Does Amazon need DRM?

Does Amazon need DRM?

Why do people buy e-books at Amazon? Will they continue to do so in the future?

Let’s take the latter question first: I think they will, and I’m going to explain why. That should also answer the first question (although I’m going to ask you why you buy them also).

What got me thinking about this was a nice

iReaderReview article

I saw it in my morning Flipboard read, although I have some correspondence with the author of that blog. Some of us Kindle bloggers do correspond some, but we don’t send each other a heads-up on every article we write. 🙂 We probably all read each other pretty much, but reasonably assume that we’ll look at the blogs.

The article explains about gatekeepers, and breaks it all down with bullet points and speculation.

I’ve written about the idea of flattening the market, of consumer buying directly from creators, notable in this article:

A Tale of Two Middles


I think Amazon has an appeal to people that will survive the removal of apparent competitive advantages. This is a key short excerpt from switch11’s post linked above:

“It’s all a House of Cards. The New Gatekeepers lording over Authors and Readers and Publishers. Pretending they are indispensable. Using everyone’s fears to exploit them and gain power.

What’s going to happen if DRM is eliminated and Authors, Readers and Publishers (especially Publishers) realize that Amazon and B&N are 100% redundant and replaceable by hot air.”

In the status quo, people obviously buy e-books from Amazon.

The status quo isn’t going to continue, though.

There is a chance that equal collection legislation will pass, and internet companies will collect sales tax at the point of sale the same way that brick and mortar stores do. That wouldn’t affect me on e-books (California doesn’t currently charge sales tax on e-books sold electronically…they are treated like contracts, not like objects). Some other states apparently do, since I see a lot of people commenting on sales tax on their e-book purchases.

That’s a change.

Another potential change, addressed by the article that sparked this, is the possible end of DRM (Digital Rights Management). Basically, that is electronic code inserted into content by the publisher to control the use of the content.

As I wrote about yesterday, Tor (part of Macmillan) has been DRM-free through Amazon for over a year, and they aren’t reporting adverse effects from it.

DRM is part of what keys your file to your device, meaning that you can’t just copy your e-book file from one Kindle to another and read it. It also limits your ability to copy and convert the file…you can’t simply take your Kindle e-book file and turn it into a file which can be read by a NOOK.

The article (which I recommend) suggests that if DRM was gone, people would have no reason to buy e-books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I just don’t think that’s the case.

Equal access doesn’t mean equal trust.

Equal access doesn’t mean equal convenience.

Equal access doesn’t mean equal service.

I want to get my content from Amazon because I trust them, because I can centralize everything in one place, and because of their service.

Let’s say that five different publishers start making their books available broadly from their own sites.

Even if the prices are equivalent, I don’t want to have to go to five individual sites to get those books…and I don’t want to have to go back to them to retrieve them (if they’ll even archive them for me for free, like Amazon does).

We use the term “one-stop shopping” to describe all sorts of things…it’s a shorthand for convenience, for not having to go several places to do several things.

That’s one of the big appeals of Amazon.

My life is my life…it’s not a whole bunch of separate transactions. I might want to know if I bought a household product at the same time I bought a food or an e-book. I want to be able to look at my purchases for a month sometimes…not just my e-book purchases, but all of them.

I can’t do all that from Amazon right now…but I can do a lot of it.

There are times I want to browse for something…I want to see all of the e-books on one subject. If I was at publisher A’s site, I wouldn’t see publisher B’s books. The publishers are trying to address that with Bookish, though, isn’t going to show me independently publisher books. It’s also not likely to show me critical reviews of books by other readers, like Amazon does.

Hey, I might also want to browse for movies, games, t-shirts, and toys related to that topic…not as likely from a publishers’ site.

So, centralization is key. It’s like the internet: can you imagine logging into separate networks for each of the sites you visit?

Trust is another issue.

The “middle-less market” imagines that I’ll see a tweet from somebody with a link in it for a book. I’ll click on that link, and end up directly on the author’s website. I would then presumably give my credit card (or Paypal, or Bitcoin) information to this person that I have maybe never heard of before. I’m going to trust them with my information.

I’m also going to trust them to send me a good quality copy of the e-book. I’m going to trust them to deal with any problems I might have.

Look, if there is something I find unacceptable about an e-book I buy from Amazon (whatever it is…I don’t have to give a reason), I can “return” it myself within seven days of purchase for a refund. I can do that just by going to

and click or tap


Is every author going to have that reassurance and convenience for me?

It’s like when I managed a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and an independent would come in ask me to put a book on the shelf “on consignment”. I wouldn’t pay them unless the book sold.

One of my first questions to them would be, “If I wanted a thousand copies of this tomorrow, could you get it to me?” A traditional publisher typically could (or nearly that quickly). That indie didn’t have those resources. In a physical store, shelf space costs you money, because you are paying rent on it. It’s advertising space…I couldn’t have something sitting there that couldn’t result in more sales if I needed it.

What was our arrangement if the book was shoplifted (surprisingly  common in bookstores)? What if I wanted to get rid of the book? How would I return it to them? How did I know the book wasn’t defective, and if it was, how would that get remedied for my customer?

As a manager, I had to go with the people who could best service the store.

As a customer, it’s similar.

