Should we sell your ebooks without DRM?

Why some publishers choose to sell their ebooks without encryption

DRM Free ebooks
In some cases it makes sense to unlock your ebooks

Should we sell your ebooks without DRM?”

We can sell your ebooks:

  1. protected by Digital Rights Management technology (DRM),
  2. completely free of DRM (“normal” PDF and EPUB), or
  3. with social DRM (digital watermarks)

That’s a question that elicits, from most trade publishers and textbook publishers, a simple, monosyllabic, unambiguous, negative response. But this isn’t true of all book publishers.

At Frankfurt Book Fair this month we asked many of the publishers we met with for their thoughts on DRM-free, and a surprising number were happy with the idea.

We already offer thousands of ebooks from global publishers without DRM. Their ebooks are sold in simple, un-encrypted epub or PDF formats. Our un-encrypted ebooks are mostly in specific subject categories, like:

  • Scholarly
  • Scientific, Technical, Medical
  • Computing
  • Science fiction
  • Fantasy

DRM-free can be a force for good

There are undoubted benefits for readers if you decide to set your ebooks free. And for some publishers these benefits outweigh the perceived risks of letting your ebooks out there. Here are some of the benefits…


There’s something just wrong about the difficulties that a sight-impaired reader has to endure in the 21st Century to get accessible reading materials.  Most popular ebook platforms do not support screen-readers or braille converters.  A very simple solution to this would be to release your titles in PDF, which is much more functional and suited to those applications.


Ebooks are made more complicated when they’re wrapped in DRM. We’re all familiar with downloading PDFs. It’s easy. My 92 year old uncle routinely does that. His laptop is ready and able to receive and open and print PDFs. But if you buy an encrypted PDF or epub:

  1. You have to create, and remember, account credentials with one more company (the ebook seller)
  2. You must download, install, and get familiar with one more app, in order to unlock and read your book. But with an un-encrypted ebook, you can open a PDF with the same program you normally use for this. And epubs can easily be read in your browser. Microsoft Edge does this natively, and there are simple plugins for other browsers.
  3. Encrypted ebooks are more prone to technical issues.

Usability: “Why can’t I print this?”

There’s a steady trickle of frustration coming from people who discover, often after they’ve bought an ebook, that there’s a limit to – or even complete prohibition on – printing and copying. This is primarily an issue for professional or educational users who quite reasonably need to quote material from a book. And there are still millions of readers who want to print a section of a technical manual, and so forth.

These restrictions cause consternation among law-abiding users who know full well that there’s nothing technical that prevents them doing what they want.

The systems we use, including Adobe Digital Editions, do allow publishers to calibrate permitted amounts of printing and copying, but the tendency is for publishers to set unfriendly limits.


Many users just prefer to “own” the book file. They prefer to actually see the file there in their DropBox or Windows explorer. Never mind that we, their bookseller, hold an archive copy to re-download anytime they need to.

This might be a fading attitude; we’re increasingly happy to entrust our photos, music, documents to cloud storage and streaming services. But for now it’s a real concern for many customers.

A level playing field

If your company is, heaven forbid, in an asymmetrical power relationship with a virtual monopoly vendor, think about this.

“I can’t open the ebooks I buy from on my [monopoly device], so I’ve gone back to [monopoly].”

We hear it all the time. Proprietary platforms cause this problem.

Because un-encrypted ebooks can be read on all popular platforms, including monopoly platforms, they neutralise unhealthy consumer lock-in.

If you choose to publish your ebooks without DRM, or just with watermarks, then the door to that walled garden opens, and it’s possible for innovative ebook vendors to sell your titles to users who can then read them on any platform, any reader device.

Open the garden door
Proprietary ebook platforms that apply DRM become, of necessity, walled gardens. Everything you buy from that vendor works inside their garden, but that garden door stays locked.

Who would even think of doing this?

