The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Elfwreck (part 2)

Elfwreck is the nom de net of an avid (some would say fanatic) ebook reader with over 10 years professional experience with digital imaging and over 25 years with document conversion and editing. She manages the [community profile] ebooks community at Dreamwidth and is active at the Mobileread forums. She lives in the SF Bay Area in California, and is also involved in tabletop RPG gaming, copyright activism, filking, and slash fandom.


“Turning Pirates Into Customers”

Part 2: Sell Something Worth Buying

How do you convince pirates to buy instead of downloading? It starts with quality. Printed books have a known quality level; even if the writing itself is poor, the book is not; the typeface is readable (or if not, the reader can opt not to buy; people who need large-print books don’t buy mass market paperbacks), the margins are reasonable; the paragraphs are formatted correctly according to whatever stylesheet the publisher prefers. Typos are rare; chapter headers in plain text without page breaks are nonexistent. For nonfiction, a table of contents is almost always present. Ebook buyers can count on none of these things.

This is one of the first reasons (or excuses) offered for why people download instead of buying; purchased ebooks are a mix of “good enough” and “problematic,” with the occasional nightmare (books with no punctuation at all, wrong book entirely—right filename, wrong contents). Anyone who’s been burned on a purchase (some ebook stores have a “no returns AT ALL” policy; most others drag their feet about fixing bad digital purchases) might feel justified in turning to other sources for their ebooks.

Authors, harass your publishers to both proofread and check the formatting of ebooks on ebook readers, not just a computer screen. Publishers, invest in a few different readers for testing, and make sure each ebook is opened and checked by human eyes before it’s pronounced ready to sell. You wouldn’t release a new hardcover as loose-leaf pages of recycled newspaper held together with a rubber band around a couple of sheets of cardboard; don’t do the digital equivalent with your ebooks.

Fix the formatting. Fix the metadata. And tell your customers about it … request ebook listings that have a spot to mention fonts, justification, line spacing, and proofreading. The average ebook buyer won’t care, but they will be pleased to note that you’re paying attention. The potential pirates might reconsider bootleg downloads (with their erratic quality levels) if they’re assured the legit versions are good.

If you can’t control how they’re described in ebook stores, make sure the listing on the author or publisher’s site talks about ebook formatting quality. Tell customers what anyone considering buying a print book would know at a glance: how long is it (word count is preferred to page count, for ebooks, but even filesize is some help), is it serif or sans serif, are the paragraphs indented or is there a blank line between them? What cover art does it have? Is there internal artwork? Does it have an index? A table of contents? Tell people what they’re buying, and they’ll be more likely to pay you. Tell them they don’t need to crack the DRM to read it because it doesn’t need to be fixed. Encourage reviewers to mention ebook formatting, just as they’d mention whether a printed book had margins too small or an easy-on-the-eyes typeface.

Of course, they may need to crack the DRM to read it because it’s only offered in stores that are incompatible with their device. If you only sell at Amazon, with DRM, and the customer has a Sony Reader, she has some choices:

  1. Don’t buy the book. Whether or not the reader’s happy with this, the author’s out a sale.
  2. Buy, and read on desktop instead of ebook device. Reader is not happy; she bought the device to allow her to read on the go.
  3. Buy, and crack the DRM. Download one of the various programs written for this (dodging around a DMCA violation; it’s not illegal to have such programs, but it’s illegal to distribute them; it’s unclear if it’s legal to use them to be able to read your own purchases), google for instructions on how to run it, crack the book. Download a conversion program like Calibre (free, open source, legal) and run the cracked version through that to get to a format her device supports. Author’s happy with the purchase; reader may be happy with the reading but annoyed at the amount of extra effort involved.
  4. Skip all that, type [book title] [free ebook download] into Google, and get a version someone else has gone to the effort of cracking, in a format she can just load onto her device. Reader’s happy; author’s not.

DRM prevents casual sharing among people who aren’t tech-savvy; it doesn’t prevent piracy. And it doesn’t result in more sales, as far as any research has been able to figure out. It’s been said that “DRM is like saying if you want to read our books, you have to use our lamp.” That’s how many readers think of it … a method of forced lock-in, rather than an author-safety feature. They don’t think of it as an anti-theft feature because it applies to something they’ve already bought, and nobody thinks, “I should have to pay extra for restrictive features that prevent me from using my purchases because otherwise I might run off and commit crimes with them.” Treating all customers as potential thieves may not deter them, if the DRM isn’t too inconvenient, but it doesn’t win any extra sales. And non-DRM publication does win sales; some ebook readers (like myself) won’t buy anything with DRM.

The question authors should be asking is not, “does DRM prevent (some) piracy?” because they don’t need to prevent piracy. They need to gain sales, so they should be asking, “does DRM prevent more lost sales through piracy than it prevents purchases through inconvenience?” Many former customers have said they’ll never buy DRM’d ebooks again … several of those were active buyers, early adopters in a position to encourage their friends to try ebooks.

Many people also claim that DRM doesn’t bother them or that it’s a necessary nuisance and they don’t mind it because it helps authors get paid. I’ve yet to see one of those posts/comments say, “of course, it doesn’t bother me that I can’t share my Kindle books with my husband’s Nook. We don’t mind at all having to buy the same book twice so we can both read it.” Nor has anyone said, “I lost access to 50 ebooks when Adobe changed from its old DRM system to ADE, but I was never going to read those again so I don’t care. I’m happy to buy plenty of DRM’d books with the new system.” It’s only people who have never lost access to their purchases, never been frustrated by being prevented from what they thought was a perfectly reasonable use of their ebooks, who sing the virtues of DRM (and publishers and authors, who scrupulously avoid offering any actual statistics to support their claims that DRM helps rather than hinders sales).

I can’t say “DRM costs more sales than it prevents losses through filesharing.” I can say that authors and publishers should take a careful look at the facts, and start collecting useful statistics, because it’s not as simple as “DRM prevents theft.” DRM also prevents sales … and you don’t get to be a bestselling author (or a full-time, quit-your-day-job author) by “preventing theft.”


Elfwreck’s writing can be found at [personal profile] elf, her Dreamwidth blog, or at the Archive Of Our Own.

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at



  1. […] READ PART 2 OF ELFWRECK’S GUEST POST HERE Elfwreck’s writing can be found at elf, her Dreamwidth blog, or at the Archive Of Our Own. The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at Share […]