Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Have Publishers Won the DRM Debate and Does It Matter?


How many people remember that All Romance EBooks sell DRM free ebooks from Avon? Or put another way, how many people actually buy from All Romance for the purpose of obtaining a DRM free ebook? Avon doesn’t make it easy for you to find the DRM free ebooks. You must first use its Facebook App “Avon Social Reader” which requires you to allow their “App” access to your Facebook timeline. From there, you can click on various books and follow their purchase links to All Romance.

You can tell on ARE which books are DRM free only if you are paying attention to the “Available” formats section. “Available in: Epub, Secure Adobe Epub eBook” The key here is “Epub.” There is no easy way at ARE or BooksonBoard or Fictionwise or any of the major retailers that allows you to filter books by whether the books have DRM or are DRM free. While most search capabilities at online retailers are fairly simplistic and lack decent filters, there appears little movement to differentiate between DRM and DRM free books.

Truthfully, DRM at this point only helps to enforce platform dependency and reduces smaller bookstores ability to compete with Amazon.  Indie bookstores, for example, are partnering with Kobo but the over 10 million Kindle owners won’t be able to purchase books from their local indies because of format incompatibility.

Much of the talk out of the most recent publishing conference, Digital Book World, was how publishers needed to develop direct to consumer platforms.  Without abandoning DRM, publishers will have to sell only ePubs and will be bypassing a huge number, maybe 60%, of the ebook reading public.  Further, with DRM come fewer rights for readers which, in turn, fosters readers belief that the product they are consuming is ephemeral and of lower value.

Most casual readers don’t even know the difference between the two. Most casual readers won’t be affected by DRM until one of two things happens:

  1. They lose access to their ebooks through a computer malfunction or upgrade
  2. They want to change ereading devices.

Number one has been largely resolved by the retailers creating individual cloud accounts for their customers and allowing customers repeated redownloads and archiving.  Access isn’t dependent on remembering a password and username via the Adobe Content server and while customer support at most retailers isn’t great, even the much dreaded Kobo is better than Adobe’s non existent CS.

Number two is declining in importance as readers move steadily away from the dedicated device and adopt tablets.  While it is more difficult to read ePubs on a Kindle or Kindle books on a Nook Tablet, Android and iOS tablets allow for a reader to shop at any number of retailers out there.

Further, there has been little effort by the retailers to make their DRM more robust and DRM stripping tools are easy for any person who can point and click.  A user doesn’t have to run python scripts and stand on their heads while rubbing their stomachs any longer to crack DRM.  It’s as easy as installing Calibre and a few plugins.  The stripping of DRM is automatic after that.

It’s almost as if the knowledgeable reader and the publishers have entered into a detente.  They aren’t going to invest in making DRM harder to crack but they aren’t going to do away with it either.  The knowledgeable ebook reader knows how to crack and convert their ebooks and thus DRM restraints are of little bother to them.

While there is the occasional clarion call for the elimination of DRM such as when the reader last fall was locked out of her Kindle account and lacked access to any of her digital books, the general ebook world has largely given up on rattling the DRM cage of the publishers.  The conversations that are being held at publishing conferences about DRM are the same ones held two years ago and two years before that.  In sum, nothing has really changed.

It seems that the publishers have won the DRM debate, but that has been a minor victory that they should have given up long ago.  It has done nothing to abate piracy; it has eroded value; and it has increased platform dependency.  DRM abandonment might make sense now, but it won’t reverse the trends that have already been set in motion.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Meri
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 04:22:20

    I’d love to buy non-DRM books from ARE; unfortunately, they seem to geo-block everything. I was never been able to buy anything there, so I finally gave up and stopped trying.

    Otherwise, these are all good points, but I agree – it’s probably not going to make any difference. People who want convenience will remain locked to their device, while those who don’t mind a bit more work can get past DRM. Publishers gain nothing from this, but it’s certainly nice for Amazon.

  2. library addict
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 04:35:21

    I would still like it for publishers to go DRM free. It’s foolish for them not to.

    I agree 100% it just makes readers device dependent. And it’s mostly on the publishers.

    But how many authors actually link to sites other than Amazon? Sure a few also reference B&N. But you would think Kobo, Sony, ARe, Books on Board and other sites don’t even exist. And then they wonder why Amazon has such dominance. I avoid buying digital books from Amazon for the most part because I want to support the other retailers. And yes converting to ePub is easy, but I would rather just buy the book in ePub to begin with.

