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Hachette UK Wants Authors to Ask Tor For DRM Back

In case you thought that Tor’s enlightened stance on DRM might be a sign that the ice might be starting to melt around the Big Six publishers, think again. Today in Publishers Weekly, Cory Doctorow writes he has obtained a letter that the UK arm of Hachette sent to authors publishing with it asking that they demand Tor return DRM to their titles, and advising them it will be adding language to its standard boilerplate contract requiring that any titles Hachette UK licenses for its region must be locked down with DRM elsewhere in the world.

Doctorow is, of course, appalled at this, pointing out that DRM hasn’t stopped Hachette’s works from being available from peer-to-peer networks now, and all it does is hinder consumers’ legitimate uses of the e-books. However, The Bookseller is carrying statements Hachette UK execs have made in response, pointing out that the boilerplate language is as negotiable as any other part of the contract and that a lot of publishers include language insisting licensees use DRM in their contracts already.

Ursula Mackenzie, CEO of Hachette UK imprint Little, Brown and president of the Publishers Association, criticized Doctorow for trotting out the same tired old anti-DRM arguments and said the purpose of the DRM was not to block pirates or DRM-crackers, but to “[inhibit] file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.” She says that the DRM “model is working very well” and sees no reason to change at this point.

Is “file-sharing between […] mainstream readers” really that much of a threat? Going DRM-free has seemed to do well by Baen, and that was obvious even as far back as 2001 when the New York Times wrote that Baen was expanding its business by selling DRM-free and even giving away e-books payment-free. Baen shows no sign of changing its position now. In fact, it sells pricier early e-book versions DRM-free as well.

Of course, Baen is a bit of a niche SF publisher, and Tor is a good bit larger. It remains to be seen exactly how well going DRM-free will do for Tor, though I expect a lot of people to be watching closely, including Hachette.

The really funny thing in all of this is that the “good guy” here is Tor, an imprint of Macmillan who not only is fighting the government’s decree against agency pricing, it was the first to implement it in the first place. And the “bad guy” is Hachette, who is meekly settling and presumably allowing Amazon to lower its prices. Just goes to show that publishers are really complex entities, I guess.

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fjtorres August 14, 2012 um 10:16 pm

The "publishers" in this story are both multinational conglomerates composed of multiple semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Each little chieftain gets to run their serfs as they see fit. So it should be no surprise to see different attitudes from each one; remember how Random House US stayed away from the price fix conspiracy yet Random House UK was the first to price fix ebooks in Britain.
No good guys or bad guys; just panicked executives trying to hang on until their golden parachutes vest.

Peter August 14, 2012 um 10:36 pm

Well, it’s nice to see somebody admit at last, on the record, that the point of DRM is to service consumers (in the veterinary sense) and reduce the actual value of books.

Puzzled August 15, 2012 um 2:03 am

Does anyone else see the possible scenario where Hachette UK requires a DRMed Tor book, then decides to go DRM-free, but the contract still requires the Tor book to be DRMed?

Is this how the regional publishers are going to compete against the publisher of the same book in a different region?

DavidW August 15, 2012 um 6:48 am

I really value Tor going DRM free, that being said the exec at Hatchet UK might be correct. DRM deters casual piracy. Let me make an analogy. Locking the door to your house or apartment before you leave for work will not deter a hardened criminal from breaking in. But it does wonders from deterring the casual schmuck walking by. Similarly, DRM does not prevent hard-core pirates from cracking it and sharing it on torrents. But it deters casual readers from sharing ebooks with their friends and family.

In the video game industry the few games that tried DRM free found a (literal) ten fold increase in piracy and an inability to make profit. In music however DRM free has been working well. So the question is will ebooks be like music or like software?

I’m not answering that question, I don’t think that anybody can yet. We need to see if DRM free works for Tor. As it stands both Corey Doctorow and the CEO quoted in the article have valid points, and both are unsubstantiated by evidence (since evidence is lacking). I would not label either a bad guy.

fjtorres August 15, 2012 um 6:53 am

All that Hachette is achieving is highlighting the need to contract for global ebook rights by language instead of the 19th century style regional sales model. And, maybe convincing authors seeing a boost from Tor’s DRM-free shift that they need to stop dealing with Hachette in the UK.

MJ Valente August 15, 2012 um 12:41 pm

I understand what DavidW is saying, but I seriously doubt that casual readers "sharing ebooks with their friends and family" can be considered piracy. If so… we have all been pirating paperbooks all our lives.

If I buy a ebook (at c. 9.90$) I want to be able share it with my family and, eventually, close friends. (Sidenote: if we are speaking of an ebook that costs c. 0.99$ I might be less picky; but that’s another issue altogether.)

Thomas August 16, 2012 um 3:10 pm

In my opinion, some sort of casual sharing is what should be not only allowed but encouraged. Most of the time, I begin reading an author’s work when I was loaned a book, either from a library or a friend. Whenever my father came to visit, he would bring a box of books and leave with a different box. Since then, I’ve bought hundreds of books by authors that I read for free then.

There seems to be a huge disconnect between the publishers and their customers these days. I get the impression that most people is the publishing business have no idea why people like to read.

Friday Fry-Up — Speakeasy August 16, 2012 um 9:44 pm

[…] was working was Hachette UK themselves. Some interesting follow-up is available on Dear Author,  The Digital Reader, The Bookseller, The Barnes and Noble Bookclub Forums,  and Tech-Dirt. Commentary on the decision […]

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