One more major point: Amazon not only stores all those books for  me (and my annotations, if I want): I can share them easily with other people on my account. Amazon knows me. If somebody has a device registered to my account, they are fine with it being downloaded to that device (as long as it is compatible, and we don’t go over the simultaneous device limit the publisher has set).

How is an author with a website selling maybe one book going to know that someone else is on my account? Are they going to let me have unlimited devices on my account, the way Amazon does? Will I even have an account, or will it be one purchase and “see ya”?

Does DRM help Amazon lock in a customer base? Sure. If it was gone, would that mean people would stop shopping at Amazon? I don’t think so. You can already get DRM free books at Amazon (Amazon gives that option to publishers using their Kindle Direct Publishing, and there are those Tor books), and people still buy them from Amazon.

So, let me ask you…

While I think “middle-less” will certainly grow, I also think Amazon will still hold their “end” up in the future. 😉

What do you think? Do you feel trapped into buying from Amazon, or are you doing it entirely by choice and preference? If you could buy your e-books from a thousand different sources, would that be better or worse? Can you envision some other system besides either retail or “island suppliers” (everyone is independent) that would work as well as what we have now? Maybe some central rating and payment site for indies…and why wouldn’t that be Amazon? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

11 Responses to “Does Amazon need DRM?”

  1. Tom Semple Says:

    I purchase technology books directly from O’Reilly and Pearson, mostly to take advantage of special pricing and availability of multiple formats (PDF, ePub, and Kindle). Both offer ‘DRM free’ ebooks, though Pearson publishers use watermarking as a deterrent to casual sharing (and on Kindle Store their titles use DRM). O’Reilly titles are DRM free where ever they are sold.

    O’Reilly provides additional services to sync your library to DropBox for convenient access from computers and mobile devices, they include free updates to correct errors, and their policy provides for resale of ebooks. Generally speaking Amazon’s prices are lower, and I have purchased a couple of O’Reilly titles from Amazon. These can then be added to your O’Reilly library by clicking a link inside the book and paying $5 (for multiple formats and DropBox sync services). (O’Reilly also has inexpensive ‘app’ versions of many of their books for iOS and Android that include the text and a built in reading system, but I haven’t tried any of those so far.)

    However, buying direct is not a practice that I would extend to many more publishers, and in particular if all I get is a file (which I’d then have to keep track of). I like Amazon’s services, convenience and policies, and that would be unchanged if DRM were to go away.

    One downside to DRM is that the Kindle reading apps don’t always include features that I’d like to have. They are adequate for most of the stuff I read, but (for example) I find them limiting for accessing reference material because they lack efficient navigation tools (e.g. it is easy to set a ‘bookmark’ but it is rather cumbersome to access them in a long Notes And Marks list). DRM free content would allow me to choose a reading system that offers better support for more specialized requirements.

    There is also a set of people who prefer to manage and organize their own ebook collection (much as they might have collected and organized analog books in years past), and the Kindle platform does not support that very well (‘Collections’ notwithstanding). Typically they are going to view DRM walls as a huge inconvenience, something to be avoided entirely, or circumvented by DRM removal tools, even where it might mean forgoing ecosystem features that would otherwise avail themselves (syncing, annotation backup, etc.). So this group is more likely to focus on price and not as much on trust, service, etc.

    To the extent that social reading features take hold, that will prove ‘sticky’ as well.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      O’Reilly certainly marches to its own drummer. 🙂 That has been successful for them, I believe, but I do think a lot of people find it “weird”. It’s great for techies who understand the issues, but a typical reader may not see the advantages. If they don’t, all they see is a wall of words which doesn’t mean much to them…technical jargon.

      I do think that specialized publishers like that are the most likely to succeed in a middle-less market. It’s like being a “destination store” or a specialty store selling on the web. If people will seek you out, great, you can be much more flexible in how you do things. If they say, “All I want to do is buy a book,” Amazon has a big advantage.

  2. Rick Askenase Says:

    I am quite comfortable buying my books (and dvd’s) from Amazon. The idea of buying from publisher’s sites doesn;t appeal to me, nor from author’s sites.

    Finally, as I know you read Abhi’s (Switch11) stuff regularly, I’m really pleased to see him blogging again (and not just listing free books). He is one of the most thoughtful commentators on ebooks/publishing.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rick!

      Yes, switch11 (I’ll go with the byline, to honor the choice) has been on a roll lately! Lots of thoughtful articles, and that’s good to see.

  3. Jennifer J. Martin (Gran Jen) Says:

    I’m a loyal Amazon customer for about 15 years, and have NEVER had a problem with them. I’ll stay with them until I’m gone, and I will leave my account to my daughter!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Gran Jen!

      Just make sure your daughter knows the credentials to the account (the e-mail address and password) after you are gone, and you are set. You can leave them with her, with a lawyer, or in a safe deposit box at the bank.

  4. tellthetruth1 Says:

    I’ve been with Amazon for a good two or three years. I love the site and have had numerous helpful experiences with the Customer Service crowd there. It’s a matter of convenience for me to be able to buy my books there and have them all stored in one place. As for trust, so far, totally trust them.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tellthetruth1!

      Amazon’s Customer Service is routinely highly-rated, and I think that’s with good reason. I also trust them in part because they are long term thinkers…they aren’t going to trip over a sudden innovation in the road. 😉

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