David Pogue Weighs In On Ebook DRM: Non-DRM'd Ebook Increased His Sales

from the but-on-the-other-other-hand dept

Mark Rosedale (an employee of O’Reilly) was the first of a few to send in David Pogue’s recent column in which he discusses the question of ebook DRM. Remember, just recently a Sony exec claimed that you couldn’t make money on ebooks without DRM. Yet, Pogue relates his own experience in running a test with his publisher (which is O’Reilly) in putting out a non-DRM’d ebook, and he found that sales increased:

As an author myself, I, too, am terrified by the thought of piracy. I can’t stand seeing my books, which are the primary source of my income, posted on all these piracy Web sites, available for anyone to download free.

When I wrote about my concerns a year ago, my readers took me to task. “For all you know,” went their counterargument, “the illegal copies are just advertising for you; people will download them, try them out, then go by the physical book. Either that, or they’re being downloaded by people who would not have bought your book anyway. Why don’t you try a controlled experiment and see?”

Well, it sounded like it could be a very costly experiment. But I agreed. My publisher, O’Reilly, decided to try an experiment, offering one of my Windows books for sale as an unprotected PDF file.

After a year, we could compare the results with the previous year’s sales.

The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It’s all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying.

The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year.

Now, it’s worth noting that it really was just last year that Pogue insisted that publishing digital versions of his books was a terrible idea, because he had tried it twice and they were pirated all over the web. So it’s really nice to see that he’s actually come to his senses and realized that piracy does not automatically mean lost sales, and he was willing to run an experiment and actually look at the empirical data.

He’s still not totally convinced however — as he notes that the reason his experiment worked was because it drove sales of the physical (paper) book. But he’s worried that when more people have ebook readers, then things might change. Of course, at the time of that last column, we used it to point out that the mistake was in thinking that “give it away and pray” is a business model. It’s not. Instead, you have to give people a reason to buy, and “hey, because I want you to” isn’t a particularly good one. Instead, the focus should be on adding real value. Again, this is a situation where O’Reilly is pretty good. We were just discussing how one of the “reasons to buy” it offers is the ability to buy into “living books” that keep updating, so your copy isn’t out of date. In that case, what they’re really selling isn’t the content, so much as the convenience and the knowledge that the information will always be the latest, without requiring any additional work or checking. There are lots of ways to compete with piracy that don’t involve locking the content down in a customer-unfriendly way.

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Comments on “David Pogue Weighs In On Ebook DRM: Non-DRM'd Ebook Increased His Sales”

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The Anti-Mike says:

It's always the same thing

First off,the sales rose “slightly”. That means that all the advertising (piracy) didn’t start a land rush.

Second, the increase is compared over a different book, perhaps the new book was more timely, depending on the specific topic.

Third, and this is key: We are talking computer books. Computer books are a strange animal, they are expensive ($40 and over). Most people I know who buy computer books buy them as reference material. It is very hard to use computer reference material when it’s on your computer. It’s easier in a print format. You can make notes, you can tag pages, you can flip back to where you were in an instant. An ebook version or an “on the screen” version rarely works out. The proof of this is seen in books sold on various computer languages, such as Django, which has the entire book series online but they do good business actually selling the books (I have some). For me, the paper reference is so much quicker than other options.

I suspect in the market of $40 computer books, the people who downloaded the material weren’t buyers anyway.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: It's always the same thing

All your concerns were pointed out in the post… the only true conclusion being drawn here is: piracy doesn’t automatically mean lost sales of this kind of book. Nobody’s trying to say more than that, but it’s still very interesting, and it still fits into a larger body of experiments that does suggest much more than that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's always the same thing

Did you miss the part where there were sales? More sales than last year. The point is that piracy did not create losses and probably actually helped sales. Its not clear how much it helped to remove drm but it certainly did not hurt. David Pogue got at least what he expected out of his experiment and this will work for others too. Making things hard for legitimate customers is not the way to sell more books – DRM fails in a lot of ways, it only serves to comfort the author/seller.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: It's always the same thing

Interesting theory on computer books, but I do not agree. I own dozens, and while some are reference, some are instructive or texts. They hold up well over time because there aren’t many new developments in qsort or mergesort, for example. They form a foundational basis that doesn’t require much updating.

Having said that, I also own Bruce Eckel’s TIJ book, and have also downloaded eBooks of it. The physical book is my license, so to speak, as the eBooks allow me to take a copy everywhere I go. Buying the book also got me TIC and TIC++ as a bonus. RtB. And the electronic versions are easily available right next to whatever code I’m hacking at. A paper copy doesn’t work for me: I’m breaking the binding or flipping pages or marking corners… nah.

