scenario and the outcome, my guess is that the death of DRM lies in the hands of publishers who are actively debating whether they can effectively sell direct to readers.

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One Response to “The Death of (the Debate Over) DRM”

  1. Spot on. Nice post.


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