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Worlds Without End Blog

Where to Find DRM-Free eBooks, and Why It’s Worth the Effort Posted at 11:24 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

A couple of weeks back, Rico penned a post saying goodbye to eBook DRM (digital rights management), following Tor Books’ announcement that it had extended its new no-DRM policy worldwide. The common sense arguments against DRM are laid out in that post, but, despite Tor’s decision, the brave new world of DRM-free eBooks isn’t quite here yet. Many authors and smaller publishers are embracing DRM-free books, but the big publishers and the major eBook retailers are still resistant.

This is not surprising, since an important profit-making strategy for large corporations is to restrict competition, and that is exactly what DRM does. It’s well known by this point that DRM does not prevent digital piracy—the argument usually made for it. What it does is prevent book buyers from moving their files across reading platforms. From a publisher perspective, this could increase profits by increasing the chance that some readers will end up re-buying books in the future, if they ever want to switch to a different reader, or somehow lose access to the account their books are attached to. It makes even more sense from the perspective of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, the major book retailers and producers of the two top e-readers. If you’ve already bought a hundred eBooks from Amazon, and you can’t read them on a Nook or a Sony Reader, you will feel locked into continuing to use the Kindle, even if a competing e-reader comes along that you’d like to switch to. And if you stick with the Kindle, you won’t be buying books from Barnes and Noble or any other DRM-restricted e-bookstore.

Cyanide_and_Happiness_DRMThere are advantages to staying with a particular eBook “ecosystem.” Amazon makes a great e-reader, can sell you just about any eBook that’s available, and is very easy to use. Barnes and Noble can make similar claims. But whichever you choose, you’re pretty much stuck with that company (or whoever buys it out in the future) forever. And, for the moment, the big publishers are determined to “double down” on DRM, as Cory Doctorow describes here. Hatchette Book Group is trying to force its authors to sign contracts requiring them to make sure that any books they publish, even when published through other publishers, contain DRM. An author who has published with Hatchette and Tor, according to Doctorow, has received a letter pressuring the author to ensure that Tor does not remove the DRM from the author’s Tor books. It seems clear that these companies are not going to give up easily.

If you want to help speed the day in which the eBook market is DRM-free, you can vote with your wallet. It is already possible to find a huge selection of DRM-free books from smaller publishers (the majority of science fiction and fantasy published these days), and avoid the big retailers. The sites I suggest here all provide books in multiple file types that will work on any reader. If you have a Kindle, choose files labeled as Kindle format or mobi files. (Kindle’s azw format is a DRM’ed version of a mobi file, and mobi files will work on the Kindle.) If you have a Nook, Sony Reader, or just about any other e-reader, choose the epub format, which is becoming the standard outside of Amazon. You can transfer files to your reader via USB, just like you would to an external flash drive. And if you decide to switch readers in the future, your mobi files can be converted to epub, or vice versa, using an excellent free program called Calibre. You can also use this program to manage your eBook collection and easily move books from your computer to whatever e-reader you own. Files containing DRM cannot, of course, be converted in this way.

Along with the lack of availability of the big publishers’ books, a drawback of trying to go DRM-free is that there is still no “one stop shop” where all such books are available, but Weightless Books is starting to look like it may turn into one, so I suggest starting there. Weightless is an alternative sales platform being used by a number of small genre presses. Publishers that can be found there include Apex, Small Beer, Aqueduct Press, PM Press, Prime Books, Tachyon, Subterranean, Wildside, and others. It seems that each time I visit this site they’ve added a new publisher, and altogether they represent a very large share of the current science fiction and fantasy being produced. I was going to give some examples of the books on offer, but I don’t know where to start, so just give the store a look. I think any SF or fantasy fan that hasn’t checked it out will be more than pleasantly surprised.  You can also get the latest issues (or subscribe to) numerous magazines, including Lightspeed, Apex, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Locus, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.