    It also irks me that so many authors who are self-publishing their digital backlists only make their books available at Amazon and occasionally B&N.

  3. Ros
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 06:24:19

    They have but it’s surely a pyrrhic victory. I’ve been saying for ages that the only beneficiary of DRM is Amazon, and it seems I’m right. I honestly don’t understand why other places don’t sell mobi format ebooks. Especially bookstores that aren’t tied to another non-kindle ereader. Why wouldn’t you want a slice of that market?

  4. Eggs
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 06:34:59

    DRM has turned me into a criminal. I’ve basically decided that if I’ve paid for my ebook and -at some time in the future – can no longer access it due to no fault of my own, then I’m just going to replace it with a pirated copy. As a result, I no longer care about DRM.

  5. Lia
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 07:20:46

    First thing I do when I buy a book, is strip off the DRM. Since it’s so easy to strip, it doesn’t really matter to me if a book comes with DRM or not.

    I like to know for sure that I will still be able to read the books I’ve purchased in ten years time.

  6. Cindy
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 07:32:07

    I’m with Lia. The first thing I do with a new ebook is run it through Calibre and strip the DRM. It’s become second nature. However, with the last set of DRM removing plug ins I installed, I had to install python to get it to work on Kindle.

  7. SAO
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 07:34:53

    DRM “has done nothing to abate piracy; it has eroded value; and it has increased platform dependency.” Exactly!

    Geo-restricting with DRM has added to the problem of piracy overseas. I asked a Russian friend who got a Kindle if there were a lot of Russian books available for the Kindle. Yes, she said, and the great thing about the Kindle (and the reason she bought it) was that with the Kindle, books are free. She said it like it was an obvious and well-known fact. In short, she didn’t know that 100% of the books she reads on her e-reader are pirated.

  8. Willa
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 07:43:56

    I object strongly to paying for an ebook and having the threat of it being removed at any time by the shop, hanging over me. I don’t expect an Amazon employee to turn up on my doorstep saying ‘you know that paper book you are reading – well for whatever reason we are taking it back.’

    I also object to the fact that when I want to upgrade my ereader when it dies, that I can’t transfer MY books, that I have paid for and should therefore own, over to the new device if it is another brand.

    Calibre is my friend.

    @library addict:

    I avoid buying digital books from Amazon for the most part because I want to support the other retailers. It also irks me that so many authors who are self-publishing their digital backlists only make their books available at Amazon

    I avoid Amazon books, period. And agree re the self publishing.

  9. LG
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:15:54

    I do buy from ARe specifically to get DRM-free books and have found it really easy to get what I want. If a particular publisher is on sale and I know some of their e-books are DRM-free and some aren’t, that’s what the advanced search is for. I’d buy from BN, too, if it were possible to limit their searched by DRM-free e-books – I’ve mentioned that to them, and I get back a form email that basically says “publishers require us to add DRM, blah blah.” There are a lot of authors I basically no longer buy because their publishers sell their books with DRM – sure, the books are on my “to buy in paperback or hardcover” list, but, in practice, I usually can’t find them at my local bookstore, which means I have to put together an order online in order to get them. I haven’t done that in months, but I’ve bought a lot of DRM-free ebooks in that time.

    If it ever became impossible for me to shop for DRM-free ebooks for whatever reason, I’d finally join the people who buy DRM-protected and then immediately strip the DRM off. In the meantime, I still have options that work for me.

  10. Mireya
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:17:43

    Honestly, most casual readers who use dedicated readers do not even know what DRM is unless, like me, they frequent reader blogs. In my case, I always believed that if I bought a book, the book was MINE… not an effin’ “rental” which is what any DRM book effectively is as long as it has DRM attached to it. As a result of my belief, I did go through the hassle of learning how to strip DRM back when it was a PITA to do so. Now, it’s so easy, as you indicate, that I don’t care anymore as it’s my habit to download my book purchases in whatever format (usually Kindle or DRM-tied epubs from nook or Sony), strip DRM, convert when warranted (I prefer epub over mobi/Kindle) and then back up to my external hard drive and to a high capacity flash drive (I am getting rid of my cloud due to the privacy concerns I now have thanks to certain government moves involving internet, but I digress). Will the attitudes change? Not entirely sure, but I do think that if the consumers started protesting, publishers would have to rethink the DRM situation. I do agree that DRM benefits Amazon above all others, and convenience is such that users don’t care, but it’s going to be interesting to see what will happen if Amazon changes certain things.

