Tor Goes DRM Free, but Does It Change Anything for eBooks?

The big news in ebooks this week is that Tor, a division of Macmillan, is going DRM free on their whole catalog (including books sold at Amazon and B&N). Needless to say, everyone who follows ebooks is very excited, and for good reason. This is a big step in chipping away at the “walled garden” style eBookstores we have now, where B&N books have different DRM than Kindle books, etc. But who really benefits here?

Obviously, we as consumers win here. If this succeeds, ebook libraries will become portable. You won’t need to stress about picking a Kindle and missing out on NOOK deals, or buying a Kobo and not be able to take advantage of a free Kindle title. Even better, if you fall in love with new hardware from a competing store (say, the NOOK Glowlight when you are a dedicated Amazon user), it won’t take much to convert your library. I am quite sure that Calibre or some other 3rd party will come up with ways to make converting the underlying ebook formats ridiculously easy. That is, assuming Amazon and B&N don’t come up with their own easy conversion answers from Kindle to NOOK and back.

Now, the real question is whether this boosts Amazon’s competitors. DRM has been a helpful shackle for Amazon, as well as for Barnes and Noble, so there’s a great deal of debate and hope that going totally free of it will undercut Amazon’s position as a market leader. No one knows for certain, but I think anyone who believes DRM is what solely ties consumers to Amazon is steeped too deeply in the ebook world, and not looking at the broader picture. The reason Amazon is successful is that they make it easy to buy books. The Kindle is cheap and easy to use. Whispersync makes it a dream to read among multiple devices. Prime lending offers an avenue to try free books. And Amazon’s aggressive pursuit of exclusive titles adds value to their offerings. To compete against Amazon, a store needs to compete on service, not geeky under the hood stuff like DRM. That locks a customer in after the purchase. Amazon succeeds because they get the customer to make the purchase with them, and that’s what the competition needs to learn.

To best explain this, I want to relay a conversation I had years ago with a coworker who had just purchased an iPhone 3G. She was enthusing about iOS, and commented that Apple was so brilliant for inventing the concept of apps. I was dumbfounded, and explained that phones had apps long before Apple came along. She had no idea, mainly because the old way, with Palm Desktop and Active Sync, and a billion stores across the web selling apps, was completely inefficient, to the point where a non-geek simply had no idea they existed. Apple made it easy and accessible. That’s essentially what Amazon did with ebooks. I can almost guarantee if you stop 10 people you see on the street with Kindles, the majority will tell you they believe Amazon created ebooks, or at least the modern incarnation of them. Sure, the Palm fans and Windows Mobile geeks had Microsoft Reader and Peanut Press and Mobipocket, but the average person was just heading to Barnes and Noble because that was easier.

In the end, dropping DRM is a huge, consumer friendly move that I hope gets adopted across the board. But DRM doesn’t sell Kindles, and the lack of it isn’t going to sell NOOKs. It’s all about the service and the experience. Want to compete with Amazon? Think like Amazon. Offer killer customer service, integrate the hardware and the store well, and yes, use discounts and coupons to bring in new eyeballs. Talk DRM and eyeballs glaze over…think like a shopper!

That’s my take on DRM and ebooks. Do you agree with me? Or do you think DRM is the only shackle holding readers to Amazon? Let us know in the comments!


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9 replies

  1. I don’t think DRM matters all that much. The vast majority of Kindle owners probably do not even know, nor care, that there is DRM on their books, and will not go the trouble to convert to another format anyway.

    I had never heard of Tor books, but now I know why: I rarely read Sci Fi or Fantasy series books. Perhaps fans of these genres are geekier than fans of general fiction, literary fiction, romance titles, biography, etc., and this will be a big thing for them. However, how many people are going to bother with converting formats?

    I think what may be bigger is the Pottermore sale of ebooks in the format of your choice, with up to 7 downloads of a title, making it easy to switch to another platform if you desire. Hopefully this will be where ebooks go in the next decade, so it won’t matter that books have or do not have DRM – you buy an ebook directly from the author and the author is free to allow you to transfer your purchase to another format.

    • That would be great if the Pottermore model took off, but I think (for now) it is a unique situation. I can’t think of any author who could convince Amazon and B&N to send customers away from their stores to another website. It is easy to sell drm-free titles and redirect to the retailer, but to redirect away from the retailer is a much tougher proposition.
      Sent from my iPad

    • Pottermore had little choice if they wanted to sell books independently of Amazon/Barnes & Noble/Apple[/Kobo/Sony]. Other small ebook stores also usually offer multiple formats, heck, Fictionwise still offers multiple formats, including Kindle-compatible Mobipocket, despite being owned by Barnes & Noble. Tor actually has about a dozen titles already available DRM-free in multiple formats through ebook pioneer Baen’s ebook store.

      The problem with this idea is fragmentation. It would be easier (for consumers) if Amazon and Barnes & Noble simply supported multiple formats, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  2. Another reason it won’t necessarily help Barnes and Noble: if you do most of you reading on a Kindle, you won’t be able to read Barnes and Noble’s ePUB-formatted books. Though I suppose this is less of a problem if you use an iPad to do most of your reading.

    • It isn’t hard to do that conversion-i am sure it will be an automatic service in the future (if the demand is there)
      Sent from my iPod

      • True, but there’s still that convenience factor rearing its head; it’ll never be as easy as typing in the title (wherever you are!), selecting “Store”, and hitting “Buy”.

  3. Great article, Carly! I love what you say about Amazon becoming the market leader due to creating a great customer experience, full stop. There’s also a bit of gameplay going on with TOR/Macmillan being embroiled in the DOJ’s lawsuit–they’re clearly hoping that this will take another notch out of Amazon’s ploy to own the whole book industry.

  4. It’s a step in the right direction. ¬†Hopefully this move will provide publishers with data to show what we’ve been telling them for a long time: that their fears of piracy are overblown, and DRM doesn’t help.