Baen BooksBaen Books, an early leader in in the anti-DRM camp, also deserves a prominent mention, and has the most extensive selection of any individual publisher’s site. Baen tends to specialize in military science fiction, and publishes the work of popular authors such as Lois McMaster Bujold, David Drake, David Weber, and Eric Flint, along with omnibus reprints of classic authors like Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson and A. Bertram Chandler. Several other publishers also use Baen’s platform, so you can also find the E-Reads catalog (Greg Bear, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, among others), and Night Shade Books, which has published acclaimed novels by recent breakout authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, Stina Leicht and Kameron Hurley, along with editor Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse and Year’s Best anthologies, and much more. For classic fantasy fans, they offer the complete works of Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson. As with Weightless, there are a very large number of authors available, so give it a look to see which of your favorites are available. Browsing by author or publisher is simple. Most of the books on this site are priced at $6.00, and there is an extensive Free Library to sample from, exemplifying Baen’s commitment, made very early on in the eBook revolution, to the idea that the free distribution of digital books can help build a readership that will pay off for publishers and authors in the long run. It’s not the most elegant shopping site, but there’s amazing value to be had for SF fans.

Other publishers offering downloads include: Angry Robot, whose Robot Trading Company also hosts the titles of several other small publishers. Authors include Lavie Tidhar, Adam Christopher, and Lauren Beukes. Small publishers with SF offerings such as Nonstop Press and Twelfth Planet are beginning to offer direct downloads of their offerings, as well, and it seems likely that this will become more and more common, as it will allow them to avoid giving a cut of the proceeds on some of their sales to the middlemen. Readers can encourage these publishers to continue this practice (and others to begin it) by buying from them directly.

Some authors have gotten into the direct sales arena as well. Jack Vance’s entire catalog is being (or soon will be) sold at his website, for example. (Many authors are working on getting their backlists into eBook format, and lots of classic material is being brought back into print, though most are still understandably making use of the major retailers to sell them, rather than paying the cost of setting up their own DRM-free shopping sites. The returning to print of many authors’ backlists is one of the great boons of digital publishing.) Book View Café is a coop made up of genre authors (including lots of SF and fantasy writers) who have created a site on which to sell their own books, and Closed Circle Books is a similar effort by a smaller group of authors (including C. J. Cherryh) to produce and sell their own backlists. I’m sure there are other examples like this that I haven’t seen, and I’d love to hear about any not mentioned here!

Tor ForgeFinally, as part of its announcement about going DRM-free, Tor, the largest single SF and fantasy publisher, has promised that its own eBook store will come online this summer, though as of early September it has yet to appear. Given Tor’s size and prominence in the field, when its catalog is added to those already available, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the science fiction and fantasy books being published will be available DRM-free, and it will be very easy for fans willing to forgo the convenience of one-stop shopping to bypass the big retailers (and their DRM), and thus to be assured that their eBook collection will remain portable.

If there is a book you want, check to see if the publisher is one of those offering its own downloads, or does so through a DRM-free platform like Weightless. If not, letting them know your preference for non-DRM books could hasten the demise of “digital rights management,” and increase the percentage of the readers’ payments that go directly to publishers or authors. This is a market that is still evolving, and consumers can help it move in a direction that benefits readers and authors. Large publishers and retailers will resist, but they may give in when they realize that hostility to DRM is causing them to lose market share, and that they are on the wrong side of market forces. You’d think they would have learned from the experience of the record companies, who lost control of the money to be made in the music industry by insisting on trying to maintain an outmoded business model in the face of a digital production revolution.

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9 Comments

icowrich   |   10 Sep 2012 @ 11:01

That’s a great and informative article. Allow me to nitpick on this one little thing, though. I don’t think owning a Kindle/Nook or buying from Amazon/B&N means “you’re pretty much stuck with that company (or whoever buys it out in the future) forever.” Certainly, it looked like it might go that way for a while, but when a publisher decides to go DRM-free, Amazon and B&N both accommodate them.

I only purchase DRM-free books, but, because I own a Kindle, I buy them from Amazon whenever possible, so as to give Amazon an incentive to provide more book without DRM. If Amazon can report back to their publishers that DRM-free books sell better, they just might join the Tor/Bean/(et. al.) bandwagon.

Of course, there are other reasons to prefer a non-Amazon model of book purchasing (they do take a big fee from publishers, which may inflate overall prices). I just wanted to point out that you don’t have to give up your favorite reader to go DRM-free.

Scott Laz   |   10 Sep 2012 @ 12:22

Thanks for clarifying that, Rico. I read the article you linked to in the comments on your 9/6 post too late to incorporate it into this one. I can see also that my statement was somewhat unclear. I didn’t mean to imply that using a Kindle locks you into using it forever, since you can read DRM-free books in mobi format on your Kindle (I do the same thing), and also use them with other readers by converting them to epub. But if you commit to the Kindle/Amazon “ecosystem” and buy all your books from Amazon (which I assume most Kindle users do), the majority will have DRM, and that’s where people get stuck.

