Going DRM Free: A Publisher’s Perspective

By Joel Naoum, Publisher, Momentum

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is one of the most confusing and least well understood technologies in the modern digital publishing landscape. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a quick explanation …

DRM is the little piece of software grafted onto a digital book that prevents you, the reader, accessing said book unless you have paid money for it. That’s what it is in theory, anyway. In practice, DRM mostly fulfils the function of getting in a legitimate book buyer’s way. Most DRM is applied by the retailer at the point of purchase, so it is often used as a way of locking the reader in to a particular ecosystem. Once you purchase a Kindle book, for example, there is no legal way to transfer that book to a Kobo e-reader or one of the many other devices that is technically capable of displaying the book. On top of this, DRM is extremely easy to circumvent for a moderately determined internet user.

As a result of all this, and especially because our sister imprint Tor (part of Macmillan in the US and UK) led the way, Momentum made the decision to go DRM free in May 2012 – with the promise to have all books cleared by August. This was not quite as straightforward as it might seem. Very few retailers make it easy to make ebooks available without DRM and issues plagued the list from the beginning – whether it was inaccurate metadata, titles disappearing from sale or duplicate versions appearing on stores. For the most part these issues have now been sorted out, but it’s been a lot more arduous than any of us thought it would be, and it certainly lends credence to the argument that some retailers are more than happy to include DRM on the books they sell if it means readers will remain locked in to buying books from a single store. Very few of the retailers seemed to want to help us get rid of DRM.

When we announced that we were dropping DRM, we said we were doing it because it was in line with our goal to make our books as accessible as possible – to sell ebooks globally and cheaply so that all readers can have the opportunity to buy our books and read them on whatever device they please. This is true, but it isn’t particularly concrete. What we really wanted to happen, ultimately, was nothing at all. We didn’t expect any surge in sales and we didn’t think our decision would end in a measurable increase in piracy. Plenty of publishers are still firm believers in DRM – to the point that some are trying to force other publishers that have dropped it to re-impose it on their books.

The good news is that piracy hasn’t increased. We had only a few reports of piracy before we dropped DRM and we’ve had only a few since (and we have a lot more books now than we did in May). Nothing has led me to believe that this  change has disadvantaged our authors or us financially as a publisher. On top of that we’ve had continual goodwill and support from our readers, who even months later continue to send us emails, Facebook wall posts and tweets thanking us for making it that much easier to buy and read the book they wanted to buy and read.

A good paper book is virtually invisible; in most cases the reader doesn’t and shouldn’t notice the technology that made the book possible – they should be busy reading. If publishers today want their digital books to be read with the same relish and immersion as their paper cousins then dropping DRM is a good first step in the right direction.