  11. Lisa J
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:38:34

    It doesn’t matter to me if there is DRM or not because like most others, I strip the book first thing. I also add the cover back to the book, if it doesn’t have it and if needed, I convert it to ePub. I’m one of the people who have forgotten their Adobe password, so if my computer dies, I’m SOL.

    One more thing, I’m a non-Facebook user. I know no one believes we have money to spend or look at their products, but the truth is, I do (just look at my bank statement and you’ll know I not only have it, I spend it). Just saying.

  12. Lynnd
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:41:51

    The only winner of the DRM debate is Amazon. If publishers were really serious about the assertions that they made about Amazon in the agency debate, they had a simple solution. Get rid of DRM and Amazon no longer has the monopoly on that format.

    DRM doesn’t stop pirating and never will since the pirates just see whatever DRM the publishers impose as a challenge to circumvent in the name of “freedom” (or whatever). In fact, DRM gives many pirates legitimacy in certain circles because the pirates portray themselves as heroes fighting the big corporate evil (in Canada we have a political party dedicated to the cause). Legitimate ebook buyers either don’t care or just strip the DRM and move on. Given that, I would say that the publishers have not won the debate since they have convinced very few of the legitimacy of their argument.

  13. Liz H.
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:52:44

    This is just another example of what I have come to see as the blatant blindness and stupidity of those who control the publishing industry. They have placed themselves and their industry on such a pedestal that they believe they can take every single basic “good business practice” and turn it on its head, and still flourish. And then bitch and moan when sales flounder, and the industry is in trouble. (And I’m not talking about wall street complicated profit-at-any-cost business practices, rather the basics of economics 101, which in most cases are best for both the consumer and the business.) Every major decision I have read over the last two years- DMR, georestrictions, library sales, pricing, etc.- is made out to be some difficult wrenching decision for the pubishers to make, when in fact basic market research (which publishing companies seem to have some unnatural aversion to) would likely reveal that they should be quite simple (although that is not to say that it wouldn’t take time and effort to impliment changes). The leaders of these companies are actively stagnating them by burying their heads in the sand, and until the self-publishing and online publishing companies reach full fruition, readers and authors are the ones who have to pay the price.

  14. Liz H.
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 08:59:30

    Now that I’ve ranted my heart out… ;) I have, like many others, a set book budget. (One-click purchasing is no one’s friend.) I have a Nook, so prefer epub and hate converting formats because of the errors that inevitably come along. I do strip DMR, but also prefer to eliminate that hassle whenever possible. So, although I have some must-buy authors, any new-to-me authors that I try with my limited budget are published in epub and DMR free (usually from ARe). And as authors are phased out, and new ones on to the must-buy list, more and more are DMR free, and fewer are from the big-6.

  15. Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 09:43:12

    I’m a blogger who has written a bit about DRM and the problems thereof, yet I hadn’t heard about Avon offering DRM-free epubs through All Romance. After reading your explanation of how to access them, I probably won’t be buying Avon’s DRM-free books any time soon, because I’m wary of Facebook apps. I prefer not to offer any company that much access to my semi-private life — even if I can block much of what they can see.

    Re DRM in general: As you point out, many knowledgeable consumers are comfortable with stripping DRM from their books despite its illegality… and DRM doesn’t stop determined pirates, who are usually pretty tech-savvy, anyway. I’d agree with you regarding the uneasy detente — for now. But I’m not so sure publishers have “won”; I think the debate is still on-going. Tor did take the step of removing DRM from its books this summer: the first branch of a major publishing house to do so. (Baen, which has been DRM-free for years, is major in the SF-F field only.) On the other hand, the Kirtsaeng case shows that publishers are determined to control access to content as tightly as possible, in that case by restricting resale rights currently considered legal. That suggests that rather than reducing DRM or leaving it in the current state, publishers may try to increase DRM protections in the future. Such a move could backfire on them as consumers who want full ownership of their content find ways around any new protections. I think the jury is still out on the DRM question.

  16. Eimar
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 10:28:59

    Steve Jobs wrote a famous open letter to the music industry, which basically
    DRM is down in the music industry and so it will in the publishing industry.
    For publishers the dependency to one big player like Amazon is a much bigger problem than piracy. And DRM can´t stop this issue anyway.

    I love to use new innovative services like to read my books and texts there. And if I have paid for a text, I want to have the right to do so. All just can benefit from the fact that there are more and more great independent reading applications and platforms out there.

