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DRM is unfortunate, but it’s not the problem in Hachette vs. Amazon

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Let me start with the obligatory assurance that I’m no fan of DRM technologies. That’s why I use (illegal) tools to break it if I want to buy an ebook from another retailer and read it on my Kindle(s AMZN). Yet I disagree with author and BoingBoing co-editor Cory Doctorow’s argument that DRM plays a big role in the ongoing dispute between Amazon and book publisher Hachette.

In a column in the Guardian Friday, Doctorow wrote that “because Hachette has been such a staunch advocate of DRM,” it hasn’t been able to take advantage of “a whole range of tactics” that would be available to it if it dropped DRM:

“Amazon’s ebook major competitors – especially Apple and Google – have lots of market clout, and their customers are already carrying around ebook readers (tablets and phones). Hachette could easily play hardball with Amazon by taking out an ad campaign whose message was, ‘Amazon won’t sell you our books – so we’re holding a 50% sale for anyone who wants to switch to buying ebooks from Apple, Google, Kobo or Nook.'”

To avoid Hachette’s fate, Doctorow wrote, it should emulate small imprints — namely Macmillan science fiction imprint Tor — that have dropped DRM: “Push out the entire catalogue without DRM, now, and arm yourself with an ‘Amazon Refugee’ app that can convert all your Kindle books to run on anyone else’s platform, ready to release the very instant Amazon tries this trick again.”

But Tor’s removal of DRM in 2012 wasn’t the watershed moment that Doctorow hoped it would be — partly because Tor is a niche imprint with a devoted fan base. Hachette is a big company that consists of many imprints aimed at many different kinds of readers. That makes it very hard for it to sway readers in the way that Doctorow would like it to.

Doctorow is famously against DRM, in any venue, on any type of media. But his focus on it in this instance overlooks larger issues at play. He assumes readers value direct relationships with large publishers much more than they actually do. Yes, publishers would like to have these relationships with readers, and yes, dropping DRM might help to enable those relationships by making it easier for publishers to sell ebooks directly through their own websites. But his post doesn’t take the reader’s priorities into account.

Most readers will happily remain within the Kindle ecosystem — not because it does or doesn’t include DRM, but because it is freaking seamless. Kindle is the dominant e-reading platform in part because there’s a Kindle app available for pretty much every tablet and smartphone out there. That may be a “walled garden,” but it’s essentially a vast expanse that encompasses almost all devices. It’s tough to argue to convince readers that they are locked in if they don’t feel limited. They are likely to feel more limited, in fact, by switching over to apps from Amazon’s competitors that actually work on fewer devices. For Doctorow to describe Google as a “major competitor” to Amazon in ebooks is silly: Google may have digitized a lot of books, but it hasn’t put near the amount of focus or effort into the e-reading experience that Amazon has. Apple’s done better, but iBooks is available only on iOS and Macs running OS X Mavericks.

Those ebook readers who care enough about DRM to have a problem with it will, like me and (presumably) like Cory Doctorow, download easy illegal tools and break it. Those who don’t care about DRM also, presumably, don’t care about their relationship with Hachette (or any given publisher) enough to download a separate, special publisher-made “Amazon Refugee” app that would almost definitely work much worse than any Kindle app because guess what: Amazon is way better at building consumer technology than general trade publishers are.

Is it a problem that Hachette depends on Amazon for so much of its revenue? Clearly, yes, because Amazon knows that and is thus able to use all of the negotiating tactics it’s currently using, such as cutting off pre-orders and delaying shipments of print books for weeks. Those tactics really hurt Hachette and individual authors, but the jury is still out on how much everyday readers are noticing. Ultimately, that might be Hachette’s biggest problem: For every reader who cares, many more readers won’t. For Hachette to be on an even playing field with Amazon, it would have to be a completely different kind of company with power and influence to match Amazon’s. The problem is that it’s a book publisher instead.

18 Responses to “DRM is unfortunate, but it’s not the problem in Hachette vs. Amazon”

  1. Laurel L. Russwurm

    You begin by admitting in print that you use illegal tools to break DRM so you can “happily remain within the Kindle ecosystem — not because it does or doesn’t include DRM, but because it is freaking seamless.”

    In Canada, it doesn’t matter whether you own a legal copy of the thing, you can’t break DRM to access it without infringing copyright. If you were in Canada using illegal tools to break DRM you are breaking the law. This was the major reason I fought the new Copyright Act my government has since passed at the behest of the American government. If I’m not mistaken, this is also illegal in the USA, (wasn’t a lecturer jailed for discussing it in a classroom?) and I believe the UK. If it’s not the law where you live now, it probably will be in the near future.