What I’d really like to see are eBooks with updates for errata, hyperlinked footnotes and bibliography, and lots and lots of exercises. I’d love an eBook with some real interactive content, like a Linear Algebra text with an engine to let me work through problems right there, or a link to the publisher site where it could be done.

There’s lots here, and eBooks are the way to go.

zcat (profile) says:

Baen have been running the experiment a little longer, putting significant numbers of titles online in plain text and with no drm. (So has Cory Doctrow of course, but he’s only a single datapoint)

A year after starting this experiment Eric Flynt laid down some facts and figures;


That was quite a while ago, but apparently they started adding cdroms to the library in 2002 and they’re still adding books on a fairly regular basis. It’s a pretty safe bet that Baen would not continue putting these books and cds online if they even remotely though it was costing them sales.

phil (profile) says:

Pogue is full of it

Pogue is full of contradictions and conflicts. While he’s an entertaining writer, he’s reviewing products he writes books about that require the cooperation of the manufacturers to get early looks at the products. He’s in bed with Amazon, his number one reseller, and as a result, trashed the Barnes and Noble nook because it was too similar to the Kindle. He expects music to be DRM free yet when it comes to his own books, he thinks differently. I’ve cancelled my NY Times subscription because of this conflict of interests.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pogue is full of it

You’re acting as if Pogue is the only one who didn’t look too favorably on the Nook. The general consensus was pretty much that B&N pushed out a rushed device that needed much more polish.

It’s also hilarious how people have just begun to notice that Pogue reviews and also writes books about the same topics. It may not be ideal in tech journalism, but it’s nothing new. From what I’ve seen, Pogue’s opinion is rarely swayed by his books.

Anonymous Coward says:

Baen has the right idea. If it was up to me, I’d buy all of my ebooks from them. Everything you buy is DRM free, a wide variety of formats to where if you buy one format, you buy them all. And they are actually cheaper than the physical copy. Why oh why can’t other publishers figure this out?

Contrast with another ebook site I use… Everything has DRM, very few choice of formats and if I want it in a different format later I have to rebuy the entire book. Some books are actually more expensive than a physical copy, and what books do have a discount are very small.

The problem with Baen is limited selection. I exhausted everything in their back catalog I’m interested in reading a couple years ago, and since its such a small publishing house new books only come out in small spurts. I wish i could buy everything from them.

I dunno, the whole ebook system is messed up. I have accounts with five different ebook resellers. FIVE!! Some publishers hold back release dates for some sites, while going forward on street date for others. Some publishers simply won’t release with other ebook store, but will with another. Its an unholy mess jumping through sites to find back catalog books, they normally are out there, just not ever ebook reseller carries each one. I have one series shuffled across three separate ebook retailers, with a different format from each one.

My rate of book consumption is probably far over the norm. Doesn’t make it any less of a headache for anyone else trying to move from physical books to ebooks though. I went pure ebook to save space.. and to me its worth the headache for now.. but I really hope someone fixes the mess that the industry has put itself in.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Snowed in ....

“I have one series shuffled across three separate ebook retailers, with a different format from each one.”

I hear you, I am suffering the same way tonite … Something Mike hasn’t really touched on is Convenience as a RtB (Reason to Buy). Its always about how its bad to piss your customers off. Convenience is what should be discussed here. I have two monitors on my workstation, one is a Dell 24 inch, the other a 20 inch rotary neck for proofreading. I find having a monitor for proofreading convenient. I find being able to click once to pay for an e-book very convenient. I just got back from 7-11 with a 5 dollar movie I bought. It wont play on the laptop I use as a DVD player. I find it frustrating that I now have to drop the DVD into Enzo the Linux box to RIP the DVD to play it. I find it rude that I have to wait 2 1/2 hours to see a movie I bought because of DRM.

It pisses me off …. Okay maybe mike is right, it is about not pissing your customers off.

WikiPedia – Convenience is anything that is intended to save resources (time, energy) or frustration.

WammerJammer (profile) says:

Gasp!! I'm guilty!

