A Self-publishing journey: Is Digital Rights Management effective against piracy?

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

Today I’m looking at whether or not you should choose Digital Rights Management, or DRM, as a way of preventing your ebooks being illegally copied.

"caught in the act", by *sax https://www.flickr.com/photos/saxonmoseley/

DRM is a form of encryption that prevents your work being copied. Therefore, both intuitively and as a matter of principle, you may think that choosing to implement DRM where you have a choice (such as on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform in Amazon) is a no-brainer. Intuitive, because nobody likes to have their books pirated because that ought to reduce their income stream. On principle, because that’s a way of saying to the world, “This stuff is my copyright, so please respect it.”

According to the Author Earnings Report of July 2014, the biggest publishers opt for DRM, as you’d probably expect, while around only half of independently self-published titles have DRM activated.

What effect did DRM have on sales? The sales figures suggest it harmed sales, because 50% of non-DRM ebooks accounted for 64% of sales. The report also observes that self-published titles without DRM sell, on average, twice as many as those with DRM. The report goes on to say:

What our data strongly suggests is that DRM harms ebook sales at any price point.

What might account for this counter-intuitive finding?

From my research, looking at presentations by Andrea D’Orta of Elsevier, Rebecca Smart of the Osprey Group, and David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital, which is part of the Indie Author Powerpack I described in Current reading: Books for Authors, the following factors appear to be key:

  • DRM may prevent a legitimate buyer from using it on another device, eg if they switch from a Kindle to a Kobo. That means they face the choice of either purchasing their entire e-library again, or getting hold of illegal copies from file-sharing websites. As Gaughran points out, implementing DRM inadvertently encourages people to become pirates.
  • Another unwanted side effect is that it would obviously annoy anyone who had already paid for the ebook to have to purchase it again.
  • There is some evidence that some people will not buy any DRM-enabled ebooks on principle.
  • As if all this wasn’t bad enough, apparently the DRM encryption is dead easy to crack if you know what you’re doing. In other words, it doesn’t effectively prevent piracy from the real criminals anyway.
  • A more effective defence against piracy is to make your ebook so accessible (available for all ebook readers) and so inexpensive, that downloading pirated copies is not worth the risk of getting caught, or the time and effort involved, for most people.
  • Many authors would argue that obscurity is worse than losing sales.
  • Anecdotal evidence as well as hard data suggests that on balance sales are higher without DRM than with it. The argument seems to be that pirates would not have paid for a copy anyway. I’ve also heard that people, having acquired a copy without paying for it, will often then buy a copy in order to do the right thing by the author. Perhaps even if they don’t do that, they may buy other books by the same author.

I’ve had some experience of DRM vs non-DRM. When I was selling my non-DRM ebooks on e-Junkie, sales were consistently higher than my DRM-enabled ebooks on Lulu. However, I am not sure how much one can infer from this given that I tended not to draw too much attention to the Lulu ebooks. Also, one of the formats available in Lulu was Apple, which accounts for just 9% of the UK’s ebook market.

I think for me the biggest issue is not the money, but not upsetting my customers. I believe that most people are honest, and it seems wrong to inconvenience everybody because of just a few people. In all the years I was selling my ebooks on e-Junkie, I was only ripped off twice, when after the ebooks had been downloaded, payment failed, and several emails to the people concerned were ignored. My view was that if people value their reputation at less than $10, they have some serious issues.