    In order to catch people doing what you so brazenly admit, governments are justifying increasingly onerous laws to spy on us. All of us. There are also disturbing tales of government abuse– breaking down doors, impounding property, locking people up…

    You argue against Doctorow’s assumption readers value direct relationships with large publishers, yet you value your relationship with Amazon which locks you in so much you’re willing to break the law for the convenience of using a device controlled by Amazon. Your actions argue against your words.

    Yes, It is tough to convince readers that they are locked in if they don’t feel it… until such time as Amazon controls all the devices and truly has a monopoly. If that happens, we will be limited, whether we know it or not. The reason Mr. Doctorow keeps going on and on about this now is that by then it will be too late.

    Human beings are capable of entertaining mutually exclusive viewpoints, and you’re entitled to continue to do so. But my main reason for commenting here today is to urge you not to cavalierly break the law for convenience, and to ask you not to suggest to your readers this is in any way a reasonable option, because its not.

  2. Re: “That’s why I use (illegal) tools”, no, you illegally use tools. The tools are just tools, only the use of them is illegal or not. The distinction is important in a world where there is so much push to consider things illegal despite perfectly legal uses.

  3. Ron Martínez

    “No DRM” is not a silver bullet. But it’s also not nothing, as this analysis implies. And it may actually be essential to implementing a decentralized publishing marketplace as an insistence on restrictive DRM is a real world impediment to developing any alternative.

    Seamless access is a defining virtue, yes. But there are a couple of routes to delivering it. One is to deliver a proprietary DRM-equipped reading app on every device. This is the Amazon approach, and it extends to hardware devices like the Kindle. This path is not available to publishers or anyone else interested in delivering seamless access. You can’t deliver proprietary DRM to a Kindle. Only Amazon can.

    The second approach is an inversion, and that is to commoditize reading apps by delivering a format (or multiple formats) that will work on any reading app or device the user may have, including Kindle apps and devices. The only way to do this is by using no DRM, or non-proprietary, non-restrictive approaches such as “social DRM” and/or watermarking.

    Yes, this would be but one element of a potentially successful Amazon alternative. You’d also need selection, customer service, trust, attractive pricing, and integrated print purchasing as well. A tall order.

    But by reformulating reading apps as interchangeable “players” and eliminating the requirement of a tethered customer account, you’d have made implementation of these other service elements more tractable. None of it is easy, but neither is any of it impossible, unlike delivering restrictive DRM into proprietary devices you don’t control.

    • Robotech_Master

      @Ron Martinez: Sure, that’s a great way to create a competitive market, in theory. The problem is you can’t just apply “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, they will come”) thinking to it.

      You could set up the best pro-competitive inverted e-book market in the world…and I would bet money that the vast majority of Amazon customers would go right on buying from Amazon, because that’s what they’ve always done and they don’t want to have to learn to do anything new.

      As I said elsewhere, Baen made it the absolute easiest thing in the world to sideload their DRM-free MOBI e-books onto people’s Kindles. They even put a web form on their page so all people would have to do is type in their send-to-Kindle email address and click “Send” and it would magically show up there. And yet, they still got so many complaints that their books “aren’t on Kindle” that in the end they had to make a huge change their store’s selling policies, changing the way they’d sold e-books for over a decade and disgruntling many of their oldest customers, in order to put their e-books on Amazon so more people would actually buy them.

      When one of the oldest DRM-free e-publishers can’t make a go of it without Amazon, what chance does any new start-up have?

      • Thanks for the comments, @Ron Martinez and @robotech_master (Chris)? The Teleread post is a good one and I think that Baen is a good example. On the other side, I guess, there is J. K. Rowling, with the watermarked Harry Potter books sold through, and, as @Nate the great points out above, some European publishers are also using watermarking.

        And certainly Hachette could try doing some of these things. I think it would be too little, too late, though — offering its own books DRM-free through an app might lead to a couple of sales, but books being unavailable on Amazon hurts it far more.

        • Robotech_Master

          Pottermore isn’t as good an example as you might think. It’s really more of an exception, due to the Harry Potter phenomenon. When you go to a Harry Potter e-book listing on Amazon, you get a “buy on Pottermore” button. Then, when you buy it via Pottermore, the book is magically (so to speak) injected back into your own Amazon library, to automatically download to the Kindle, so you don’t have to worry about sideloading it or anything.

          It makes things a little more complicated than just one-click buy-from-Amazon-store e-books, but not much. The book will And given that if someone wants Harry Potter, they really really want Harry Potter, most of them will go ahead and take that extra step. Effectively, even Harry Potter is available through Amazon, so customers don’t have to step too far outside their comfort zone.

          Do you think Baen would have had enough pull for a “buy on Baen” button and access to inject their books directly into Amazon like that? Do you think even Hachette, or any other major publisher who didn’t have the multi-billion-dollar Potter Phenomenon behind it, would?