Oh no! I downloaded a book that I can read on a very tiny computer screen sitting straight up in my ergonomic chair and holding my neck up straight to read this PDF.
God that hurts!!
My back and neck are killing me just trying to read a book. I always prefer real books so I can sit in any position I want and I can even walk and read. 5×7 is way larger than those stupid little screens on book readers. Can you imagine trying to read the Linux Administrators Guide on an eBook reader. Hah!!
Anyway as one of the other people here remarked: It’s a computer book and if it’s any good it will be purchased and kept for reference.
I don’t download Sci-Fi which I read ravenously and am always looking for something new. I buy my Sci-Fi.
Where the authors need to be concerned is the Audio Book. This is an area that can constitute great piracy. I would much rather listen to a soothing voice read me the book while I walk or drive than reading it myself. I find Audio Books to be a great idea and as easy to download as music.
As far as book readers go they will greatly aid the Eyeglasses industry and maybe we should buy stock.
I always look at the sites and check the book(s) before I buy. As a systems administrator on a budget I admit to downloading and practicing the art of ‘Try it before you waste your money’. If I can’t use it I will delete it. If I like the book I will buy the book for reference. There are an awful lot of crap books out there on computers that will sell you a huge book and tell you 1 useful thing.
As I have stated before on this site: I would gladly pay a fair monthly fee to be able to just download and not be a criminal because I am curious. I would gladly pay to be allowed to download music, stream live TV, read eBooks and just be free to be curious. The internet is a wonderful world that can give a person insight and knowledge on a level never before attained in our society.

Joe says:

Yes, updating books!

I get so pissed when I buy a half baked 1st ed. Then to get the update I have to print out web pages and stick them in the book. I was shocked when Amazon sent my friend a message asking her to request a free copy of the 2nd ed of a textbook that had too many errors. Too bad they sent the message right after finals.

If technical e-books auto updated inserting new sections when released that would be incredible. You might even give the book (or a few chapters) away for free and offer a subscription for updates. Android programming books are perfect examples of how nice this would be. Since the Android OS gets updated so often the books need updating too.

With the huge numbers of e-book/tablet/smartphone devices being released in 2010, I’m not buying anything that will possibly be locked to one device. As for tech books on paper, it’s just because they are a pain to use any other way now. They’ll be incredible on the right device, possibly the nook (small dual screen), probably something similar to the Entourage Edge or other full dual screen devices. Since the Entourage Edge is designed for textbooks thinkgs like highlighting text, bookmarks, and easy searching will set it apart.

Can’t wait, new world is just around the corner! Those who don’t embrace it will fall off the edge!

The Anti-Mike says:

Re: In short:

A marginal change in sales doesn’t really allow you to draw any conclusion.

Example: How many people have e-book readers this year, compared to last year? Considering that the potential market has increased dramatically, and the early adopters are probably more “geek” than the average, you would expect computer books to sell better.

Ebooks are a rapidly expanding market, yet they are only seeing marginal sales increases. It makes me wonder what their sales would have been without the widespread piracy.

It would appear that only a marginal increase in sales against a rapidly increasing ebook marketplace would be a fail, not a win.

your works are not yours says:

knowledge and the publics rights

the above twit doesnt realize its called a recession
any increase you can garner in anymarket during this time is a HUGE WIN
good lord
go back and take business administrastion wiht a major of information systems and get with the reality that POOR PEOPLE are not going to pay , don’t worry about piracy especially if your resonably pricing stuff and have no DRM.
give the users some extra for buying and be nice to people.

you sue
are hostile
get all bent and spend energy on stuff you can’t stop it will eat time and money and cost you more

Ebooks an expanding market?
me heads over to a ebook torrent site, WOW lot of knowledge there.
NOW imagine thta some poor guy learns somehting , that gets him a job and pays his taxes, or someoen feeling down and out reads YOUR BOOK and feels better and does better at his job ( lets say hes a ambulance worker ) might be a neat way to AID human kind rather then hinder it.

As i have always said why is it that someone has to be lazy and require as they do in the USA such crazy terms as life of author ( 75years lets say) then another 95 years , except to gouge and screw us the people form enjoyment

i argue that in canada such treatment of the people would be a violation of the charter of rights and freedoms under section of
you are effectively punishing society writers and artists for these lengthy terms and if it gets worse i swaer this WILL cause a real world wide back lash and revolution and if you think that which is fighting to lesson these terms is not organized, think about this.

Last ACTA leak was well timed.
In Canada the conservatives outed a new bill to fight child pron , good but of course broad terms and broad language is always VERY bad in any law. NOW you me , and everyone gets all self conscious aobut you know …sex , no one masturbates a few days , has sex with partners etc.
WHAT happens next is classic and i sat and observed it very well.
ACTA leak, and every one went crazy mad about it ten times more then usual. NOW go back and look at previous leaks.
You wnat to also know why the EU is making sure oracle and sun deal is getting a through check.

DRM data by EA that had oracle and sun as partners was leaked out 2 years ago. MY bet is it prolly worked its way around. AND oddly they use a shoe company as a front. Interesting they hide these activities so hard.

NOW ask your selves as human beings:
do we want the disabled to have meaningful lives and possibly find a way to contribute to society?
What does 50 year copyright ( canada ) do for me?
After all copyRIGHT is just that i give the author and society a right to earn a modest income and then the work returns to society. It is not property YOU OWN, it is societies property and we giv eyou a right to earn a small income.

make it illegal to sell your rights to someone else.
When you try that it should automatically revert to the public domain. IF you cant make money off it then why does someone else deserve too.
i could go on forever but i being disabled and in bad pain need to get some pain relief.

