One year later – DRM-free ebooks hugely positive for Tor

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue discussed the decision last year by Tor Books UK and US to drop copy protection. It just released a statement regarding the effect of the DRM-free ebooks after one year.

His column deftly discusses the tension between consumers who want the inconvenience of encryption eliminated and concerns that DRM targets lawful consumers far more than those acquiring illegally distributed copies. Although he does not address the plethora of DRM-free versions on bit torrent sites, he notes that the changes to DRM for commercial products might affect the rate of piracy, but not the existence of piracy.

The Tor announcement highlighted a few other features of their strategy. First, the strategy was about their authors and the goals of the authors to engage more effectively with their readers. Secondly, as a science fiction imprint, their readership is among the most capable of getting DRM-free copies, so the publisher needs to make the consumer happy more than it needs to protect itself from the consumer. And finally, the decision to eliminate DRM does not mean that the works are not for-profit, on-sale copies. This statement captures many of Tor’s concerns:

We had discussions with our authors before we made the move and we considered very carefully the two key concerns for any publisher when stripping out the DRM from ebooks: copyright protection and territoriality of sales. Protecting our author’s intellectual copyright will always be of a key concern to us and we have very stringent anti-piracy controls in place. But DRM-protected titles are still subject to piracy, and we believe a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as publishers are, understanding that piracy impacts on an author’s ability to earn an income from their creative work. As it is, we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year.

Pogue suggests but does not state outright that DRM is an ineffective strategy for reducing piracy. But he is very explicit that the point of an anti-piracy policy is to increase sales and revenue. DRM-free does not mean without cost. iTunes sells its music even though it dropped DRM. He also points out that his own books have had fared similarly in the market.

If book consumers thought that everyone in the household could easily read the same book (in the manner that a family can share a physical book), it might be more willing to spend money to own the ebook. For works that have no physical cost, the increase in unauthorized copies is not the right metric. The right question is whether more customers will purchase the work. If more copies are sold, the work is more successful, even if more copies are also pirated.

Pogue makes another strong point that the ease of the transaction directly impacts sales. “Friction also matters. That’s why Apple and Amazon have had such success with the single click-to-buy button. To avoid piracy, it’s not enough to offer people a good product at a fair price. You also have to make buying as effortless as possible.” High transaction costs are reasonable only for expensive, infrequent purchases. Weight is a normal force on friction; only weighty purchases should have high friction.

Finally, Pogue addresses the pricing of ebooks. Frankly, he is more generous to the publishers than I would be on this issue by acknowledging the costs associated with “author advance, editing, indexing, design, promotion, and so on” but like the music industry, the investments are declining. The public is likely to value the fair price point of an ebook as a percentage of its physical counterpart. If the physical copy has a secondary market in the used bookstore, then the loss of resale also needs to be factored in for the consumer. Otherwise the consumer is only paying for the convenience of instant access, and if the instant access is undermined by cludgy DRM, there is no value to be had.

Tor heard this from its constituents:

But the most heartening reaction for us was from the readers and authors who were thrilled that we’d listened and actually done something about a key issue that was so close to their hearts. They almost broke Twitter and facebook with their enthusiastic responses. Gary Gibson, author of The Thousand Emperors tweeted: “Best news I’ve heard all day.” Jay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, called it “a visionary and dramatic step . . . a victory for consumers, and a red-letter day in the history of publishing.”

Tor never says it has become more profitable, but the company does relish the role it is taking in leading the publishing industry towards a more consumer-friendly business model.

The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor and Tor UK as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern—and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community. And a year on we’re still pleased that we took this step with the imprint and continue to publish all of Tor UK’s titles DRM-free.

So the lesson from Tor is simple – for low-cost impulse purchases DRM doesn’t add value. High quality, fairly priced, and easy to access works will continue to attract a growing market. These are the points of emphasis and differentiation for the marketplace. DRM may be a legal solution, but it is not a sound business strategy.

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