I’ll be going mostly DRM-free next year.

I’ve been thinking for awhile about this. I balked because I worried that books would simply not be available without DRM, and that I would be missing out on the good stuff just to make a point. But then I realized that it’s been ages since I actually anticipated a book purchase. Sure, I would buy stuff when something interesting came my way and the price was right. But these were impulse buys. It wasn’t like there were a ton of new releases I was counting down the days toward.

And I realized, too, that the quality of most books coming from big publishing these days seem to have declined precipitously. I haven’t read a single DRM’ed e-book in the last year that hasn’t had errors—obvious, egregious failures of copyediting—bookmarked by the end. There are typos and formatting glitches galore, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the content has seemed overwhelmingly derivative and lowest-common-denominator.

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a goldmine of ‘fairer trade’ e-books just waiting to be discovered by the masses: authors like Patricia Ryan and Diane Duane who are re-releasing backlist titles that were previously published commercially; seasoned pros like Blake Crouch and J.A. Konrath, who are going solo and selling straight to customers; publishers like Delphi Classics who are releasing attractive, very affordable and DRM-free anthologies for as little as $1.50 …

* * *

What finally pushed me over the edge? It was the double-edged sword of the passage of Bill C-11, which criminalizes the circumvention of DRM (even if it’s done for non-infringing purposes), and the closure of the once-almighty Fictionwise. As a Canadian, I am not eligible for B&N’s offer to transfer Fictionwise-bought books to a Nook account, so I’m on my own if I want to save my 400-odd titles. And thanks to Bill C-11, that’s technically illegal now, anyway. That offends me on a profound moral level. I’ve spent my money to acquire these books legally. I did the right thing. They’re really going to tell me I’m the bad guy, after all that?

* * *

Let me be honest here. I will say straight out that you don’t have to worry about me: My books are safe. They were safe before the law passed, and whatever tools I needed to make them safe date from before that time too. I haven’t done anything wrong … and my books are safe. But I very much resent this position they’re putting us in. Some people won’t know how to save their books. Some will, but—like me—will balk at having to ‘break the law’ to do it.

I know they’ve said they won’t come after people who break a digital lock for personal reasons. And as I blogged earlier, there are loopholes one could use if they were ever challenged. But the whole process of this—the need for furtiveness, for euphemism, for looking for the angle that will justify behavior that really isn’t morally wrong in the first place—it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. And I don’t like it. So, in my own small way, I am going to stick it to Big Publishing and vote with my wallet.

I’m fine with DRM if it’s only a rental. And I’ll continue to get Big Pub books from the public library, where it time-expires—and that’s fair enough, because you’re only borrowing. And I’ll likely use up my credit at Amazon on Kindle Deal of the Day books, where, for 99 cents, I’m okay with the thought of losing it someday. But for purchases—for books I intend to own and keep—I’m going to see what else is out there. I’m going to support authors and publishers who are doing the right thing, and who are trusting me to do the right thing too. I’ll pay for my content. I just want to be treated like a valued customer, and not a crook.

So. Who wants my business?

* * *





  1. I’ve been buying ebooks since 2002. I don’t judge a book by its DRM. If I want to read a book, I don’t stop to ponder the possible lack of accessibility in the future, then turn towards a different title I can “own” for real. I choice books because I want to read them. Now it would be great if they didn’t have DRM, but overtly fussing over DRM is like worrying over house fires and physical books–not really worth the effort.

    While I can find a typo or two in major publishing books like The Executioner’s Song by Normal Mailer, the error rate fails live up to level of egregious faults. Sure, some books from major publishing probably do have numerous mistakes and dysfunctional copyediting, but the problem is by no means an epidemic sweeping through all the books I’ve bought like a bird flu.

    As the “goldmine” among the “fairer trade” eBooks, I have yet to experience positive feelings for encouragement here. I’ve read a dozen or so indie and self-pub titles that ranged from adequate , poor, very bad, incompetent , or unreadable. There have been a few worthwhile re-releases of backlist books from authors like Jack Vance, but I couldn’t really say if they had DRM or not. And I wouldn’t want a restricted diet determining what I read.

    When I think of some great authors I’ve read in 2012–David Foster Wallace, Iain M. Banks, Salmon Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Mary Doria Russell–they all cost more than $9.99 and all (probably) had DRM. Where is that kind of current writing quality in the fair trade publishers? What about non-fiction like the posthumous third volume of William Manchester’s massive Churchill biography?

    You have to turn to major publishers for some kinds of books and you’ll have to come to terms with DRM to get them. Maybe in the future of publishing will change its ways.

  2. @Joanna — You wrote: “That offends me on a profound moral level. I’ve spent my money to acquire these books legally.” and “I’m fine with DRM if it’s only a rental.” As you know, the ebook license is just that — a rental license, not a buy-and-own license. The terms of purchase for every ebook you have bought with DRM (and probably without DRM, too) make clear that the license is revocable. That’s my primary objection to the ebook pricing scheme of the major publishers: they want too high a price for a rental.

