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.
There 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 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!
Finally, 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.