Marching to the Beat of a Different DRMer

Aug 16, 2012

Tor/Forge Books, a Macmillan imprint, announced in April that it would remove DRM (digital rights management) from its books. Many readers and authors were ecstatic. They believe that DRM is too restrictive and hinders end users from using/storing/sharing/enjoying ebooks in perfectly legal ways. Naysayers were sure that removing DRM was like handing over the keys to the store to digital pirates and that sales would plummet.

Now, a new snag: this week it was revealed that publisher Hachette sent letters to some Tor authors whose books have had ebook rights' sold to Hachette imprints in foreign territories. Hachette wrote that it was concerned that DRM-free ebooks in the U.S. would infringe on its sales of the same titles in other territories and as such told authors that they must request that Tor Books include DRM on their ebooks in the U.S. Hachette also added that future contracts would have new wording including DRM requirements. Setting aside the rather presumptuous notion that one publisher can impose terms on another publisher's contract or method of doing business, Hachette is making the pretty big assumption that DRM-free books will result in fewer sales for its DRM-encrypted editions, especially when there is no concrete evidence for it.

At a presentation entitled "Taking the Plunge" at BEA in June, Macmillan EVP of digital publishing and technology, Fritz Foy, along with several Tor authors, discussed their decision to go DRM-free, how they arrived at it and what they'd discovered so far. They cited data from titles they released as DRM-free ebooks over the past few years in which they found sales held on as previous or in some cases actually increased. Even DRM-free ebooks that were given away for free at one point did not show a decline in future sales from what had been predicted had there not been a giveaway. Author John Scalzi discussed an improved author/reader relationship since readers would be much less frustrated with ebook format problems.

Roughly a month and a half later, Scalzi wrote on his blog about the results so far for his recently-released DRM-free ebook edition of Red Shirts, his latest novel. In comparison to his previous titles' ebook releases, per week sales have been "substantially higher" and he states that he and Tor are "not seeing any particular increase of instances of the book being shared in violation of copyright." He qualifies his personal findings with the caveat that recent ebook growth overall, his own popularity as well as that of his backlist, plus the marketing and promotion done by Tor have all influenced Red Shirts sales but he was a firm believer in DRM-free ebooks being a good thing for ebook sales, both for authors and readers.

UK publisher Little, Brown's Ursula Mackenzie responded to the Publishers Weekly article on behalf of Hachette, stating that they have found DRM to work well.  In regards to the suggestion that DRM does not deter pirates, she added, "We are fully aware that DRM does not inhibit determined pirates...The central point is that we are in favour of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors."

It's interesting to note that Robert Gottlieb, founder, chairman, and agent par excellence of Trident Media Group, one of New York's biggest literary agencies, commented on the Bookseller article. He states that Trident Media would turn down a request from a publisher in the UK that asked an author to guarantee DRM from a U.S. rights' holder.

Hachette's claims are part of a worst-case scenario prediction that is not based on current facts. Science fiction and fantasy ebooks may not necessarily have the same sales trajectory as other genres but Tor has taken a huge step, acting as a publishing guinea pig, to give us perhaps a truer vision of a DRM-free ebook marketplace.