To DRM or Not To DRM


If you’ve uploaded an e-book to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly their Digital Text Platform), you’ll have been asked whether or not you’d like to add Digital Rights Management (DRM) to your book. This is a device, Amazon says, that “intends to prohibit the unauthorized distribution” (read: piracy) of your e-book file. Theoretically it prevents the transfer of the downloaded file from a person who has paid for it to a person who hasn’t. If you’ve ever bought music from iTunes and then got a new computer, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

And I do not recommend you put it on your e-book.

I know: it sounds strange. Surely we want anti-theft devices on our books? Well I would if they actually worked, and if I thought my book needed one. But they don’t and it doesn’t.

A year ago I knew very little about DRM, but I knew enough not to put it on my book. Back then, it was just a question of reality. To me, adding DRM was just like putting a copyright notice after the title of my book when I submitted it to agents and publishers: idiotic. What were the chances of my little book being pirated? Um… ZERO. Or very close to zero, anyway. Piracy is a plague of the bestselling author. You should be so lucky that people think your book is so amazing that they’d go to the trouble of hunting down an illegally obtained copy instead of just paying $2.99 (or less) to buy the thing. This is the same mentality that makes me want to scream very loudly and from very close range at self-publishing e-book authors who limit or forbid sampling, because they don’t want anyone to get any of their precious words for free.

Puh. Lease.

I also thought that inserting DRM was a bit of an insult. You’re basically saying to your readers: ‘Thanks for buying my book, but I don’t trust you and suspect that you might steal from me, so I’ve taken counter-measures.’ What’s next – putting a notice in your print editions prohibiting lending to friends? And then there’s the issue of DRM prohibiting readers who have paid for your book from reading it when and where they want.

But honestly I didn’t think too much about it until a couple of weeks ago when I read this post on the Smashwords blog – Smashwords are DRM-free. I learned two new pieces of information from it. One:  DRM makes e-book more complex, and can affect features such as “text-to-speech”  – where a reader can set their e-reading device to read your book aloud to them – which discriminates against readers with vision problems who may rely on these features to enjoy your book. Two: DRM doesn’t work. It doesn’t prevent piracy; there’s ways around it.

Now if I was Stephen King, I wouldn’t take the chance. I know people are going to illegally distribute my book – because I’m an internationally bestselling author with millions of fans and my publishers are charging a silly price for my e-book – so I’d lob DRM on there, even if I wasn’t 100% sure it was going to work. But you’re not Stephen King.

From the aforementioned Smashwords blog post:

‘A couple years ago, I remember one prospective Smashwords author wrote me and said, “Do you think I’m an idiot? There’s no way I’m going to publish DRM-free at Smashwords. Within days there will be millions of stolen copies across the Internet!” I shared this story later in a talk I gave at the IBPA’s Publishing University conference in New York, and afterward one author walked up to me and said, “Are you kidding? I’d pay to have my book stolen a million times!”‘

Piracy may be the scourge of the internationally best-seller author, yes, but it’s nothing to do with us. Especially since we’re charging such reasonable prices for our e-books. If it helps you sleep at night, set up a Google Alert for your book’s name and your name. That way if it shows up on a file-sharing site or something, you’ll find out about it and can take action.

I do think e-books need something that helps prevent their illegal distribution, especially as their market share grows. But I know the pain of reaching my “authorized machine” limit on iTunes, and I know people who read on both their iPad and their Kindle. And I also know that the books that are pirated are not priced for sale at 99c. So until someone comes up with a better solution, price your e-book reasonably and don’t add DRM.


5 thoughts on “To DRM or Not To DRM

  1. Marcus says:

    I totally agree. The problem of the independent author/musician/artist is obscurity, not piracy.

    It was actually Amazon who I think was the first big retailer to go DRM-free when they started selling mp3s a few years ago. The music industry has been down that path. No need for writers and publishers to repeat the same mistakes.

    In numbers, DRM-free sells more, which sounds odd too. But that’s because people don’t like being mistrusted, and treated like naughty children, not when they are paying. Nor do they want to be told where and how they can read. How silly is that, apart from being bad for business by annoying your customers.

    Actually, I’m not sure it would be good for best-selling authors, e.g. Steven King, either. Priced at $2.99, only the people who wouldn’t pay anyway, would be looking to not pay at all.

  2. Caethes Faron says:

    Like you mentioned, one of the big problems I have with DRM is the message it sends to readers. I’m a firm believer that if you treat people like criminals (pirates) they will act like it. If you treat people with respect, the vast majority of people will reciprocate with respect.

    I would never insult my readers by adding DRM to my work. It disrespects the purchase they just made by telling them they can’t read it on the device they want, and it sends the message that I’m assuming they are planning on stealing my work and the only thing preventing it is this little encryption. I can’t think of any business that would benefit by treating their customers that way.

  3. Declan Stanley says:

    This is also one of the reasons that I don’t buy many DVDs any more. Not the DRM but the video clip that you are forced to watch at the start of each DVD that basically calls you a thief even though you have paid good money to buy the disk.
    If you put DRM on your ebook you are basically saying “Hey, I’m happy to take your money, but you’re still a thief.”
    Not the best way to make a reader a fan.

  4. Kramer says:

    Thank you (and also to those who posted comments) for making this clear. With this information, the decision is an easy one.

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