This post was prompted by the complaints of a friend on Facebook about the DRM on a review copy of an ebook he had been sent to cover. Not a fan of ebooks at the best of times, he was driven to protest long and hard about the struggles he had been put to to actually open and read the book. I’ve had similar and worse experiences.

piracyOne leading publisher responded to a request for a review copy for TeleRead by sending me a download link, which, after an involved login procedure, prompted me to install Adobe Editions on my device. This is a platform I never use for ereading. Yet the publisher is asking me to mess with my own system to reassure them. And it’s not as though the final production copy will be limited to Adobe either – if the publisher wants significant sales, that is.

A smaller, and evidently less experienced, independent publisher tried a different approach. Their lawyer sent me a draft agreement requiring me not only to undertake not to share or distribute the review copy, but also to delete it after reading. (Shades of the CIA.)

I wrote back to that publisher, protesting. They apologized and said that this kind of policy was being foisted on them by the concerns of their authors. But needless to say, both books remain unreviewed. And until their publishers change their policies, they won’t be.

Many, many other publishers don’t do anything so silly. They send review copies in a range of formats, without DRM, and don’t impose any restriction on their use.Presumably because they know that a reviewer who wants to keep his or her fixes coming, let alone his or her income flow or job, is going to keep a tight hold on those review copies, never mind the less selfish motive of actually sticking to professional standards. And if the publisher or their authors do have some concerns, well I’m sure a reviewer would not be offended by a ‘review copy’ watermark. After all, pre-publication proof copies were legion in the halcyon days of traditional print publishing. And what possible financial incentive is there for reviewers (or anyone) to share ebooks? None.

Yes, a very few other publishers have no ebook review copies available at all. They are missing out on one increasingly important review channel, but that’s their lookout. However, I respectfully don’t buy the line that publishers are having draconian review copy control policies foisted on them by authors and agents. It’s up to the publishing houses to institute proper ebook review policies. I doubt there’s many other areas where a publisher would defer to their authors’ dicta about rights and marketing policies, after all. Meantime, the argument makes a handy cover for the publisher’s own uncertainties on the issue.

Advice to publishers? Forget it. DRM is controversial and unpopular enough as it is, without bringing it into the equation with a tiny audience who can actually deliver value to authors and publishers, whose ebook consumption can be absolutely tracked and monitored, and who have a professional obligation to respect fair use requirements. Why, once again, are you alienating legitimate readers?


  1. Great article! It’s amazing that a publisher would include so many hassles and still expect to get a positive review. It’s better to not review than to deal with anger management issues when you do review.

    Smashwords does it right. It lets authors set up special offer codes for certain time period that can include free review copies. Reviewers still have to side-load ebooks, but at least there’s no DRM.

    * For ebook review copies, Amazon is the worst. There are no ebook review copies available from them and the sample anyone can get starts and the front and mindlessly cuts off at a point Amazon chooses. That’s fine for novels, but dreadful for most other books. Amazon’s poor behavior is odd because via CreateSpace offers printed proof copies at an excellent price and ships them quickly. I get all my proofs from them now.

    * Apple is better, but still comes up lacking. There’s a limit to the number of review copies and hassles with the codes. Why set limits? Why limit the time period. It’s our book. Let us decide the details.

    And yes, it is possible to simply send people ePub or Kindle versions of the book via email. But that still leaves them the hassle of side-loading and I suspect some are a bit suspicious of putting an ebook on their devices that doesn’t come from a ‘trusted source’–meaning a giant corporation.

    I also question the good sense of a publisher who’d send you an ebook to be read on Adobe’s Digital Editions. On Macs, it’s probably the ugliest application around. One Adobe programmer told me that it was designed just to please DRM-obsessed publishers with no consideration for what readers might like. I know I hate it. It looks like Windows from the early 1990s.

  2. Considering the horror stories I’ve heard about ebook review copies landing on pirate sites without even an attempt at review, I can understand authors’ worries.