Once a user has an un-encrypted epub or PDF on their computer, there is little to stop them forwarding it to a friend, or worse. Given the possibility of re-distribution, there seem to be two drivers for publishers choosing to dispense with DRM:

Scholarly or STM ebooks

For many academic and professional publishers he bulk of their revenue comes from sales to academic libraries. They sell very little to individual users. This is partly because most of the scholars and professionals who use their ebooks have access to those titles via an institutional library anyway. Therefore, some publishers will sell their ebooks to retail customers without DRM, because a simple PDF is universally accepted and easy to manage.

Computing, Science Fiction & Fantasy

We find that publishers will often distribute computing and SciFi titles un-encrypted. This is only a hunch, but their reasoning might be that these users are typically very technically savvy, and have no difficulty in unlocking encrypted files anyway. So they might as well make life a bit easier for those users and keep them on-side.

Social DRM – a useful compromise?

There is a sort of middle-ground here called soft, or social, DRM. We can deliver PDFs or EPUBs to our customers that aren’t encrypted, but they carry inside their pages a “watermark” that identifies the individual who bought it. Typically that would be the user’s first and last names and email address.

Many publishers prefer social DRM because it makes life simple for their readers, but also tends to make a user think twice about distributing an ebook widely.

Can we sell a sub-set of our output without DRM?

Yes, for sure. You can tag specific titles in your metadata feed as “DRM-free” and our system will comply. Our helpful production team will show you how.

Here’s how to do it

Rest assured that we won’t change anything without your explicit written instructions.

It’s not for everyone but, if you’d like to sell your ebook titles on unencrypted, your readers will love you for it.

If you’d like us to sell all of your titles DRM-free

Just tell us in writing. An email message sent to [email protected] will do the trick. We’ll flip a master switch and make all your output DRM-free.

To make a sub-set of your titles DRM-free

Step 1.   Let us know by email that you want to sell some of your titles without DRM. By default all publisher accounts are locked down for DRM. So, in addition to the metadata snippet mentioned below, you need to actually write in and we’ll turn a switch on our end to enable the change. Write to [email protected].

Step 2:   Include one of the following entries in the ONIX product record for each title that should be DRM-free:




Final thoughts on DRM

The clear advantage with DRM is that it effectively impedes piracy and file-sharing. That’s why all serious trade publishers are adamant that they won’t let any ebook “out there” without DRM.
However some academic and scientific publishers are quite relaxed about it, because the bulk of their sales have always been to institutional libraries (not individuals), and those libraries will keep buying specialist works no matter how many un-encrypted files are floating around.
It’s true that users really appreciate receiving a file (PDF, epub) that just opens when they click on it. DRM irritates pretty much everyone.
You might consider how one of your authors would feel if a friend said, “My mate sent me a PDF of that book you wrote. Great book.” If the author is an academic, they might be pleased. But an aspiring novelist starving in a garret might feel differently.
Here are some common arguments against DRM:
  • There are tools available that enable even a novice to strip the DRM off an encrypted ebook, so what’s the point?
  • Anyone who hunts down a pirated version of a book was never going to pay for it anyway, so it’s not really lost income.
  • If there are thousands of free copies of your book in circulation, think of it as free publicity, akin to word-of-mouth.
These arguments have been elaborated at length in the blogosphere, but they’re just  hypotheses. Or assertions, really.
The only hard evidence we have is
  1. what happened to the music industry when the internet enabled everyone to rip CDs and share music files willy-nilly; and
  2. what happened to the book industry when they didn’t let that happen to books.
Chart of Comparison of US Music and Book Sales Revenue
Here’s why the idea of distributing ebooks without DRM appalls many publishers
So it comes down to a judgment about risk.
Whichever way you choose, just let us know and we’ll set it up.


Further Reading

About DRM (’s Help Desk)

Non-DRM O’Reilly ebooks available from (About

Closed Platforms (Wikipedia)

Tor Books says cutting DRM out of its e-books hasn’t hurt business (ArsTechnica)

Social DRM in Springer Ebooks (SpringerNature)


Updated  15th December 2018


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