Tor Swaps DRM for PR

Last week’s breaking news from the USA was that Macmillan SFF imprint Tor have pledged to their readers that by ‘early July 2012, their entire list of e-books will be available DRM-free.’

Well done, Tor. Well done. I do think they’ve done their readers a favour, and it shows a really intelligent knowledge of their audience (the sort of reader who will get a Sony and then hack the living crap out of those devices so they can run a full Android OS. The kind that don’t want to be locked in to one device and one format.). They’ve pushed the boat out and started the debate about what no DRM would mean for publishers (a possible end to the reign of terror) raging again across the internet.

And now the fun begins.

In the wake of this announcement (which even the most hateful of Big 6 doubters didn’t see as likely) we have readers all over the place saying ‘Great! The end of DRM! For everyone! Ever!’ And publishers are staying quiet for the most part and hoping no one brings this up directly with them, because the answer they will have to give to ‘so, getting rid of DRM or what?’ is not what people want to hear.

Pan Macmillan claimed the move was “partly prompted by the launch of Pottermore, which JK Rowling has made completely DRM-free. The evidence from there seems to be that in fact piracy has gone down.” Wait, piracy has decreased since the eBooks (that were previously available only in their pirated form) have been put on sale? Yes, funny that. Perhaps this is actually indicative of what others have been saying for years: that widespread access to easy purchase is a fantastic piracy deterrent, DRM or no DRM. Don’t ever use Rowling as a measure of what is or is not the case in publishing – she is a force that stands outside almost everything true of the rest of the industry.

Equally, Tor is not representative of an entire industry and this does not signal a massive change. It is possible that other niche publishers (particularly other SFF ones) will wait, watch to see what happens, and maybe follow suit. But I honestly believe it is about as likely that this one decision will lead to widespread unlocking of eBooks as Occupy Wall Street will lead to global communism.

And this is not because publishers hate their readers, and it’s not because they’re greedy jerks.

It’s because I think it would be very difficult to pitch this to an author. The Tor authors, just like the Tor readers, represent a specific part of the tapestry of publishing, but not the largest part. Some authors are concerned about piracy just as publishers are, and the bigger the author, the more real the perceived threat. If a publisher is going attract those large authors, they have to demonstrate the way in which they will protect that author’s copyrights. The most obvious way is DRM.

Maybe this is an archaic view, but until there is a demonstrable alternative, which publishers should be and I do believe are investigating, it will have to do.

So Tor has done an amazing job of ingratiating itself to its market. Well done, them. But just like not all publishers or genres or authors could be successful at subscription-model selling, so too not every author and publisher will now be instructing their eBook distributors to tear off those flimsy condoms of DRM code. I think barebacking is still a decent way off for most of us.

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