    Also, most big publishers simply don’t have the time and resources to provide review copies so they work with companies that provide those copies. Many of those companies only offer PDFs.

    And, for pity’s sake, you are being offered an early copy of a book for free, and you’re whining over small details like format? Jeeze.

  3. To my knowledge O’Reilly and Tor are the only publishers who publish DRM free. I’ve heard (please verify with each publisher) that after one year there is no noticeable difference in piracy.

    Customers, especially those new to ebook reading, for the most part don’t understand that an Adobe PDF and Adobe PDF (DRM) are completely different in terms of reading.

    Why don’t publishers do what the libraries do and have the files time out after a certain period of time? For adoption purposes a 90 day review period with Social DRM would work. Then if the professor wants it, offer it at an academic discount and extend the life of the file permanently.

  4. I’m with you, Paul. Reviewing a book shouldn’t be a chore when it comes to reading the book. Because, in reality, it’s easier to read so many other books without restrictions that the publishers are only limiting themselves.

    I understand that piracy is an issue, but is it THAT much of an issue. I don’t know (I also don’t think so).

  5. I havent had any issues of “sign over your children in blood” from publishers, BUT I have had more than enough experience of ADE to know it’s a right PITA and I do all I can to avoid now. And the “you get to read a book for free so give over!” argument is clearly from one who doesnt take reviewing books seriously and doesnt hasnt gone through too much pain over DRM/ADE (some of us consider this to be a near-second-job).

    However, the majority of time, the majority of egalleys I read, and the majority of publishers have been a delight (I havent tallied it up, but will be reading 50+ egalleys this year). My biggest bug bear at the mo? poor formatting and transcription – I’ve just read a book where every “ff” and “f” has been dropped from the book. Enough for sta to be oended or ailing to read the book or inishing a paragraph or letters are missing!

  6. And if people are worried about piracy ahead of publication, there’s a really simply way to fix it: Dont release the book for Early Review. Dont let people read and review it. If noone has it, noone can pirate it.

    Readers will not miss a book that isnt released for review. There are plenty of other books released by plenty of other people begging for review that are not DRM enabled, and reviewers will work through those instead (just how many books are published each year again?)

    There are plenty of book bloggers out there, most of whom are decent people who will write quality reviews and will respect authors and publishers as much as they are respected in turn.

    If there is such a concern over piracy, then publishers and authors need to develop a proper, professional relationship with selected reviewers and only release pre-release books to them (I have some great relationships with several authors and publishing houses, all of who have given me great books across all formats – and not ONE has slapped a non-piracy order on me.).

  7. I work for a small publisher. We use NetGalley to supply digital review copies. I’m sorry to hear all these complaints about it. On the positive side, it enable us to provide advanced copies to people like bloggers who we could never afford to send print galleys to. We usually only print 50-100 print galleys, so they only go to the top print reviewers. Using NetGalley lets us widen our distribution without having to know or vet every reviewer and worry about possible piracy. And we are worried about piracy, especially at the early stage we release these review copies: they are UNCORRECTED page proofs and the finished book will change a lot. They don’t have an index, and may have many errors. We really, really don’t want to give out PDFs of these titles and have them end up on pirate sites and then have people think that’s the kind of quality books we produce. I would love to see a better platform than Adobe Digital Editions, but for now, despite some reviewers’ grumbling, we’re sticking with NetGalley.

  8. I use both NetGalley and Edelweiss for review copies. The DRM I sort of just live with. The part that bothers me is that most of the titles are set to self-delete after just 60 days, and frequently that isn’t enough time for me to read and go back and review for a decent write-up. Especially when there are several relevant titles per month being posted.

  9. Kristen, the big traditional publishers see only a one-month bookstore life span for most paperbacks because that’s the way most physical bookstores see them. After a month, most are removed so the bookstore can get their money back.

    This traditional timeline is a major part of the way they think of reviews which are sought with just a few months ahead of the publication date.

    And, yes, I know it is stupid because of ebooks.

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