          • Robotech_Master

            Wish I could edit my comments. That orphaned “The book will” in the second-last paragraph should be “The book will still be on Amazon, they just have to go to a little extra trouble when they buy it.”

      • Ron Martínez

        I don’t think I suggested reliance upon magical “Field of Dreams” thinking. As my post makes clear, building a viable alternative requires that you meet a number of requirements, and that’s a tall order.

        And with due respect to Baen, a wonderful and innovative publisher, they’re not at all representative of a focused effort by a major publisher or set of publishers. Extrapolating from their experience to a “game over Amazon” proclamation will need something stronger to peg the assertion on.

        Laura also makes a good point re Pottermore. Though it is, as @Robotech_Master points out, an exceptional property, it points up the fact that the reader/author or reader/book relationship is the most powerful one in the supply chain. It has barely been leveraged to date, and I think we can expect it will be put to work, across a broader set of books and authors.

  4. Carmen Webster Buxton

    I agree that DRM is certainly not the cause of the Amazon-Hachette struggle, but I do think publishers are mostly being shortsighted in relying on it. O’Reilly is a good example of a publisher who sells direct, without DRM, and sells to Kindle owners/app users as well as others. Putting a non-Amazon book mobi-formatted ebook on a Kindle is easy if it doesn’t have DRM. My blog post on how to do that gets more hits than any other I have posted.

  5. Of course not. There are some people who just hate the three letters D.R. and M when they come in sequence. They love cryptography. They love personal privacy. But somehow they think it’s wrong for artists to use these tools to communicate privately with their customers. Don’t ask me why.

    My theory is that they don’t hate DRM, they just hate artists making money. Perhaps they’re funded by the companies that make their money by selling ads next to content but don’t want to share the proceeds with the artists. Perhaps they’re just zealots who think everything should be free.

    But they glommed onto this Amazon thing and started using it for their personal agenda. It’s sad.

    • Laurel L. Russwurm

      No, some of us hate the idea that DRM removes reader’s rights from the books we buy. If the publisher’s rights over-ride the reader’s traditional rights, readers are no longer actually own the books we “buy.”

      One of the things that infuriates me most about DRM is that most people don’t recognize it. If you want to encumber your work with DRM, more power to you, but until your digital works are sold bearing “DRM inside” stickers you are –at minimum– disrespecting your readers.

      Oh, and I’m a free culture advocate who has no objection to creators making a living, so long as they do so honestly. I’m also an artist and a creator, and part of a family that creates written musical and visual arts.

  6. Sujal Shah

    Both arguments are reductio ad absurdum – this isn’t a binary choice between “being on a Kindle” and having your own app.

    This is the problem: By choosing to prioritize DRM, Hachette never invested in the infrastructure, like some publishers have, to serve and deliver watermarked, DRM free books to the public on their own. As a result, they’re tied to *some* DRM implementation (it looks like Hachette uses Adobe, which seems somewhat common but is locked out for some reason from iBooks and Kindle – in other words kinda useless).

    Going DRM free would let them do what Tor, or O’Reilly, or Pragmatic do: let me download an appropriate format for my device of choice. I can get a .mobi for Kindle, epub or pdf for iBooks, and I’m golden. The “install” process to my Kindle, for example, is pretty seamless. Amazon has hooks to deliver books. Updates even show up on my Kindle when they’re ready (e.g. see

    Good publishers also take care of making the formatting look great on different devices (see Craig Mod on one example of this – Art Space Tokyo looks great on everything:

    In fact, this would be a great reason for an author to choose a publishing house over self-publishing and hiring their own editor. It’s clear value add.

    If they went even further and thought of their publishing house as an API provider to the various reader stores out there, that might even be better. The act of buying an ebook at wholesale should be a matter of an API transaction backed by a fairly self-service partnership agreement. That’s probably too far for these old publishing dinosaurs, but…

    • Thanks for the comment, Sujal. You’re right that Hachette never invested in the infrastructure, and nor have any of the other big-5 publishers (Tor, part of Macmillan, being an exception). I think, though, that for various reasons, the big general trade publishers do not see O’Reilly or Pragmatic as examples for what they should be doing themselves — too small, different audiences. Books from Pragmatic and O’Reilly are by definition aimed at pretty tech-savvy readers. What I was trying to convey in my piece — and it’s kind of a downer, I agree with you — is that most everyday readers just are not going to sideload books to Kindle. Even if sideloading a .mobi file is easy, it’s another step that a lot of people are simply not going to think about.

  7. Nate the great

    “partly because Tor is a niche imprint with a devoted fan base.”

    That detail would matter if a similar effort had been tried elsewhere and failed. I don’t think it explains why the major US publishers never even tried.

    Also, you might want to start looking into what publishers are doing in Europe. You’re missing a trend away from encryption DRM like Adobe to more user friendly DRM like digital watermarks.