I still buy from Amazon as well sometimes, and I give them a lot of credit for taking the initiative and jump-starting the e-reader market. I’ll look for the “device usage unlimited” tag which is the indicator of Amazon’s DRM-free titles. I find it interesting that Amazon is willing to do this, since I would think they would have the strongest possible interest in maintaining DRM. It could be a sign that they know which way the wind is blowing, or it could be they figure that as long as the major publishers are on board with DRM, the vast majority of Kindle users are going to stay locked in. Most readers are probably barely aware of the DRM issue, or just figure that’s the way it is, so it will be interesting to see if, or how quickly, things change.

icowrich   |   10 Sep 2012 @ 12:53

I think they do know which way the wind is blowing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in the future, they allow their previously purchased books to be converted to a non-DRM format. Certainly, they’ll delay that time as long as they can, but it will eventually be the only way to compete.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t count on it. That’s why I only purchase non-DRM.

Darling   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 07:20

very informative. lots of stuff I didn’t know before. I assume the selections B&N touts as Nookbooks is their DRM line?

icowrich   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 09:32

I’m not sure how B&N classifies their DRM books, but I think that any book by a DRM-free publisher will also be DRM-free on B&N. I’m not sure about “Nookbooks” in particular.

Allie   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 11:06

Thanks for the article! I knew about the Baen site, but the others were new to me. My guess would be that “Nookbooks” is just a catchy name, and they just mean epubs bought from B&N, but I could be wrong. I picked the Nook side. B&N’s selection seems comparable to Amazon, and epub is a pretty common format outside of B&N. I hope DRM does finally disappear from the marketplace.

Sam M-B   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 12:06

Great article. An addition for those who like UK pounds denominated DRM-free ebooks:

http://www.wizardstowerbooks.com/

Also, while some ePub files from Kobo are “Adobe DRM”, there are also those which are DRM-free, such as (of course )Tor’s ebooks there.

Scott Laz   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 13:26

I’m not up on B&N’s policies, so I did a little digging into their site. Nook Books does refer to their whole eBook store (like the Kindle Store at Amazon). This is there DRM statement:

“Digital Rights Management (DRM) is used to ensure that a specific copy of a NOOK Book is owned by one owner, and is not just given away. This ensures that copyright laws are respected and that authors and publishers are fairly compensated.” [This makes it sound like giving books away is a copyright violation! I guess I'll have to give up on those annual book donations to the local library.] “DRM means that when you buy a NOOK Book from your NOOK or from BN.com, you own that copy forever, unless you delete it from your online digital library. You can read it, but others cannot read it.” [If I buy a book I can own it forever! Well, that's a relief.]

It seems that their DRM policy is a bit more open than Amazon’s in that you can buy books from Sony, Kobo and some other epub-based stores (but not Apple) and use them on the Nook, which would increase price competition for Nook users. I found that, after some initial difficulties, they did remove DRM from Tor Books on their site. The book descriptions contain the following statement: “At the publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.” This statement is in the product overview, with no indication in the product details section, which is where Amazon puts their “device usage unlimited” statement. I could find no sign that DRM had been removed from other DRM-free publishers like Subterranean and Prime, but I only looked at a couple of examples.

Also, over the last few days I thought of a couple more outlets for non-DRM books that I overlooked when doing the initial post:

Phoenix Pick is an SF specialist publisher with a pretty good range of books by Nancy Kress, Mike Resnick, Joan Slonczewski, Jack Chalker, etc. If you sign up at their site, they’ll send you a coupon for a free book each month.
http://www.phoenixpick.com/catalogue/PPickings.htm

Fictionwise sells books from lots of genres, among which is a pretty big selection of science fiction and fantasy, including lots of short stories. This is the place to get DRM-free copies of individual issues of Asimov’s and Analog. Be sure to buy books that are labeled as “MultiFormat” ebooks, and choose the format that works with your reader. The ones labeled “Secure” have DRM.
http://www.fictionwise.com/

And don’t forget the growing number of public domain titles available free from Project Gutenberg. There’s a list of links in the WWEnd Resources section. Manybooks.net has many of the same books, but with nicer formatting.

icowrich   |   11 Sep 2012 @ 19:33

Gutenberg is my favorite. They’ve added a LOT more sci-fi since we last updated our list (including Neal Gaiman!). We should be updating it, soon.

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