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 of 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!