In order to thrive, ebooks need to become like MP3s: Regardless of where they buy it, consumers want the ability to read their ebooks on whatever device they choose. Apple has carved out a niche akin to a consumer cult, where no one cares about the restrictions of proprietary file formats, and Amazon seems to have taken a page out of their book. But this may not last long. Rumors abound about Amazon supporting the EPUB format on Kindles, so this may all be a moot point soon.
In the meantime, self-publishers planning to release a digital version of their books must consider how or if DRM fits into their production and sales plans.
DRM stands for digital rights management. Basically, DRM (provided through a number of software products) controls how you can share your ebook from user to user and device to device. Proprietary formats typically have this built in; DRM is what keeps you from being able to share your Kindle purchases with 100 of your friends, for example. More open formats like EPUB are either DRM-free or you will be asked to subscribe to the DRM policy of each sales outlet through which you make your ebook available.
So, if your ideal reader bought an EPUB version of an ebook from some random place online, she could read it on a number of devices including the Apple devices (assuming whatever DRM the publisher used had such open permissions). However, if she purchased an EPUB version of an ebook via iBooks, Apple’s own DRM (FairPlay) would restrict her from reading that ebook on any other device.
There are three basic DRM systems currently in use: Adobe DRM, Amazon Kindle DRM, and Apple FairPlay DRM. Ebooks in any one of those DRM systems are incompatible with the others.
You need to decide at the outset if you’re going to use DRM or not as some distributors (such as Smashwords) won’t support it and others (such as Amazon) have their own.
My advice is to forget the DRM when you have the option to forgo it. It’s more important to make your ebook as widely accessible as possible than it is to restrict the fraction of people who will abuse your generosity by sharing the ebook with others—besides, digital publishing pioneers like Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin have already shown the great benefit from free distribution and how it can lead (a bit counter-intuitively) to plenty of income. Even some forward-thinking major publishers like Tor/Macmillan are going DRM-free.
The more I read about DRM, the clearer it is that the cons outweigh the pros for most self-publishers. For one thing, it can be very expensive to implement on your own (there are no extra costs to “turn it on” as an option when you publish directly through such outlets as Kindle Direct Publishing, however). And it isn’t hard to find workarounds if you’re a dedicated pirate, so you’re hurting your potential readers more than hindering thieves with a DRM restriction—after all, it only takes one successful pirate to make a DRM-protected ebook available for free to the whole world online. DRM software suites are also notoriously buggy and, if the multitude of blog posts, forums, and other anecdotal evidence online are to be believed, are responsible for an awful lot (some claim the majority) of customer service calls made to device manufacturers and ebook sellers. More and more users report that they won’t buy ebooks with DRM just to avoid the aggravation. It’s also easier to sell your ebook via shopping cart systems on your own website if you don’t use it.
Bottom line: It’ll cost you more to publish the ebook and may cost you readers. That math makes no sense to me. What do you think?
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.