At the end of April, Tor Books, the world’s largest science fiction publisher, and its UK sister company, Tor UK, announced that they would be eliminating digital rights management (DRM) from all of their ebooks by the summer. It was a seismic event in the history of the publishing industry. It’s the beginning of the end for DRM, which are used by hardware manufacturers and publishers to limit the use of digital content after sale. That’s good news, whether you’re a publisher, a writer, a dedicated reader, or someone who picks up a book every year or two.
Like all DRM systems, ebook DRM presumes that you can distribute a program that only opens up ebooks under approved circumstances, and that none of the people you send this program to will figure out how to fix it so that it opens ebooks no matter what the circumstances. Once one user manages that, the game is up, because that clever person can either distribute ebooks that have had their DRM removed, or programs to remove DRM (or both). And since there’s no legitimate market for DRM – no readers are actively shopping for books that only open under special approved circumstances – and since the pirated ebooks are more convenient and flexible than the ones that people pay for, the DRM-free pirate editions drive out the DRM-locked commercial editions.
Most people don’t really read books. A typical book buyer can be expected to buy a single book every year or so. On the other hand, a small minority are avid readers, the sort who’ll buy 100-150 books a year. This market is one that publishers are eager to protect, and it’s likely that anyone who spends $100 or more on an ebook reading device is an avid book reader already. That’s why publishers spent so much time worrying about whether Amazon was discounting new ebook releases too deeply. Kindle owners overlap with avid readers, and avid readers are the target market for new, full-price hardcovers.
Discounting ebooks when the hardcover is just out is likely to cannibalise one of the critical profit-centres for the industry.
However, these readers are also the ones most likely to run up against the limits of DRM. They’re the customers who amass large libraries from lots of suppliers, and who value their books as long-term assets that they expect to access until they die. They may have the chance to change their ebook reading platform every year or two (the most common platform being a mobile phone, and many people get a new phone with each contract renewal). They want to be sure that their books travel with them. When their books don’t, they’ll be alienated, frustrated and will likely seek out unauthorised ways to get books in future. No one wants to be punished for their honesty.