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. 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.

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