    @Greg M: You wrote “As the ‘goldmine’ among the ‘fairer trade’ eBooks, I have yet to experience positive feelings for encouragement here.” I have no idea what is meant by “fairer trade” ebooks, but as far as indie ebooks go, there are a lot of authors whose writing is the equal of Wallace, Rushdie, etc. I grant that they can be hard to find, but they are there. For example, I just finished reading “Anca’s Story” by Saffina Desforges. It is, in my opinion, of the same caliber writing as the works of the authors you name. So are the writings of Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, LJ Sellers, Rebecca Forster, and many others. It would be nice if there were an easier way to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it really is no different than trying to find an author I will like from among those traditionally published.

  3. May primary takeaway here is that, once people really understand the Terms of Sale (TOS), they may behave differently as Joanna resolves to do or not as Greg asserts. The key thing, to me, is that whatever decisions are taken, they should be grounded in a full understanding of the TOS. This is the point at which many readers need help. It won’t come voluntarily from publishers and booksellers. They profit from our naiveté. It will have to come from governments in the form of mandates with serious consequences attached. What will that look like? When Amazon changes that “Buy” button to “Lease” or “License” and has a “What’s this?” link next to it that leads to a page explaining the TOS in plain verse.

  4. I think everyone is making good and valid points here, and yet, while I certainly can’t speak for Joanna, I do get the sense that the larger point she was attempting to make may be getting lost, or at least misconstrued.

    Again, I could be wrong–I’m not inside Joanna’s head, of course. But I think the point she’s trying to make isn’t necessarily that publishers or retailers need to be more upfront and transparent about the DRM that may be attached to their books. (Although I’m sure she would agree with that wholeheartedly.)

    The point she’s trying to make–I think–is that with the exception of situations like library rentals, DRM is just plain wrong, full stop. No discussion and no debate. It’s trickery, and it’s a picture-perfect example of Capitalism at its very worst.

    What do you say, Joanna? Is that more or less the point you were trying to make … or am I overselling it a bit?

  5. @ Dan Eldridge:

    If publishers and the big ebook vendors were up front about their terms, conditions and DRM status the industry would have a big problem:

    Nobody would buy.

    Good for you Joanna…more people need to make readers in general aware of this issue.

  6. Dan- I think the issue for me is just that the whole thing smacks of tricks and deceptiveness to me. My library is very upfront that the books are rentals. They time-expire, have to be downloaded with software that authenticates and so on. But it’s fine because they are rentals and we all know that. But the bookstores, they call it a ‘sale’ and it says ‘buy’ not license when you click the button, and they charge you full damn retail price—then something like this happens and they say ‘well, you never really *owned* it anyway…’ And if you try to treat it like you do own it—try to have the freedom to do what you’d like with it, read it on your chosen device, convert it if you need to—then they say you are wrong and a criminal…and you’re the one who ‘bought’ it at full price! They can’t have it both ways. I don’t like that I’ve spent years loyally buying 400 books and now they’re telling me I am a criminal if I want to save them off the sinking ship. That offends me. I played by the rules and feel like now I am being screwed. Enough of that. There is plenty else to read!

  7. In following this story I was reminded of some great SciFi stories where the invading aliens take on the appearance of attractive and beneficent grandparents. They have evil intent but we are smitten by the display and we accept their assertions uncritically. Newspeak also came to mind.

  8. @Richard: I’ve read a novel by Vicki Tyley that was recommended here (some time ago) as one of the best of the indies, but I found it rather average: not bad, not dull, or filled with typos or incomplete sentences, yet not good enough to seek out more by the same author. I’m sure given the vast numbers of indies publishing there must be a few better than meh, but not Tyley or Kornrath, IMHO. Tastes will vary among readers, of course, but at least for now I’d guess less than a third of my ebook will be from indies or DRM free.

    Give me something to read that’s worth the time it takes to read and I’ll buy and read it, DRM or not . And I should point out that backing from a major publisher is no sure bet it’s a good book: there is more than a fair share of series hacks, pop star memoirs, pseudo science, and vampire romance to fill a sinkhole of worthlessness.

  9. What would also help is if the major ebook retailers would indicate DRM-free books. I know of several small publishers who do sell their books DRM-free through certain major retailers (though not through one that keeps telling me DRM-free isn’t an option through them), but there’s nothing on the book page to tell the reader that the book is DRM-free. Why not?

  10. I almost bought a car the other day.

    Then I found out that it was manufacturer-crippled so that it could only drive on roads. Not to mention the way that government is in bed with big business–did you know that they make it illegal to drive above a certain speed? So that manufacturers can get away with shoddy, barely-functional, completely unacceptable safety standards! And to top it all off, they put locks on the doors, so I can’t even get into my own car without a special key.


  11. Joanna has hit upon a couple of very important points.

    The big media companies have no interest in clearly defining the terms of your transaction when you give them money for an ebook. They treat it as a lease when it suits them and they treat it as a sale when it suits them. Basically they don’t care about fair dealing or consistency with their customers. They only care about what makes them money in any given circumstance.

    When you buy an ebook on Amazon you press a button than says “BUY”. You are not presented with a lease agreement or any agreement at all. When the ebook downloads to your kindle you are also not presented with any kind of agreement before you start reading. I’ve been reading on Kindles since version 1 and I’ve never so much as seen a lease agreement let alone actually agreed to one.

    The courts have pretty consistently found that people who buy digital goods are not bound by any agreement unless it is presented to them for positive affirmation. Agreements buried away on websites or in help files are not considered sufficient.

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