P.S. at other sites i’ve spoken up and been harrassed ( nice to see here its more civil …most times)
and what keeps me going?
I got pms form other disadvantaged people who were scared to speak up.
It makes me want to “throttle” an actor and musician, for there continued support of hollywood.

AND if those 300,000 songs that the CRIA hasn’t paid for , those people were smart they’d put the whole collection into public domain and force hollywood to give the tunes out free. btw Bruce Springstein sorry to hear that CRIA is ripping you off, especially every time my dad sees a tape or album a yours he buys it. I will have to explain that he’d be better off just sending you a couple a bucks …..as most of us prolly would

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: knowledge and the publics rights

You might want to try double sheeting the tin foil, because the evil radio waves are still getting in and mixing up your thoughts… they also appear to be making it hard for you to type coherently.

Babbling on about shoe companies and sex doesn’t make for a very convincing argument.

David Small (profile) says:

It's free PR

Bobby Flay is a chef who owns a couple restaurants. He goes on the Food Channel and becomes popular. He writes cookbooks. His cookbooks are wildly popular and sell very well.

Suppose he were to skip the free exposure on the Food Channel. No one knows who he is. No one buys his books.

Pogue is relatively well known for a tech writer because of his NY Times gig. But the more name exposure he can get the better for his book sales. Those pirates are helping him in that regard. They’re spreading the word that he’s a reliable information source on tech topics.

Someone may get one of his books free and be impressed with him and his presentation. That may be the reason that they purchase his next book.

Tony Bove (profile) says:

Try a different distribution model

While some books are static, others (such as reference works and tutorial books) are dynamic in that they need to be refreshed every year or even more often. In the latter case, publishers should think outside the “e-book box” and offer their content as a service.

Taking a cue from the streaming model, publishers can offer continually refreshed books accessible through a browser and charge a subscription, or use an iPhone app as a browser and deliver the app through the App Store (as I have with my “book” Tony’s Tips for iPhone Users, which is more like a service). With this model, copy protection is no longer an issue, especially with a $2.99 iPhone app. Just because you can distribute a PDF doesn’t mean that’s the only way to distribute the content.

Bruce E (profile) says:

Lower Prices

It seems to me that the experiment points towards offering the electronic version at a very low price in a very convenient format (or formats).

The physical book and the ebook are two different markets (even if some customers are in both markets). The mistake of the booksellers is equating these two markets. If the price of the ebook is only marginally lower than the physical book, then it neither satisfies the physical book market (people who don’t like ebook readers, who value the physical copy) and it doesn’t satisfy the ebook market, where the vast majority get free copies from the small minority who buy the ebook.

Instead, if the ebook was offered at a significant discount to the physical book, I would guess that the total revenue from ebooks would rise significantly even though the revenue per customer was lower (see music and iTunes, where the convenience of the electronic marketplace coupled with the low per-item cost results in significant sales in spite of the non-DRM nature of the product). And the physical book market probably wouldn’t be adversely affected based on the results of this experiment.

I think the experiment needs to be repeated with a lower ebook price.

byteme says:

The production costs of ebooks should be much lower than that of physical copies. Beyond the cost of materials to make the book, there is the cost of shipping them, providing store signs/displays, etc. By pricing ebooks the same as physical books, the publishers are essentially saying that the content is the only important component of a literary work.

If that is so, then why do they charge so much more for hardcover books than for paperback. Also, why are they now making slightly larger paperbacks for $9.99 when standard paperbacks (only marginally smaller) are still $7.99. If the content is all-important, why the price differences in different physical formats?

The publishers shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways. If they want to price physical books according to format and justify it by referencing cost of production, then the lower cost of producing ebooks should result in steep discounts.

Joe (profile) says:

“He’s still not totally convinced however — as he notes that the reason his experiment worked was because it drove sales of the physical (paper) book. But he’s worried that when more people have ebook readers, then things might change.”

For better or worse, that is my thought on the topic as well. I buy books because they are easy to handle and read in their print format; that’s my reason to buy. I can’t shake the feeling that once ebooks become more affordable that people will buy less print books because they are just as easy to read and print is no longer a compelling reason to buy on its own.

I don’t think this applies to reference books (since they read differently and it’s hard to replicate that on an ebook), but for normal, linear reading, I see why ebooks wouldn’t be just as usable as print books.

That’s not to say that someone can’t come along and make it so easy to buy that it actually costs you more in time and effort to pirate, I just don’t know if that exists yet or will before ebooks really take off.

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