Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Should eBooks have DRM?

I bought myself a Kobo Touch last year for Boxing Day, as I figured that reading eBooks would give me a better understanding of changes within the publishing industry. I chose the Kobo over other eReaders for a number of reasons, but I liked the fact that it supported ePub, the (current) industry format, and that you could expand your library by inserting a MicroSD card into the device. A homegrown alternative to Amazon could do all that and get excellent reviews from Wired in the process? Sign me up!

Once I started using the Kobo, though, Digital Rights Management (DRM) software reared its ugly head, and things weren’t so simple. Books bought through the Kobo store can’t be transferred onto a Micro SD card – instead, they are automatically stored on the Kobo eReader itself. The innate storage capacity of the Kobo Touch is 1 GB, which is good, but not great, hence the allure of being able to expand your library through the Micro SD.

However, books from the Kobo store are normally formatted with Adobe’s DRM, and the Micro SD can store eBooks only if the stored files contain no DRM at all. This means that I can’t save space on my Kobo by transferring Kobo’s ebooks to the card. Sure, I can delete the Kobo books once I’m done and then download them again for free if I wish, but that’s an unpleasant solution at best.

Isn’t having a huge number of books at your fingertips one of the biggest reasons why people buy eReaders? Maintaining a large collection is rather hard to do without the extra storage capacity the Micro SD provides, and the Micro SD card is incompatible with Kobo’s own store. This is critical to understand.

So, here we come to today. The next series of Canada Reads debates starts in a few days, and I haven’t read any of the books in the lineup. I want to read at least a few of them, so I researched what eBook options were available. Here are the results:

  • All 5 books are available at the Kobo store
  • One of those books, Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce, was available only from the Kobo store
  • Two of those books, Ken Dryden’s The Game and Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, were available for purchase from the publishers’ websites
    • Wiley, publisher of The Game, explicitly stated on the purchase page that the eBook had Adobe DRM enabled
    • Penguin, the publisher of Prisoner of Tehran, didn’t state whether the eBook had DRM, but a subsequent search of the site revealed that Penguin books do have DRM enabled
  • The two remaining books, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road and John Vaillant’s The Tiger, were available for download from the Sony eReader store at much higher prices

The result? I didn’t buy any of the five books promoted by Canada Reads, and placed eBook holds through the Toronto Public Library instead.

This evening I encountered something completely different. Quite by accident (thank you, Strange Horizons book reviews!) I stumbled upon The Bone Spindle published by Aqueduct Press. I hadn’t heard of either the book or the publisher, but the review was so intriguing that I bought the book once I found out that Aqueduct Press specialized in publishing feminist science fiction.

It turns out that Aqueduct Press sells ePub books without any sort of DRM. Finally, a publisher whose wares I could buy without using up my Kobo’s limited storage!

Poking around on Aqueduct’s blog led me to Fantasy Magazine (now merged with Lightspeed Magazine). And Lightspeed led me to Weightless Books. Let’s take a look at Weightless’ About page, shall we?

We sell DRM-free ebooks because we believe those who buy ebooks here should be able to move them around between their devices at will.

What we’re hoping to do here is to make this the first site to go to for interesting ebooks from independent presses.

Let’s go over that a bit more slowly:

  1. None of the books or magazine subscriptions that Weightless Books sells contain any DRM.
  2. They sell books from independent presses, meaning that the books have gone through some sort of editorial process before publication.

Weightless Books is okay with selling quality books without subjecting me to the anti-piracy hassle that traditional publishers would typically force down my throat? You mean to say that because of this policy, I can buy as many books as I want and store them without any fuss on my capacious Micro SD card? How amazing! It’s difficult to explain how much peril my credit card is in now.

Because of the lack of DRM on both sites, I bought both The Bone Spindle and a year-long subscription to Lightspeed Magazine. Those purchases cost just over $30 total. And it was precisely because of the existence of DRM software (and what DRM meant in terms of my eReader’s storage capacity) that I decided against buying bestselling books offered by the traditional publishing establishment.

This leads me to wonder: How many others are there like me with the same concerns about DRM, and how much do we represent in lost sales? More importantly, will publishers ever regard DRM software as a limiting factor in the way that I do?

An eBook-shaped hole in my education

In a recent blog post I talked about my writing and editing goals for 2012. However, I forgot to add one very important goal to the list: I need to learn more about eBooks.

The course I took on electronic publishing in 2010 didn’t help me. In fact, it was downright misleading. It contained absolutely no mention of eBooks or eReaders at all. This is rather odd, all things considered – shouldn’t students entering the fast-changing world of publishing be given at least a rudimentary understanding of eBook formatting, eReaders, digital rights management for eBooks, or eBook piracy? This information is becoming increasingly relevant to both self-published authors and publishing houses. Ryerson will have a course in the summer of 2012 called “Publishing in Transition” which I hope will bridge the gaps in my knowledge, but that’s still a way off, and I want to start paving over the holes in my education right now.

So, here is a very basic sketch of how I plan to do that:

  • Bookmark websites and blogs that discuss ebook production, distribution, and marketing, and follow their content.
  • Buy lots of eBooks. (If there’s one thing that’s wonderful, it’s rationalizing entertainment consumption as a form of professional development!)
  • Understand how eBooks work in action and get a grasp of what formatting issues are unique to them. (I just bought a Kobo, but that’s fodder for another post.)
  • Learn about other facets of the self-publishing industry, like price points, royalties, and budgeting

The plan sounds simple in theory, but the amount of information about self-publishing and ePublishing  is increasing so quickly that it’s easy for anyone, especially a newcomer like me, to get overwhelmed. Here are some sites I’ve found useful so far:

Oddly enough, a number of the blogs I’ve been following have talked about the importance of good cover design for eBooks. Synchronicity or not, the news is welcome.

eReader Essay Done

So, I handed in my essay on new media in higher educational publishing today. Looking over it, I feel I’ll have to substantially rework it to make it blog-ready. For one thing, it sounds too much like the sort of essay any competent university student could write on autopilot. For another, I didn’t really come out with an opinion about eReaders in the end – I assessed the pros and cons, but ended by stating nothing more than that eReaders are a potentially huge sea change in publishing, and that it’ll take a while for things to sort out.

While it’s the truth, it felt wishy-washy.  So here’s my bold prediction:

If publishers don’t act fast, they’re going to get screwed.  They’re going to get screwed because eReaders are going to be popular, and if they get popular enough, people will find a way to get around whatever DRM measures publishers put in place – remember the old trick of running a marker around the edge of a CD to make it burnable? People are innovative, and they are cheap. The majority of books published in Canada don’t make money as it is – how will the Canadian industry suffer once books inevitably make their way onto P2P networks even more than they already have? It’ll cause publishers to rely even more on a tiny elite cadre of moneymakers to shore up their losses, concentrating the industry and leaving new talent out in the cold.

I say this as someone who has only a few qualms about downloading torrents – I’ve gotten lots of albums for free, and even movies, miniseries and TV shows. I have no doubt that if I get a digital reader, it’ll be more than easy to find content to fill it without spending a red cent.