Platform exclusivity, DRM, and independent authors: A cautionary tale

This is a guest post by Rory Price. Rory is a science fiction author and free software supporter who releases much of his own work under free licenses. You can visit his homepage at

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you wrote a book. You've worked on it for years, and you want to share it with the world. You want to reach as many people as possible, but it would be nice to be compensated for your hard work. How many weekends did you spend at home, polishing your manuscript instead of going out with friends? How many sleepless nights have you spent staring at a blank page, looking for inspiration?

While researching the best way to publish, you hear horror stories about authors finding their books sold on counterfeit Web sites or distributed gratis without the author's consent. You read stories about authors feeling violated as their hard work is stolen in such a way.

As you read about these activities, you also see mentions of companies that claim that they would protect your work against it. Should you publish your book through them, your book would only be available through their application. People could only access it through their store, and they wouldn't even be able to open the file on a device that isn't vetted by the company. The app is very popular, so most people use it anyway, and authors do not have to worry about a lack of interest. Only dealing with one store would also make things easier on your end. You won't have to manage different things. They'll even format your book for you. Sounds easy enough, so you take the deal.

Weeks pass, and you make a few sales. It's by no mean a huge success, but you got a few positive reviews, mostly from family and friends. You keep mentioning your project to everyone you know, and find some limited interest.

One day, a friend you hadn't talked to in a while asks about your book. They say that they don't like the app your book requires, and they don't want to buy it through the one store you signed an exclusivity deal with. They explain that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) restricts their freedom to read the book on their device of choice, and won't even let them make backups of the file. They tell you how they once used a similar app, but were locked out of all the books they purchased after moving away from said application.

After hearing your friend's story, you decide to give them a DRM-free copy of your book. After all, you wrote it so people would enjoy it first and foremost, and you want your friend to see the fruit of your labor.

A week later, you hear back from your friend. They read the book, and really enjoy it. They make you a proposition: share the book on social media. You lash out at them in shock. This would be a violation of your copyright! You worked hard for this, and deserve to be compensated. Surprisingly, your friend laughs. It turns out they're not the only one who dislikes the app you use. "Give me a week," they say. They promise to only share it with their social media friends, and that it could very well boost sales.

Reluctantly, you agree. For the first few days, you don't hear about it at all. Then you get an email. Someone found the book through your friend, enjoyed it, and says that they'd love to buy it if there were a DRM-free version. You go to your own social media page and find a similar message from someone else. You even made a few sales from people who, after reading it, decided to buy it. That wasn't what you were brought up to believe. All those articles about illegal sharing, they talked about lost sales.

What went wrong? You got scared of a boogeyman used by corporations to lock down culture. But now, you decide not to renew your contract with the company you originally published through, and instead, make your book available everywhere without DRM. Following your friend's suggestion, you add a link to your Web site at the end of your book, and decide to accept donations from people who got the book for free.

An article is published about the app that was initially required to read your book. Security researchers have discovered that it was used to mine data from its users, going as far as to listen for sound cues in order to build an advertising profile. You realize that by supporting their business model, you not only locked your readers into their walled garden, but also ensured that your family and friends would fall victim to abusive malware.

You're still not making a lot of money from your book, but you're making more than you did with the exclusivity deal. You also received a generous donation from someone who got the book for free, saying that they were out of a job when they read your book, but are now back on their feet, and can afford to pay you for what turned out to be one of their favorite books. Maybe this idea of people sharing your work wasn't so scary after all.

Stories similar to the one told in this article happen all the time. More and more writers choose to publish through Amazon, and take part in programs such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which involves an exclusivity deal. Because of Amazon's dominance of the ebook market, self-published writers often believe that publishing through them is the simplest way to reach their audience. This is a mistake. Favoring DRM and platform exclusivity worsens the greater issue: it tightens the grip that companies such as Amazon have over culture, and subjects readers to unacceptable violations of their freedom. Luckily, we have other options, as demonstrated through the Guide to DRM-free Living.