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The Terror of Customer Expectations

As I’ve said any number of times, I loathe DRM and have since I first understood what it was. My reasons are these:

  • It makes content delivery systems fragile. DRM adds complexity to a system, and by its nature is constantly looking for a reason to cut people off. Jerry Pournelle made this point at least 30 years ago, when DRM was “copy protection” and floppies ruled the world.
  • DRM inconveniences paying users and does very little (if anything) to stop piracy. Because…
  • A DRM system only needs to be broken once. A single very bright individual (or a small cadre of them) figures out the crack, then wraps it up in a script or a simple utility that any fool can use. Bruce Schneier made this point at least twenty years ago.
  • DRM often ties content to one single company, generally through some kind of Internet permissions system. If that company goes under, DRMed content can become unavailable.
  • Related to the above: DRM often (admittedly, not always) ties content to a single device or family of devices. Users who want to move to a different content rendering system can lose everything they’ve paid for.
  • Very Large Companies Run By Comittees Of Clueless Egotists (VLCRBCOCEs) forget that the ultimate goal is to curry favor with customers so as to sell them stuff, and allow the pursuit of DRM to make them do really stupid things. Google “sony rootkit” to see how that works. Oh, and Amazon’s private dustup with the 1984 rightholders that led them to “repossess” books right off customer Kindles.
  • Consequences of much or all of the above: DRM turns paying customers into pirates. Piss off honest customers a few times, and they’ll start looking on the pirate sites before heading over to your online bookstore.

In short, DRM creates an adversarial relationship between content providers and content purchasers that benefits neither side. As a publisher, I have promised never to force it on my readers.

Which brings us to today’s issue: What happens when online stores force DRM on me? Jim Strickland and I are preparing ebook editions of all our SF, and as time allows I’m going to do the same for my Carl & Jerry books, and even the Old Catholic Studies Series. It’s not news, and certainly not news to me, but we’ve had to confront the fact that Apple forces DRM on book publishers who want access to its store. Jim and I will probably go along, and think of a clever way to get unencumbered epubs to paying iBooks customers.

I don’t know what that clever way will be yet, but you’ll hear more about it as we figure it out. In the meantime, it’s a headscratcher: Why the hell would Apple do this? I’ve been sniffing around and there’s no clear answer. Some think it’s because Apple owns the DRM technology (FairPlay) and it’s in their interest to sell books with FairPlay gunked to them. I doubt that it’s true (it’s like paying yourself for something you already own) and given that you can download bookstore apps from other vendors to iOS, encumbered ebooks are at a competitive disadvantage, right there on Apple’s home turf. (Amazon allows unencumbered ebooks on Kindle.)

If I had to guess, it would be this: One or more VLCRBCOCEs in the print publishing industry, as part of their deals with Apple, demanded that everybody selling on iBooks must be required to use DRM–or no deal. What’s really at stake are customer expectations. Big Print is in a panic over ebook pricing to begin with, as we learned a year or so ago when Amazon and Macmillan jumped down one another’s throats. Macmillan didn’t want Amazon to “train” customers to think that ebooks should cost $9.99. (I was on Macmillan’s side that time, though for a different reason: If they jack their ebook prices up to the sky, I can undercut them much more easily. Amazon, please let publishers control their own pricing–especially huge, clueless, suicidal publishers.) In this case, Big Print doesn’t want customers to think of unencumbered ebooks as normal and expected, and DRM-encumbered ebooks as undesirable anomalies.

That particular war has already been lost, pretty much. Conventional wisdom among the tech savvy is that DRM is bad, and few of the indies use it. Nontechnical ebook buyers will figure it out when they decide to move to another reader system and can’t take their purchases with them. (The ebook business is so new that most people are still on their first reader and their first forty or fifty ebooks.) The day will come in the next few years when Big Print will be a lot less big, and competing against a lot more ebook publishers who have long understood that DRM does no one any good.

And price expectations, egad. $9.99 is so 2010. Many independent publishers now think that $3.99 or even $2.99 is the new normal. Furthermore, Amazon is now worried about yet another price point–99c!–at which their own ebook business model becomes unsustainable. Ebook pricing is still a huge imponderable, and I don’t (yet) have much useful to say about it. I hope to have some real data for you by this time next year.

