Talking with the lower echelon employees of publishing reminds me of a description I once read about the mutual embarrassment of Western and Soviet biologists when they talked about genetics. Soviet-era scientists were required, on pain of imprisonment, to endorse Lysenkoism, a discredited theory of inheritance favored by Stalin for ideological reasons. Lysenko believed, incorrectly, that you could create heritable characteristics by changing a parent organism—that is, if you cut off one of a frog’s legs, a certain number of its offspring would be born with three legs.
Lysenkoism was a disaster. When it was applied to food cultivation it led to ghastly famines that killed millions. So, when Soviet scientists met their Western counterparts, everyone knew that Lysenkoism was an awful absurdity. But the Soviet scientists had to pretend it wasn’t. Not unlike some of the discussions inside today’s major publishing houses when it comes to DRM.
I recently solicited several writers for inclusion in the Humble E-book Bundle, for which I’m acting as a volunteer editor. The Humble E-book Bundle is the first foray into e-books by the Humble Indie Bundle project, a nonprofit that has run several insanely successful video-game distribution events in which customers got to name their own prices for a collection of independent, DRM-free games. Each of the Humble Indie Bundle projects so far has grossed around a million dollars and has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for each contributor . And I’ve recruited enthusiastic contributors from all of the big six publishers for the Humble E-Book Bundle—that is, all except one, which has an all-DRM-all-the-time policy and won’t consider publishing anything without DRM in any of its divisions.
Because of its insistence on DRM, this one publisher is going to miss out—along with its authors—on hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, and some great exposure. Needless to say, every author I’ve approached from that publisher is now trying to figure out how to get out of their contracts for future books. It’s one thing to have your publisher’s bizarre, ideology-driven superstitions erode e-book sales. It’s quite another to learn that you’re going to miss out on a chance to pay off your mortgage because your publisher has bought into a form of digital Lysenkoism.
I also recently chatted with a big-six digital strategist, who explained to me how his employer would soon be sending out all of its digital advanced reader copies (ARCs) as DRM-crippled PDFs. We shared a moment of incredulous silence at this. Most reviewers, after all, get hundreds of times more material than they can ever use. I literally get 100 books in the post for every one that I choose to review, and the idea that reviewers like me will put up with crippled e-ARCs that must be read at one’s desk or on one’s laptop, that we can’t load onto our tablets or e-readers, that generate all kinds of failures in the wee hours of the night, on weekends, or on airplanes when no one is around to offer technical support—well, it’s beyond absurd.
What will happen to these crippled e-ARCs, most likely, is that they will be ignored. This is exactly what happens to most DRM-locked screener copies distributed to voters for major film awards, like the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards. When you have 50 times more movies to consider than you could possibly watch, and when 10% of those movies require you to figure out how to connect a special player to your already overly complex home theater, well, that just makes it easy to exclude 10% of the load.
If there is anything that exemplifies the delusional nature in some publishing boardrooms today, however, it is the phrase “social DRM.” For those unfamiliar with the term, social DRM is another name for an unencrypted e-book that has the purchaser’s name (and often contact information) inserted in it, via some kind of digital watermarking. The idea is that e-book customers will be reluctant to share their e-books around if they know that their name and information will travel with the books, either because they don’t want to be shamed for being patient zero in a widespread epidemic of unauthorized copying, or out of fear of legal reprisals from publishers should a copy with their name on it show up on the Pirate Bay.
Those theories of social DRM’s potential effectiveness may or may not hold, though I’m dubious of the second premise, since it seems unlikely that any court would find anyone liable for copyright infringement merely because a third party was found to have copied from your edition. This is hardly proof that you authorized the duplication, or even that the duplication was illegal—is it illegal to copy your e-books for your kid’s use? How about willing your e-books to a local school or lending them to your parents?
The delusion of publishers isn’t in their belief that social DRM will keep people from sharing. The real delusion lies in the use of “social DRM” in connection with the marketing and sale of e-books. Recently, I discovered some publishers actually advertising their use of social DRM.
It’s not hard to imagine how the term “social DRM” came about. Since the 1980s, publishers have been alternately terrorized and tempted by stories of what was to come in the e-book marketplace. On one hand, e-books promised them near-zero inventory costs and instantaneous delivery to market, and enabled direct sales without those pesky wholesale discounts. E-books also allow for flexible sales terms that would selectively restrict different kinds of reading depending on what a customer was willing to pay for, so you could have e-books that could be rented on a weekly lease or any other “feature” for which the market was wholly speculative.
On the other hand, publishers have been worried from the beginning that instantaneous, zero-cost digital copying and sharing would make it impossible for them to earn any return from e-books, as their customers copied them out of house and home. Thus, many publishers were lured into the world of DRM, a kind of magic-beans technology that was supposed to make it hard or impossible to copy e-books without authorization. “Magic-beans” because no could ever explain to publishers how DRM worked, just that it involved “encryption” or the creation of “speed bumps.” And if all those digital security experts and cryptographers in the world (at least those who don’t work for DRM vendors) were dubious about DRM’s ability to work as advertised, it was, publishers assumed, because they didn’t understand the realities of the e-book marketplace.
But all those supposedly naïve cryptographers have been proven right. Every DRM system that is rolled out is broken almost immediately. The reality is that any readers who care to can get any books they want without paying, if they choose to. There will always be someone out there technologically adept enough to break any DRM scheme—and even if one of those wizards can’t be stirred to break it, the cost of a book scanner has dropped to about $300, and there have never been more fast typists alive than there are today.
What’s more, we know that customers hate DRM. They rail against it, they actively seek out non-DRM versions, and they boycott products with DRM platforms. In publishing, there’s the dawning realization that allowing, say, Amazon, to lock up your books with its DRM means that Amazon essentially owns your customers. That is the reality of DRM. This is incredibly bad for publishing’s future.
Still, in many publishing boardrooms, executives cling to their Lysenko-like belief in DRM, while on the lower floors, digital strategists, editors, and production staff all know exactly how bad DRM is for business. Below the top floor, publishing employees are furiously trying to figure out a way to convince their bosses to abandon doomed DRM strategies—so I suppose it’s natural that if you’ve got an idea to wean them off the DRM addiction, you’d try to make it more palatable by calling it “social DRM.” But while using the term social DRM may soothe executive row, it is self-defeating lunacy to use it in your public-facing sales material.
To the public, DRM is DRM. The whole point of transitioning from DRM to “a book with your name in it” is that the only thing your customers probably know about DRM is that they hate it. So why use it? The savvier customers who see “social DRM” on the sale-page for your e-books will flinch the way they’ve been conditioned to after years of bad experiences from DVDs that don’t play abroad, music that mysteriously stops playing, and games that cease functioning over holiday weekends when the DRM server goes down and no one is on call to fix it. Your most attentive customers know DRM is bad stuff. If you’re lucky, your less avid customers will ignore the “social DRM,” tag, interpreting it as some form of unimportant business or technical jargon.
But if you’re not lucky, your customers will Google “social DRM” before they press the purchase button, and they’ll likely run as fast as they can in the other direction. After all, there is no customer for DRM outside of the boardroom. No one ever woke up and said, “Gosh, I wish there was a way I could get an e-book that does less than the books I’m accustomed to.” No one ever will.