Yesterday was a day for reactions to the Tor DRM-free announcement, for sure. John Scalzi has a post in which he applauds the move, while featuring a quote from Patrick Nielsen Hayden in which pnh indicates that Tor will in no way be scaling back its efforts to fight piracy just because it’s dropping DRM. Scalzi feels this is a victory for people who “just want to own their damn books” and suspects that other publishing houses will be following suit.

Charlie Stross has another lengthy post to his blog, following up on his post last week about Amazon’s pricing strategy, in which he reveals he was asked for his thoughts on the matter by Tor’s executives prior to making their decision. He reveals what those thoughts were, in an essay in which he crafts a powerful anti-DRM argument designed to appeal to the publishing-industry executives who made the decision.

Stross’s arguments largely focused on the rapid obsolescence of consumer electronic devices, and the uncertainty over what formats will survive for the long term. Removing DRM allows consumers to future-proof their purchases, and will also make it easier for smaller bookstores such as Powell’s (or, for that matter, Emily Books, or even Baen’s own e-book program, though Stross did not mention either of them) to sell those newly-DRM-free titles.

I took the opportunity in the comment thread to ask Stross about his comments of December 2007 that I mentioned earlier, what had changed since then, and what took Tor so long after its executives had acknowledged even in 2007 that they still wanted to go through with DRM-free books. Stross replied:

What happened was exponential growth: ebooks went from less than 1% of US book sales in 2007 to maybe 40% by the end of 2012 (projected). At which point — circa 2008-09 — everybody in the industry shat a brick and began paying attention, when they weren’t running naked down Broadway with their beards on fire. (I exaggerate. A little.) When that kind of attention falls on an industry sector that’s growing like a mushroom cloud, the response of senior management in any industry is blind terror and a determination not to fuck up. Which tends to result in paralysis and conservativism in the short term, followed (if they survive long enough) by accomodation.

What’s happened is they’ve finally come through the learning phase and have figured out not only what they’re doing but what they should be doing.

Meanwhile, even though there has been a lot of noise lately that publishers should drop DRM to fight Amazon’s dominance, there is a school of thought that suggests dropping DRM could actually help Amazon. Because just as dropping DRM will make it easier for people to switch away from Amazon, it will also make it easier for Amazon to lure people to switch to it. What if Amazon suddenly decides to start supporting EPUB, so that people with big DRM-free EPUB collections have a good reason to start considering the Kindle after all?

Speaking of dropping DRM, Laura Hazard Owen had a post on PaidContent yesterday, from before the Tor announcement in which an anonymous publishing-industry executive discusses why he or she decided to learn how to crack DRM. The exec gives many of the same reasons everyone who cracks it does. Though he or she is keeping the books solely for his or her own use, not even sharing them with family or friends, the exec wanted to crack them solely to be sure he or she can continue reading them

I believe this is justified because I realize that when I buy an e-book from Amazon, I’m really buying a license to that content, not the content itself. This is ridiculous, by the way. I feel as if e-book retailers are simply hiding behind that philosophy as a way to further support DRM and scare publishers away from considering a DRM-free world. I’m not going to say where I work, or anything about my company, but I will say that I don’t think DRM is good for the publisher, author or customer. Don’t pro-DRM publishers realize this is one of the key complaints from their customers? I’ve heard plenty of customers tell me that e-book prices need to be low because they’re only buying access to the content, not fully owning it. That needs to change.

It should be interesting to see how this all plays out, and whether or how soon more publishers jump on the bandwagon.

In closing: the first commercial e-book I ever bought, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, was a Tor book. It’s not clear that people will be permitted to download old purchases DRM-free retroactively, but it certainly would be cool if they could.


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail