After three years of uneventful Kobo ownership, I have finally had to sit down with my mom and explain DRM to her. This is something she’s never had to worry about before because I’ve always gotten her books for her; the Kobo she has was initially my Kobo, and remains registered to my account. Whenever she’s wanted books, I’ve gotten them for her.

DRMSo, over the weekend, she told me there was a new book she wanted, a memoir self-published by a friend of hers. “Only one tiny problem,” she sheepishly admitted. “It’s only on the Kindle store. Is that going to be a problem?”

Well, yes. Sort of.

The official party line is that Kindle is Kindle, Kobo is Kobo and that’s that. My mother, to her credit, actually tried to solve this problem herself before she came to me, and she forwarded me an email exchange between her and the author friend where she basically said…

“Well, I have a Kobo, but it should be OK because my daughter can get it for me,” and the friend said, “Well, I don’t think she’ll be able to because these companies tend to lock up their stuff pretty tight.” And my mother wrote back that be that as it may, her daughter is very good with these things, and the friend wrote back and said maybe my mother could just buy the paperback…

I have a few problems with what’s happened here. And I know this is the world’s most common tale of DRM woe and not at all rare or special. But it’s still a problem (well, a few problems). And here they are:

1. To the author, I want to remind you that this is not about the companies locking up ‘their’ stuff. The companies are locking up YOUR stuff. Your friend wants to support you and buy your book. Why on earth would you want there to be barriers to that?

2. Without going into legal grey area particulars, let’s just say that my mother’s faith in me is not misplaced. So, why bother with the locking down anyway if people like me can get around it in under five minutes? And before you yell at me about piracy, I’ll assure you that you’ll still be getting paid for the book—just by me, the one who isn’t going to read it, instead of by my mother, who is your actual customer.

3. That also means that if you were smart enough to try and build a customer base here, and maybe email them with further updates, you’ll be targeting your missives to the wrong person. Wouldn’t it be easier—all around, for everyone—to just make your book available to be purchased by your actual customer in the first place?

I get that there are reasons people sell through Amazon—people like Konrath have written at length about juggling the freebie sales to optimize their take on a given book—but I suspect my mother’s friend just went with the simplest route without really understanding it. And she may be losing sales because of it.

I am not a sales expert by any means, but I do know that any time you have a customer on the other end of the conversation basically holding their money out to you and shouting, “Take me, please!” it’s bad business sense to not accept it.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. There’s also the fact that Amazon pays better rates and provides other bennies (like being in the Kindle Owners’ Library) if you make your book exclusive to them.

    And a friend of mine who self-publishes and has placed his books with multiple different sellers notes that something like 98% of his sales come from Amazon. Which suggests that, while if they might be losing some sales, it seems possible they’re not losing enough to worry about.

  2. @Chris — There are lots of things wrong with the statistic that 98% of your friend’s sales are via Amazon. I don’t doubt that is true, but it draws people like you to the conclusion that sales at other stores are comparable. One thing I have noticed is that many, if not most, authors who offer their ebooks at multiple stores often only mention the other stores and give only a link to Amazon. Second, it depends on the genre. Don’t you find it odd that Amazon has only 60% of the ebook market (or so it is said) yet 98% of your friend’s sales are only to that 60%. Why is that? What makes the other 40% of the market so different from Amazon’s 60%?

    I’m one of those people who doesn’t buy at Amazon and when the only link or mention I see is that a book is available at Amazon, I skip right over the book. Consequently, even if the book is available elsewhere and might be a book that would interest me, the author loses the sale because I don’t waste my time anymore trying to find out if a book is available somewhere other than Amazon. Perhaps your author friend is only pushing Amazon sales and so 98% of his sales are where he has pushed people.

    @Joanna — I suspect that Amazon continues to lockdown ebooks because most readers are like your mother, not like you. And then there are readers like me who have your ability but do not find any particular book so necessary to have and read that I care to go through the rigmarole of removing DRM — if the book isn’t available at the bookstores I want to buy at or in ePub (non-Apple), I just don’t buy it.

    @Chris and Joanna — The way I see the ebook market is this: There are many more books available than I can possibly read in my remaining lifetime so if an author doesn’t make his/her book easily available to me at the stores I want to shop at and in the format I want, and doesn’t promote its availability to me, I just move on to another author’s book.

  3. There is no problem here. The author has chosen (through her publisher) not to sell her goods through Kobo. You can buy some things at Canadian Tire you can’t buy at Home Hardware. Yes, you can get around it with ebooks by buying the book at Amazon for your mother, altering it, and giving it to her to read on her Kobo.

    I also agree with the poster who said that, while many of us are savvy about such things, making non-DRM copies of purchases for our personal archive, this is outside the realm of the majority. What you buy is what you have.

    The argument is fallacious on its face, however: being a Kobo customer does not preclude being an Amazon customer as well. Nothing is stopping your mother from purchasing a Kindle ereader or a tablet which supports Kindle, Kobo and Overdrive, natively.

    The most sound advice was the author’s: buy the paperback and stop insisting that you have a right to acquire something the author has specifically chosen not to sell.

