Unlocking e-books: Tor is leading the way to DRM-free reading

I remember walking to work one morning with my husband a couple years ago, when he commented that the biggest problem with digital publishing was the file format. At the time, academic publishers were launching fantastic online platforms for research journals and articles, e-readers were starting to appear on Christmas wish lists, and it was clear that the e-book faze wasn’t going to blow over. But some e-books were PDFs, and then a separate file type was custom-created for the Kindle, and another one for the iPad and the Nook.

As if things weren’t complicated enough at that point, each e-reader uses its own DRM (Digital Rights Management) scheme to protect the author’s copyright by preventing someone from uploading the file to a website for free distribution to anyone. Of course, it also prevents book lending, and file-type conversion to transfer books between devices. So if that .mobi file format loses favor over time, those books on readers’ virtual shelves just disappear.

Photo from: http://readersbillofrights.info, shared through Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

Macmillan’s Tor/Forge imprint took a step toward solving this stubborn puzzle on July 20, when as promised, they made all of the e-books DRM-free, no matter where readers buy them.

“It’s clear to us that this is what our customers want,” said senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden in a press release. “We see it in the success of SF publishers like Baen and Angry Robot that have preceded us in going DRM-free. To the best of our knowledge we’re the first division of a Big Six publishing conglomerate to go down this road, but we doubt very much that we’ll be the last.”

As Hayden alluded, many small-press and independent publishers, and even some larger houses, have sold e-books without DRM, but Tor is the first imprint of the Big Six publishers (Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) to do so. Although many publishers use DRM beacause they fear a loss of sales and an increase in piracy, this will not necessarily be the result. Tor gave away 1.2 million DRM-free books in 2008 as a preliminary test. Since then, sales on those titles have continued to sell just as well.

As for piracy, if someone really wanted to put a PDF of a book on the internet, they could do it whether it was protected or not. Just google “How to remove ebook DRM” and you’ll see what I mean. Publishers are responsible for chasing down these pirates with or without DRM.  DRM is most frustrating for the consumer who just wants to sit down a read a book, without consulting an instruction manual.

Publishers and e-reader developers have done all sorts of things to mimic the physical book reading experience — offering non-backlit screens, showing page numbers, adding page-flipping images — but this is perhaps the most important. We have always shared our books. We read aloud to one another, we swap copies with friends who have similar interests, we buy and sell used books. We also keep books for years, only to reread them after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for decades. It may be that e-books will never attain the scent of a dusty, decades-old book, a cracked spine, or dog-eared corners, but especially since e-books don’t wear with age, it would be nice to be able to know that I can pick up one of my e-books ten years down the road.

But isn’t DRM-free just the first part of the solution? Even if publishers and e-readers follow Tor’s example, we’ve still got to wade through different file formats to move our books around to our preferred devices. It’s true that it will be a lot easier to do that without DRM, but only for those of us who are tech-savvy enough to figure out how. Creating a standard file format, however, will not be the publishers’ decision. I doubt they love spending the time and money to create three or more e-book files and ISBN numbers. This challenge goes to Apple, Amazon, B&N and the rest of the e-reader creators. Reflecting back on my husband’s comment from a couple years ago, it seems that although we’re on the right track, we’ve still got a long way to go.

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