Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do Dat DRM HooDoo Dat We Do So Swell....**

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of Booknook.biz, an ebook production company that has produced books for over 500 authors and imprints. 

DRMDigital Rights Management.  The mere term is enough to set teeth on edge at innumerable fora for ebook lovers and set publishers to fisticuffs with so-called "pirates" (too glamorous a name for them, methinks), who cheerfully fly the flag of "free ebooks for all."

But what is DRM?  And why do you want it?  Do you want it?  And is it, as claimed by noted Sci-Fi author Charlie Stross, actually killing Bix Sig Publishing, at their own insistence?

Stross, in his blog, Charlie's Diary, writes:

"As ebook sales mushroom, the Big Six's insistence on DRM has proven to be a hideous mistake. Rather than reducing piracy[*], it has locked customers in Amazon's walled garden, which in turn increases Amazon's leverage over publishers." (Stross' asterisked note goes on to say:  "[*] It doesn't reduce piracy; if you poke around bittorrent you'll find plenty of DRM-cracked ebooks — including all of my titles. DRM is snake oil; ultimately the reader has to be able to read whatever they bought, which means shipping a decryption key along with the encrypted file. And once they've got the key, someone will figure out how to use it to unlock the book.")
 Now, first, what is DRM?  DRM is "Digital Rights Management," and in short, it's an encryption key, "tuned" to your own device or reading software, that allows you, and only you, (or folks to whom you legally "lend" the ebook) to read an ebook that you've purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and the like.  Many authors and publishers are vociferous proponents of DRM, not wanting their IP--intellectual property--illegally shared (without payment therefor, in other words).

Proponents of doing away with DRM argue, as does Stross, that it doesn't prevent piracy, and there's certainly some truth to that. If you don't have multi-million dollar book sales, as an author, it's very expensive to add DRM to your own ebooks (to sell on your own website, for example), as the primary commercial DRM software available is Adobe's Content Server, which runs about $6K (yes:  six thousand buckeroos) for a license, and, if that isn't painful enough, you need someone trained to use it.  You'd have to sell Locke-worthy numbers to pay for that type of overhead, which is one of the advantages of selling through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.--you get to use theirs, without paying Adobe's rather exorbitant licensing fees. 

But Stross' point, in his blog, is that Bix Six Publishers (BSP--is that a coincidence, she wondered?) are, literally, slitting their own throats by using DRM on their ebooks, because using DRM ties them in to Amazon's platform...and hence, delivers them directly into Amazon's nefarious bargaining clutches (by his reckoning).  He reasons that Amazon used DRM, and their proprietary platform, to propel themselves to an 80% market share, because users (that would be the reading public) are locked into Amazon's platform as their existing purchases can't be read on other devices.

But is that crucial part of the argument even correct?   Nowadays, you can install completely free Amazon reading software on almost any mobile or stationary computer, so you're not locked into a Kindle device any longer; your books aren't lost to you, even if you ran out and bought a NookColor, which uses ePUB format.  You could still read your Kindle books on your computer; your Kindle; your smartphone, or even an iPad.  A Galaxy tablet; a Droid tablet; a Crackberry...well, you get my drift. 

Now, I think that Stross is wrong in many aspects; I don't think that Amazon's use of DRM catapulted it to its 80% market share; I think that their early recognition that self-publishing, and ebooks, were the natural outgrowth and bastard children of blogging is what propelled it to those lofty heights.  Were they, as he argues, willing to take a hit on the early sale of Kindles, in order to sell eBooks?  You betcha.  And just like any other capitalistic enterprise, risk was rewarded, and they reaped the rewards of selling devices at a loss, just in order to sell ebooks.  Nearly everyone reading this blog is a direct beneficiary of that philosophy, because that same risk-taking mentality led to the very expensive development of the KDP--the Kindle Digital Platform, providing an Indy Publishing outlet for self-published authors to be seen by large numbers of prospective eBook buyers.

I'd lend his argument more credence if he'd argued that the proprietary format was a bigger "lock-in," but he never even took that argument out for a spin.  His rationale is essentially that because Publishers insist on DRM, they're somehow joined at the hip to Amazon, (Nook, anyone?  Google Editions?  iBooks?), and that the DRM has locked the consumers into Amazon's website--hence, giving Amazon an Olympian advantage over those self-same publishers, bringing them to their knees during pricing negotiations.

He then argues that the supply chain is also getting whacked with the "cram-down."  But the part that he seems not to discuss, or wrestle with, is this:  these publishers, like everyone else in life, have a choice.  They could, if they wished, cut exclusive deals with Nook, instead of Kindle.  They could, if they wished, publish their own ebooks (they can certainly afford their own DRM software), and sell them from their own websites.  Harlequin does it, and quite neatly, cheerfully sidestepping Amazon and building a community in the process (and of budding authors, too, I'd note...appetizers for the Amazons of the world, if not a whole meal).

And lastly:  no publisher in the world "has to" use DRM.  If DRM is, as Stross argues, the Devil's Brew, then Hachette, Putnam, etc., can simply stop using it.   But I think that Stross is wrong, and that the entire picture is more complicated than that--or less.  I think it's nothing more than this:  people will, in general, always do what's easiest, and Amazon has made shopping with them easier than shopping with anyone else.  No draconian schemes, no Dickensian plots; no Rube Goldberg twists and turns:  nothing more than humans obeying the laws of physics, favoring the least amount of energy. 

Stross argues that once Amazon controls the world, it will continue the cram-down on everyone, including Indy authors, and that all will lose, under that scenario. What do you think?

**My apologies to the divine Ella, The Chairman of the Board, and even Adam Ant, for abusing the lyrics that They Did So Well.


RIP Mr. Clancy.  April 1, 2004--November 22, 2011.  "Of all God's creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat." - Mark Twain


  1. Great post, Hitch! DRM is about control, and as an author, I've given up on the idea that I have any. In fact, as an indie author, I've come to accept that I live and die by Amazon. And yes, they will continue to dominate the market, but I also think they'll continue to treat authors fairly.

  2. First, my condolences to you, Hitch. The loss of a beloved family member (who happens to have four legs) is always difficult. Hugs and more hugs.

    As far as I'm concerned, I have enough to worry about that I actually have control over. And that's to write the best story I know how to write, get it professionally edited and formatted, chose a great cover, have it available in as many places as possible, and do a fair amount of marketing. I'm learning this by watching other writers chart this course— L.J. Sellers for one.

    It seems to me some piracy may be beneficial to sales. But even if it isn't, it would take a team of people working 24/7 to stop it from happening. DRM? Not worth the brain damage, or the pocket expense.

    Amazon's domination? They're big for a few reasons, and as long as they continue to pay attention to those reasons, I don't see a problem.

    Thanks for being so direct with your information!

  3. Thanks, LJ--and thanks, Peg. We'll miss Mr. Clancy; the Crew took it hard, too, which was touching and distressing at the same time. ;-)

    I think there's entirely too much kvetching over "Amazon's Domination;" puts me in mind of all the Microsoft-as-Darth-Vader whining in the 80's and 90's. But we've all survived, and some have even thrived, despite Bill Gates. And, speaking of gates, I think Amazon's opening of the authorial, entrepreneurial "floodgates" of Indy publishing can't help but be, in the long run, a good thing. I mean, heck, where would Booknook.biz BE without Amazon (she asked, selfishly?)

    Publishers have given Amazon only as much control as they have themselves allowed. They could change that in a heartbeat...but I imagine they'd have to be prepared for one hell of a fight. The next few years, I think, will remind of of the ancient Chinese curse: "[m]ay ou live in interesting times."


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