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Selling eBooks Without DRM

When you sell your ebooks through online retailers such as Amazon, Barns & Noble, or Apple iBooks, a percentage of what you make goes to pay for the Digital Rights Management (DRM) and tech support they provide.

Would you pay for an ebook if a pirated copy was available?

You may have wondered: Is there a way to get around reliance on these online retailers, and more importantly, to keep viewers on your website and not send them somewhere else where you may lose their attention? Even with DRM, some authors have claimed that the number of pirated downloads exceeds what they sell through DRM. Even so, many authors do very well with DRM.

This is a fairly complex issue, so I’m only going to touch on the most basic points in this post.

Presently, there is no practical alternative to the DRM software offered by online retailers. The license for Adobe Content Server, for example, costs over $6000 USD to set up, and an annual year maintenance fee that runs around $1500 (used for PDFs and ePubs). This may work for very large publishers but not for small publishers.

So, what about just giving up DRM? Can you distribute ePubs, Mobi, and/or ePDFs ebooks directly from your own website without DRM software and still make money? The answer is: Yes, but there are risks. So why do it?

The main reasons are to capture more of the retail price and to avoid sending visitors from your site into the distractions of online retailer sites. The basic assumption is that most people, or enough people, will respect your copyright, and pay your asking fee. After all, any book, even printed books can be copied and posted on the internet. This ability to pirate books doesn’t prevent the U.S. publishing industry’s from making annually around $30 billion in revenue.

Deciding to sell books without DRM is not simply a “do you feel lucky?” kind of question. If you want to go this route, start by asking yourself these basic questions:

  1. Who is your audience and do you trust them?
  2. Will the pirating vs. sales ratio be worse than what you would give up for online DRM?
  3. How much will it matter if the book is pirated. For example, when readers look for books on the topic, do they typically search first for a pirated copy?

The answer to these questions will likely be unknown unless you try it. But, the question of audience may be the most important issue.


Are your likely buyers people who will respect your copyright and not share the file? Bear in mind, that I am just talking about ebooks you want to sell and not ebooks that you actually want to give away for free with the aim that people will share the files as a form of viral marketing.
Case example: The ebook is a large directory of technical specifications or information and your customers are mainly institutions and organizations that need to protect their brands by not violating copyright notices.
Case example: The book is part of a package sold with other products as an up-sell, usually for amounts over $40. The package can actually be a series of books. The price, complexity of the package, and sometimes file size, helps deter copying.

Ways to Deter Theft

Without DRM, anyone who gets the files can post it online for others to use and share. If you don’t want users to share the file, the most common way to deter theft is to include an obvious copyright notice and/or click-through license agreement. When the user receives the file, they can’t open it without first seeing the copyright notice or clicking the agreement.
For ePDFs you can also add a password. The down side is that password-protected ePDFs require entering the password every time the document is opened—not a good user-experience.

Of course, none of these steps prevent theft by people who don’t respect such agreements, so success depends on having an audience that does.

A Few Technical and Costs Issues

Bear in mind that if you are not going to use DRM, you don’t need to go through the expense of converting your print book to the ePub and Mobi formats. It is quicker and easier to convert printed books to ePDFs. However, if you think your readers are going to want to have your book in their e-reader libraries, you still need to make an edition available in those formats. People can read the ePub formats without DRM if they install the free Adobe Digital Editions or the Mobi format if they install the Kindle software. In both instances, they would download the ebook to their desktops and then import the files into iBooks or Kindle. This may sound easy, but if you are doing this yourself, buyers will want technical support. This isn’t an issue with ePDFs, but installing ePubs or Mobi files can involve troubleshooting.

And, just to clarify, the actual “converting” of print files to ebook formats is not expensive, but preparing the print files for the conversion process is where the difficulty and expense occurs. I’ll discuss that more in later posts.