  4. Once again: amazon does not “lock down” e-books of its own accord (except those under its own imprints). It does so solely at the request of the publisher. Not all publishers make this request. I have purchased many, many e-books from amazon that have no DRM. As has been pointed out before, publishers who insist on DRM are locking users into specific e-readers and therefore retailers–unless the customer removes the DRM, which is a violation of the license (since such e-books are licensed, not owned). Blame the publisher, not the retailer.

  5. @Alexander, while I’m sympathetic to your point, I think it doesn’t help the conversation to say “there’s nothing stopping your mother from purchasing a Kindle ereader…” We don’t know the situation. We do know that the Kobo in question was a hand-me-down from Joanna. Maybe mom can’t afford another device. Or doesn’t want to deal with the learning curve involved with a new/second device.

    I agree with Joanna and Richard that exclusivity to one store or one format is bad business. I get way more than 90% of my sales from Amazon. But my books are on Kobo and Nook because it doesn’t hurt me to do so (other than the hassle of doing the .epub conversion in addition to the Kindle), and it means just about anyone can get my books. Not on iBooks yet because that’s another level of hassle I haven’t wanted to deal with yet. However, with iBooks now on the Mac, I might have to get my lazy ass in gear and fix that.

  6. It is also worth noting that even if there were no DRM, Kindle uses a different ebook file format than Kobo, so it still would not work without conversion software. And if Amazon did allow customers to download the standard epub file format, there’s still the tricks of getting it onto a Kobo device (do-able, but not very “mom friendly”). If all that is achieved, what happens when the formatting Amazon applies (or requires publishers to apply) does not “play well” with some third party reading app’s rendering engine? Who does my mom contact for support or complain to? The challenges of an “open” ebook ecosystem go far beyond DRM (unfortunately). We’d like it to be like MP3, but it is not yet there (still a young technology). This is a larger technology issue and not so much a retailer-specific one.

  7. Wow. The only problem here is the one you have created for your mom by making her dependent on you for ebook access. And, you, a columnist for an industry website don’t even know how to deal with the biggest ebook marketplace on the planet. Sheesh.

    Dear Joanna’s mom,

    Here’s what you need to do. Sadly, you will not be able to read your friend’s book on your Kobo ereader, but don’t let that stop you. I can explain to you a simple five minute process that will allow you to read your friend’s book. Go to Amazon’s website. Set up an Amazon account. It will only take a few minutes. You will need a credit card. Once you are all set up and signed into your account, go back to Amazon’s main web page. See that section that says “Shop by Department”? Put your mouse over the entry that says “Kindle” (if you are using a tablet or phone, just touch the word “Kindle”). There will be a “fly-out” menu and one of the entries will say “Free Kindle Reading Apps”. Click on that item. It will take you to a page that will let you download a Kindle reading app for your device (not your Kobo, but the computer or phone that you are using to sign up for Amazon). If you are not sure what kind of device you have (and it can be pretty confusing these days), just click that link under the title “Kindle Cloud Reader” and you will be able to read your Amazon books in your browser.

    Once you have your Kindle app set up, go back to Amazon and search for your friend’s book. Amazon’s search functionality is much better than Kobo’s, so I’m sure you will be able to find the book. Then, just buy the book (Amazon will charge your credit card), and you can start reading the book right away. Easy peasy.

    I hope that helps,

    John (my name’s not really William Ockham, you can call me John).

  8. The issue is not whether my mom can afford a Kindle or not. It’s whether she should have to shell out just to read one book. She is happy with her Kobo and with the books it offers. The only reason this issue came up is that she had an author friend trying to get her to buy a book.

  9. Your mom doesn’t have to buy a Kindle to read a Kindle book. How can someone who writes for a prominent industry publication not know one of the most basic facts about the most important ebook platform in the entire world?

  10. @William: I’ve heard this “suggestion” a gazillion times and it is great — assuming I want to read on my computer or my cell phone rather than on my preferred reading device that I bought or was given. Personally, I spend all my work day reading on a computer screen. The very last thing I want to do is to continue sitting at my desktop computer so I can read someone’s book that is available only at Amazon. I’ll pass. With a million books being published every year, there are enough available at stores I buy at and can load onto my Nook without even giving Amazon a second thought.

  11. Just a thought to all those people who have “helpful” suggestions to Joanna’s Mom.

    Imagine buying a CD or a DVD from Amazon and then trying to play it in your Sony player and it not working. When you contact Amazon, they tell you that you can’t play it in anything other than a player purchased from Amazon or on your computer. I bet you would be pretty annoyed and rightly so.

    Indeed, I am frequently annoyed with this attitude that seems to exist in book publishing that suggests that it is somehow wrong for readers to want to read their ebooks on their reader of choice and that they should just adapt and read the books the way the publisher or Amazon wants them to.

    Further, it is Amazon’s fault. Sure, they don’t require the publisher use DRM, but they insist on using a proprietary format and DRM scheme, both of which makes it difficult for many (though not all, and certainly not any pirates) to access books on any platform other than their proprietary readers.

    They also seem to be the most aggressive book store in terms of pursuing exclusive deals with authors or publishers of ebooks. In other words, if an ebook is only available from one source, that source is likely amazon.

    Here is the thing that should worry Amazon, and publishers. I suspect that more than a few readers have turned to the Darknets when they found they could not get an ebook in the format they wanted… and once they did it once, it is more likely that they will do it again.

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