  17. Sunita
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 10:43:35

    In talking to other readers I find that even computer-savvy ones don’t want to sideload books; they love the one-click buy setup. I think Amazon would retain its dominance even if it did away with DRM because it controls so much of the self-pub market through KDP Select. And on top of that, it allows you to send files directly to the Kindle, which I don’t think any other platform does.

    I sideload far more than I one-click buy, but most people are the opposite, and as long as they are, I think Amazon will have the upper hand, DRM or no DRM.

  18. Sunny
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 10:49:26

    Having seen the DRM wars in video games (and wondering about the new salvos that will be fired this year) I’d rather sit at this impasse than the constant battle to make things more and more restrictive. I’d like to see it abolished entirely, and it seems like just a token effort at this point, but for me that’s far preferable than constantly having to update Calibre just to be able to read books published in countries other than the US (and therefore not on Amazon) on my Kindle. Or if they’re a better deal at another vendor. Or if they’re self-pubbed on an author’s website only.

    Video game publishers are very slowly starting to say “You know what, DRM isn’t working” as they’re aware it’s cracked the moment it comes out, but they’ve found other methods that are less in-your-face to the users (thank goodness) but are actually even more restrictive. I don’t want to see a future when my e-reader has to be connected to the cloud at all times to read my books, which is where video games are already at. One publisher has removed DRM from their games, but you have to be online at all times to play them. They provide lots of hooks and reasons to be online (friends, high scores, etc) but I can’t see that working with books in the same way.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I also don’t think that authors are needing to recoup $80mil for a book in sales, so I just don’t think DRM is monetarily worth pursuing for books the same way it is for other things.

  19. Carrie G
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 11:50:33

    @Sunita: I’m one of those, Sunita, although I’m not sure I qualify as ‘tech savvy.” I have Calibre and the software to strip DRM, but since I own a Kindle it’s much easier to simply one-click and read. My daughter sideloads most of her reading material because she reads lots of fanfic. With help I finally figured out how to read epub on my Kindle Fire, but I don’t like the format quite as well. I naively don’t worry about not being able to access my Kindle books in the future. Most I probably will never read again, anyway, and books I want “forever” I buy in print if possible.

    I don’t want to say books are “disposable,” but even print books don’t live in my house long except for rare ones. Not enough room. I buy, usually used, and donate. I guess I don’t have a strong attachment to my ebooks, either. And I used the library for approximately 50% of my reading.

    The solution for me, while others grapple with DRM (which I don’t think is a good idea–my family members are all gamers, so we’ve been there, done that), is to have a tablet that reads mobi and epub. There is a Nexus in my future.

  20. Ros
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 12:10:57

    @Carrie G: That is actually the thing that worries me most about Jane’s post – the assumption that dedicated ereaders are going to be superseded by the tablet market. I love my kindle. I really, really love it. Reading on it is an entirely different experience from reading on a tablet. I don’t own a tablet and I don’t want one. But I can definitely see a few years from now that being the only sensible option.

  21. Carrie G
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 12:33:07

    @Ros: I can certainly understand that, and I will own a dedicated ereader for as long as they are available. I don’t read nearly as much on my Kindle Fire as I do my keyboard Kindle because of the backlighting and the weight. Backlighting really does hurt my eyes after a while. But for reading non-Kindle (read mobi) books, I’d rather buy a tablet than another dedicated ereader, such as a Nook or Sony.

  22. Nate
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 14:27:04

    @Ros: Agreed.

    Publishers didn’t win the DRM war; their insistence on using DRM created a severely nonfunctional situation that enabled Amazon to win the war by crafting an ebook platform with virtually invisible DRM. All the other ebookstores copied Amazon’s ideas.

  23. Kaetrin
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 19:39:40

    These days, I don’t get too fussed about DRM for the same reasons everyone else has said. I won’t buy from the ibookstore though. That sucker’s too hard and I have no trust.

    I would also be crushed if dedicated ereaders went the way of the dodo. I love my Sony. I love my Kindle too but I do most of my reading on the Sony.

  24. SAO
    Jan 27, 2013 @ 23:16:56

    I only use games on the iPad or my phone, but I don’t have any games that require the internet. When the internet is available (as free wi-fi, I don’t pay through the nose for mobile data), I browse the internet.

