The big news today is that Tor, probably the best known SF&F publisher in America, will be going DRM-free on their ebooks by July. You can read wise words about this from two of their authors, Charlie Stross and John Scalzi.
Charlie and I, together with Bella Pagan of Tor UK, will be on a panel about e-publishing at the Eurocon over the weekend. I’m sure this topic will come up.
Why is this happening now? Well I guess it may have something to do with the ongoing unfriendliness between Macmillan (Tor’s owners) and Amazon. Being DRM-free makes it much easier for Macmillan to sell books outside of Amazon. Why? Well for an independent bookstore like mine implementing DRM is a major expense. I just couldn’t do it. People like Weightless Books and Webscriptions can’t do it either. Angry Robot don’t do it, and I suspect that the problems of implementing DRM is one of the main reasons why Gollancz doesn’t sell books directly from SF Gateway.
By going DRM-free, Tor is removing one of the main obstacles to selling their books through independent bookstores like mine. And they can then encourage people to buy from those stores rather than Amazon.
Does that mean that I’ll be selling Tor books soon? Well, I don’t know. I’d like to, but the Tor folks will be making their own decisions as to where to put their books on sale. There are other issues to consider. Here are a few.
Firstly, selling through ebook stores is still a pain in the butt, because there’s no sensible distribution system. With paper books all a publisher has to do is sign up with one or more of the major distribution companies and then sit back and wait for orders. With ebooks the relationship is generally direct with the store, and each store is different. Crucially all the big stores have their own, idiosyncratic submission systems and contracts. So a publisher won’t want to deal with a new store unless they think it is worth their while (which means they expect big sales).
Some of the existing distributors are trying to provide an ebook service, but the one I have looked at requires that all books have DRM. There are aggregation services as well, that offer to submit your books to multiple stores, but they seem set up to prey on independent authors rather than provide services to small publishers.
Another issue for big publishers is region restrictions. That’s something else that an independent bookstore can’t afford to implement. Any book I sell has to have worldwide rights. That may preclude Tor from working with me, at least for some of their catalog. But I think it also means that region restrictions will start to go away more quickly.
Finally there is Amazon to consider. They don’t back away from a fight, and if Tor starts selling books through other outlets you can bet that Amazon will go after those outlets aggressively. I don’t know how, as yet, but I know they will. So a big publisher will want to pick their allies carefully.