A reset button

Last month, The Bookseller reported that Dutch publisher De Arbeiderspers/A W Bruna had decided to no longer use Adobe DRM on its eBooks. Instead, it is using a watermark (sometimes called “light DRM”) on all platforms other than Apple’s iBookstore.

On its own, this is good news, consistent with recent decisions by imprints like Tor and longer-standing practices at O’Reilly Media and Baen Books. It’s worth reporting on, although it would have helped the Bookseller coverage if they had probed for more information on why dropping DRM is a benefit to publishers.

The core reason is this: if you can buy an eBook from any source and be certain that you can read it on any device, you are less likely to feel you have to live within a given ecosystem, whether it is Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Nook, Apple or a local Dutch-language platform. In markets with fixed-price or agency agreements, this gives publishers a chance to compete with platforms for direct sales.

The other reason that publishers drop Adobe DRM: it costs money to maintain. As the price of digital content drops, the relative share taken up by DRM grows.

Although Adobe DRM is not platform-specific, it is not generally thought to be consumer-friendly. I’ve found that you have to be reasonably tech-savvy (and diligent) to make it work across multiple devices. And while the number of people who read content across multiple devices is reasonably low, every study shows that it has grown and is expected to continue to grow.

Publishers should make it easy to read digital content, wherever and whenever consumers want it. That’s the way to grow a market. It is an arrow in the quiver in the fight against platform oligopoly. It’s also the better way to fight the prospect of piracy.

While the De Arbeiderspers/A W Bruna announcement broke little new ground, comments on The Bookseller’s coverage illustrated how far we have to go in developing a reader-centric perspective. Consider the first comment by Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, the largest literary agency in North America (this is verbatim; the punctuation, capitalization, misspellings and repetition are his):

The Piracy sites are very happy today as Bruna removes DRM. Since so many Dutch books do well in English I wonder how British publishers will react to this decision. Agency's should take a hard look at selling books to publishers who go DRM free. Especially when it will impact markets outside the domain of a publisher. It is one thing for a buyer of of a printed book to share it with a handful of people. It is an entirely different matter making the work available to be shared with thousands of readers across the globe for free.

Okay, if you read my blog posts, you already know that there is no evidence that DRM has any impact on the kind of piracy that Gottlieb describes here. “Heavy” DRM serves two purposes: it locks readers into a specific retail platform; and it makes it harder for them to share a book with a relative or friend. That’s it. All other benefits attributed to DRM are soothing and untrue.

If Gottlieb knows this, he is working hard to hide it. A comment on his contribution reasonably claims, “All [DRM] does is inconvenience the paying customer.” Gottlieb responds (again, this is verbatim):

Why should it cause inconvenience for the customer unless the plan is to share the book with a lot of people. After all how many more devices does the customer intend to use after reading the book? Additionally, any thing that creates another hurdle for piracy to deal with is a good thing. In all of these discussions some one has to think about the author's interest not just the consumer.


As a thought experiment: Let's lock a casual user in a small room with an iPhone, an iPad and a reader of his choice. Kick in web access for free. See how quickly he can figure out how to get content to show up on all three devices without relying on one of the closed ecosystems. I’m betting the answer is going to be “never”.

If you’re an agent reading this post, here’s a reset button: your author clients are best served by publishers who have figured out how to meet expressed and latent reading requirements. Making it hard to consume content where and when someone wants it is not a business strategy, unless you are in the liquidation business.

And if you are an author whose agent says things that remind you of Robert Gottlieb, remember this: There are no “hurdles for piracy”. Make the lock as severe as you want; someone can always scan a book. The only solutions that matter provide demonstrable value, including convenience.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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