    I’m not going to sign up for any system that requires me to have active internet to read. I read on planes and in airports, at vacation houses without internet, in hotels, in short, in all sorts of places where it is a hassle to get internet — or exceedingly expensive. Mobile data is extortionately priced domestically. Ever tried it roaming?

  25. Ebook and Publishing Industry News (Jan 26 - 27th, 2013) | @ebookmakr blog
    Jan 28, 2013 @ 00:04:38

    […] Jane Litte via Dear Author (DE): “Have Publishers Won the DRM Debate and Does It Matter?“ […]

  26. Mikaela
    Jan 28, 2013 @ 05:34:37

    I primarily buy my books from Books on Board ( or I used to, before their store went wonky) and Kobo. Since most of the books I buy are DRM’d I strip the DRM automatically when I add the books to Calibre.

    That said, I am thinking of switching to Bokon, since their books are watermarked. Also, the prices are in Swedish which makes it easier to keep my e-book budget.

  27. eggs
    Jan 28, 2013 @ 18:58:25

    Personally, I think that DRM is responsible for the scale of piracy. There were always going to be book pirates, just like there are always going to be people who steal candy bars from the checkout line in the supermarket. A certain sub-section of society just likes to steal. I don’t. I would guess that the majority of people feel the same way as me which is why the majority of people don’t steal candy bars or books.

    However. Read the comments thread of any article on DRM and it’s filled with intelligent, honest readers who are happy to spend their money on buying books, yet are completely open about the fact that they immediately commit the “crime” of stripping the DRM from their purchase so they can read the book they just bought on their device of choice. Or readers who shrug about fraudulently representing themselves to Amazon as living in the USA so they can buy a book. DRM (and its close friend geo-restriction) have conditioned readers to accept that committing a crime is a necessary step in reading an ebook. Most readers now see it as no biggie.

    Downloading a pirated copy of an ebook is no more and no less of a crime than stripping the DRM or lying about your geographical location. The publishers have set up a system which makes pirating the next logical step. The end result is that hoards of people who would never steal a candy bar, no matter how delicious it was, end up downloading pirated copies of ebooks. This is a slippery slope that was created by the publishers themselves, so TBH, I don’t really have any sympathy for them. I do feel sorry for the authors who lose out because of piracy, but my suspicion is that if publishers did away with geo-restrictions and DRM, then levels of piracy would drop dramatically.

  28. fullybooked
    Jan 28, 2013 @ 21:50:54

    I received my kindle as a gift for christmas just before Agency Pricing came into affect, since I am Canadian Amazon charged a 2.00 fee on top of the cost of the book so free books were 2.00 and so on. Outlander was not available on Kindle in Canada at the time but was available elsewhere so I disovered DRM the hard way buying mobi boooks I could not use because of DRM. I signed up to numerous publishers websites ready willing and able to buy books but frustrated because there was no way to easily tell if boooks had DRM or to search sites for DRM free. Then publishers got together and said they were setting prices because they wanted to protect against Amazon and Amazon dropped the 2.00 charge. The upshot was the publishers words and actions made me feel that me as a reader was not important to them because I no longer read paper books. I spent thousands of dollars on books each year if other websites were DRM free I would be used to buying from numerous sites and publishers could “help” other retailers by offering exclusives, combo packs and other enhancements just like all other manufacturers do instead I am loyal to Amazon because there is no reason not to be.

  29. Lori James
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:02:11

    Great post Jane, and very interesting timing as I spent much of yesterday digging through data from a survey we did on these topics a couple months back.

    @meri – Our contracts with our direct publishers, all who MUST provide non-DRM are for world-wide rights. You should NOT be experiencing any geo restrictions there. If you are, please email me an example. The Harpercollins books that Jane referred to could be an exemption – but that’s about 40 out of about 75,000. You should have plenty of non-DRM with world wide rights to choose from.

    @Jane & Lark @ The Bookwyrm’s Hoard- Readers can filter out DRM titles from their search on and many do. There’s an advanced search feature that allows readers to search by a variety of things, including file format on Readers who use that search or browse can also purchase the HarperCollins non-DRM, they don’t HAVE to go through the social reader. But the social reader did seem to be relied upon to direct consumers to the experimental non-DRM ePub options rather than focusing on a pure DRM experiment and advertising it that way.

  30. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity is so over this winter crap
    Feb 01, 2013 @ 19:10:15

    […] What have publishers actually accomplished by using DRM? […]

  31. Rutchie
    Feb 02, 2013 @ 02:19:51

    It’s still a debate and it matters.

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