Do I have proof that Apple was railroaded by Big Print into requiring DRM from all comers? No. But it makes sense to me: Apple didn’t have the negotiating leverage that Amazon or B&N had. If they get bigger, things may change. And if they don’t get bigger, it may be because everybody else, and especially the indies, is eating their lunch. Either way, for weal or woe, Big Print is in trouble, and therein lie many more entries that I hope to write in the near future.


  1. Tom says:

    Great post Jeff. Well said and it needed saying.

    It has been almost a decade I think when the Tax return software I was using decided to go the DRM route. I didn’t think about it even for a moment, but immediately changed to a different product. Of course the original program dropped the DRM experiment pretty quickly, but they lost a customer permanently — I LIKED the new software BETTER than theirs! I would probably never have even tried it if it were not for the first company using DRM.

    I just don’t like to do business with companies that treat their customers as if they EXPECT them to be dishonest. Companies like that get what they deserve.

    Oh, Can I get a T-Shirt with (VLCRBCOCEs) on it! Wonderful acronym — or is it? I know I certainly can’t pronounce it!

    1. Well, I was making fun of acronyms a little, but the sentiment is valid.

      I don’t mind paying for software, but in recent years I’ve been moving more and more to free software, or in some cases staying with pre-DRM packages. The reason is precisely that: If I paid for the software, I resent the immediate assumption that I’m trying to steal it.

  2. Larry Nelson says:

    I jumped ship from Intuit about ten years ago as well when they DRM’d their tax software. Another paying customer lost forever to TaxCut. The guys in the corner office make decisions that have long term consequences. I hope they enjoyed the few extra copies they didn’t “lose” to piracy that year.

  3. Erbo says:

    Perhaps you could make PDFs formatted for iPhone and/or iPad? I’ve done that, taking certain online texts and using OpenOffice to turn them into PDFs that work well on the iPhone screen, with a utility called PDFReader that lets me load the files onto the phone through a built-in mini HTTP server.

    1. The trick is more to identify people who have purchased encumbered books from iBooks and somehow get them unencumbered epubs. PDFs aren’t the best format for fiction in any event–tried that–because they don’t reflow and don’t view well on small screens. EPubs are much better for that, and that’s the way we’re going generally except for Kindle, which is basically a tweaked mobi.

  4. Mike Bentley says:

    Turbotax is the only Intuit package I use right now, I really don’t like that shop. I think of the Intuit package as Macintax since I started using it in the 80’s when it was published by Chipsoft. I tried TaxCut once; it said I owed $2000. When I did the same with Turbotax for the same year, it said the IRS owed me $1800.

    The DRM in content is maddening, but that’s just part of the whole insane package. I’ve been experimenting by buying tech ebooks and trying to use them for development. Oh man, just stab my eyes out with a fork, they’re awful. I’d guess that most of the problems I’m seeing are due to the novice skills of whoever lays out content, but I’m willing to blame the software for some of it.

    Fiction titles don’t seem to be as bad; I just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ _The Wise Man’s Fear_ using the Kindle reader on iPad, it was a good experience, and I think one neat thing about reading a book that way is that you don’t know how close you are to the end of the story unless you really look. With real books, you’re forced to know, and I’d rather not.

    If I wrote an ebook today, I don’t think it would matter if it were fiction or non-fiction, I’d probably just put a very low price on it, $0.99 to $5.99.

    To help fight off usenet/torrent copies, I’d probably try to keep the non-fiction titles up-to-date, such that to get the update, you’d buy the book again–unless the ebook stores let you download the updated versions.

    You have to sell low. You’re trying to sell titles in a store where most apps sell for 1) free, 2) $0.99. I have some sympathy toward movie makers, those things can cost a lot to make, but they have a huge audience.

    I know that iBooks can read PDF files, but it doesn’t matter, you want the stores.

    I think one way to deal with the DRM is to let the customers use an outside tool that processes the file. If you hand free versions of the content out, the iBooks agreement may require you to drop the iBooks price to free.

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