As long as book publishers have a say, DRM, or Digital Rights Management, will be around for a long time. Yet while most every consumer of digital products has encountered DRM in some form, an almost equal percentage of customers hate DRM with every fiber of their soul. But publishers aren’t swayed by what bugs customers. Why? They don’t know who their customers are. They don’t talk to them, they hardly hear from them, and they rarely consider their preference when building digital products. When the book publishers customer is a retail partner, the end-user is just a number. And numbers rarely tell you more than what sold and what didn’t sell. Numbers don’t tell you why. And therein lies the problem. Many say the book publishing industry is headed down the same road as the music industry.
You see, it was those record executives who decided to lock music up on CDs and hard wire digital files to proprietary music players. They thought that would solve all their business model problems, but it didn’t. The MP3 music format waltzed in and before they knew it Napster came along and permanently changed their industry. Now, some 15 years later, and after tens of millions of dollars in losses, they are finally coming around to the notion that customers want to download music and play it on their iPod, their computer, and burn the same files to CD. And you know what? Those customers made iTunes the biggest selling music retailer in the world.
Yet book publishers believe their fate is somehow different than that of the music industry. In the opinion of some, DRM is the only way they can protect their authors and remain viable. That may be true, so long as authors need publishers, and many of them are proving they don’t. More and more writers are publishing books themselves, marketing them on blogs and through social media, and giving away digital editions. And the funny thing? Their print sales are increasing, not decreasing. Just ask guys like Chris Anderson, and Cory Doctorow. Their success should scare book publishers to death. But are they listening? Are they aware? Do they know the real answer is less DRM? In a word, no.
I’m not total advocate for unprotected eBooks. In some categories, proprietary eBooks are successful because they are tied to powerful search software, or unique value added hardware appliances. Yet in the general trade category, fully DRM’d eBooks have a short shelf life. Their complexity and restrictiveness only frustrate the end-user.
NPR recently aired a story on the subject of DRM (catch it here). I think the viewpoint of the end-user and the publisher is represented well. I can’t help but listen to it and feel like history is replaying itself. A tough business lesson is about to be taught once more.