On eBooks and DRM

The buzz stories from the last month are all about the state of the publishing world. Kristen Lamb did a series of really well-researched and written articles:

If you’re serious about becoming or continuing to be a published writer, do yourself a favor and read both of them. Trust me.

But for today, I want to focus on another article:

Ebooks Purchased From Microsoft Will Be Deleted This Month Because You Don’t Really Own Anything Anymore

First of all (and shame on me), I had no idea Microsoft started dipping its toes into the eBook business. But from the looks of it, that’s all they ever did, and they quickly regretted the choice. My guess is, they had no idea what they were getting into and weren’t in the least prepared for it. And now a lot of their customers are going to be very, very upset.

So here is where I put in my two cents’ worth.

Something many people don’t know about eBooks is that when you buy one from a Big Name store (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble), you don’t actually purchase the book, you purchase the license to read the book. That has always been the case, and it means the article is very much correct: You do not actually own the content you purchased. You basically just own the right to access and read it whenever you want for as long as the store that sold it to you is in business. You are placing your faith and buying power behind the idea that your chosen store will remain in business indefinitely (or at least as long as you live).

These days, with the publishing landscape constantly shifting the way it is, there is a certain level of risk involved in doing that. But it’s the price we pay for convenience. You want your content delivered instantly to your device? That means giving the store access to your device and all its content. You want your content accessible anywhere from the Cloud? That means entrusting your content to someone else’s servers.

This is very much a faith-based business and sometimes, as in the case of Microsoft, that faith ends up being misplaced.

I know, it seems really unfair, but there is actually a good reason for things being set up the way they are.

Digital files work differently than physical copies. It’s time-consuming and expensive to make even ten copies of a printed book. Not really worth the effort when it comes to redistribution. But with an eBook, you can redistribute the file to an infinite number of people with just one click. That’s an infinite number of pirate copies of someone’s hard work just floating around the Internet for anyone to download without paying for it. It’s potentially several fortunes’ worth of royalties the author has just lost with the simple click of a button. Years and decades of hard work flushed right down the toilet, and back to square one.

This is where Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes in. It’s a piece of code that effectively locks your eBook so you can’t share it illegally. It’s there to protect authors as well as bookstores against illegal file sharing (piracy). It’s restrictive, but well-intentioned, and well within the store’s rights to protect its bottom line. After all, they’re not in the business of giving stuff out for free.

But with every lock, there will come a day when someone makes a counterfeit key. So it is with DRM. People everywhere are now sharing tips and tools for removing this piece of code, as if it’s a matter of course. They usually have valid reasons, like protecting their content from being taken away, or converting it to a different format so they can read it on a third party device. Mostly it’s due to a lack of understanding (you didn’t buy the book, but a license to it) or misguided entitlement (“I bought the book, so I should be able to do whatever I want with it!”)

But regardless of their reasons, removing DRM from an eBook is still against the eBook store’s TOS and (I believe) illegal, to boot.

Side Note: This is why I am staunchly against proprietary software, file formats, and monopolies in general. Big Name stores forcefully create loyal customers by making it convenient for readers to buy their content and highly inconvenient to “cheat” on them with other platforms and content. Think how impossible it is to transfer the songs you bought on iTunes to a different brand MP3 player. Same concept. Once you start using one proprietary platform, you sort of lock yourself into it. They don’t play well with others.

So what can you do to make sure your investment is protected?

As an author:

#1 Publish as wide as possible to give your readers options for buying your books. This not only makes the buying experience more pleasant for your readers, it protects your book from being uploaded to a store by someone else.

FYI: This happens a lot, especially to authors exclusive to Amazon. Someone will take a book, strip the DRM and upload to another store under their own account to illegally rack up sales for themselves. If/when Amazon find out, they can flag your account for having published elsewhere against their TOS. So not only do you get robbed of sales by a pirate, you also lose your legitimate royalties.

#2 Direct readers to all the places where they can buy your books, not just the ones you prefer. You never know where your readers like to shop. Giving them a link directly to a variety of stores makes it easier for readers to find and buy your book.

#3 If at all financially feasible, set up your book in print as well. If you can’t afford IngramSpark, go for LuLu. If you are a die hard Amazon fan, you can also use their KDP platform to create your paperback but I hear it’s gone down hill quite a bit since the days of CreateSpace.

As a reader:

#1 Take the time to understand what you’re paying for when you shop at a particular store. Microsoft is not the only store using DRM. They are not the only ones that can go under at a moment’s notice. Having a Big Name does not guarantee a store’s future success.

#2 Shop at stores that give you several options for file formats and don’t use DRM (Smashwords.com is an excellent example). Any time a store doesn’t have a dedicated reader device or app, they are more likely to give you options so you can use whatever reader or app you prefer.

#3 Purchase hard copies instead of eBooks. Yes, they are more costly but, if you’re like me and re-read your favorite books every year, it’s more than worth it. Plus, a bookshelf full of books is a beautiful addition to any home. 😉

Practicing what I preach: 

If you’re still with me, know that this is not one of those, “Do as I say, not as I do” things. I make my own books available worldwide, as eBooks and paperbacks (with only a couple exceptions), and I am slowly putting them into audiobook production, too.

You can purchase them at the Big Name stores (Amazon, B&N, Apple Books, Kobo) but if you want to have the freedom of eBook format choice, I recommend buying them from Smashwords.

For paperbacks, it’s always appreciated when you support your local independent bookstore and request a copy through them. It helps create some healthy competition in the marketplace and supports your neighborhood small business owners. 🙂 But if that’s not your thing, there’s always Books-A-Million as an online alternative.

If cost is an issue, I recommend checking with your local library. They may already have the eBook or even paperback version available and, if not, you can always request them. It saves you money, helps support the library system, and still gets authors paid. Win-win-win.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I write cross-genre, mostly science fiction or fantasy with varying degrees of romance. Each series is very different from the others, so buyer beware–you may love one and end up hating another. Here is a chart to help you navigate the different series:

You can always find more information and additional buying options on my author website: aliannedonnelly.com

Thanks for reading!

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