These days publishers are moving towards DRM free options. This has the advantage of freeing customers from Amazon lock-in as well as just making it easier for them to control their content. So for consumers who want to pay, this makes their product more valuable and gives them a reason to pay.

But for the vast majority of book publishers, they haven’t got the message. I found this out dramatically last week. I was setting up my new iPad Mini (it’s great by the way) and the Kindle app. As you do, one of the first things you do is download your own authored books. Information Wants to be Shared is DRM free so that was easy. But Parentonomics is not and I was informed that it had already been downloaded to the maximum about of devices on my Amazon account. That maximum is 5 and somewhere over the last two years (since it was released as an eBook) I had apparently downloaded it too many times. So I was informed by Amazon that I would have to purchase it again. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t happy about all of that.

Now who is the culprit here. The obvious entity to target is MIT Press, the publisher of the book. It is they who told Amazon or clicked some option to limit the number of downloads per account. For them, it was probably a natural reaction. Why should people want more than that? After all, they have purchased one and are getting 5; what a great deal?

Of course, that is physical product reasoning come in to a digital arena. It is poor reasoning. Surely, there are no real costs to allowing more downloads. In just a couple of years, it was a pain for me; what about the long future?

Now, a little more pushing would likely give rise to an additional cost: piracy. In this case, it is the idea that a bunch of consumers will get together and share Amazon accounts. Impose no restrictions on downloads and they will form clubs of 10s or 100s of people and MIT Press will lose sales.

But is that even remotely plausible? It isn’t an easy measure to coordinate that many people. We had to do planning just to get our family onto the one Amazon account. Can a bunch of friends do that? After all, Amazon restricts Kindles and Kindle apps to just one login. They would have had to plan this at quite an early stage not to face heaps of other costs. Anyone who wants to be that sophisticated to save money on books will surely have no problem actually going to ‘fully illegal’ and just torrenting the books. In other words, even taking this argument seriously leads one to conclude that the set of interested readers of Parentonomics who are willing to form massive Kindle clubs is pretty much zero.

So what happens when you impose device download restrictions on legitimate purchasers? Well, here is what I did: I stripped the DRM from the book. Here are instructions on how to do that. Now I can have my book again on my iPad. People reading this may speculate whether I have broken the law. It is hard to say but if MIT Press or Amazon send me some legal letter claiming that, I’ll be sure to let everyone know and we can take it from there.

That brings me back to the culprit. It is my impression that Apple does not limit devices for iBooks purchases. They are always synced now on iCloud and can be downloaded to your devices now and in the future. (Apple haven’t been so kind for computers with music and videos but on mobile devices they are open). Amazon gives publishers the option to limit. Because the option is there, the publishers take it. So the difference between Apple and Amazon is that Apple do not believe this should be an option and it will interfere with the consumer experience and will play to non-existent fears. Amazon, on the other hand, want to wipe their hands clean of it. But the problem is that Amazon products are crimped as a result. More critically, consumers do not know what restrictions are actually in place when they buy a book. So they may or may not be buying a crimped product. I didn’t know when buying my own book for goodness sake.

Amazon should start to take back some publisher control and work towards making it better for consumers. It will cost them nothing but they will have much to gain. Oh yeah, and while I’m at it, why is Amazon’s apps (both on the Kindle and iPad) so bad for organising book collections? How hard could it be to give consumers some options here? Maybe this would be a better allocation of product investment than new hardware devices.

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12 Responses to What are publishers afraid of with device restrictions?

  1. I always thought the limit was how many devices it could be on at the same time. Now I’m nervous – I delete/move books around all the time.

  2. dahillauthor says:

    Joshua, this is a book that you wrote we’re talking about right? What’s all this “Amazon should do this, Amazon should do that”? Put your money where your mouth is and make a public commitment for all your future book contracts to insist that there will be no DRM.

    In terms of your immediate problem, I assume you have an electronic copy of the manuscript (in Word or something). You could have just generated your own DRM free kindle file from that.

    • Joshua Gans says:

      Umm I have made that commitment. Followers of this blog have seen this.

      And no I don’t have an EPub or word file of my final copy. Publishers are extremely protective of such things.

      • dahillauthor says:

        Sorry for the snark. I missed that.

        Anyway, my underlying point was that power in this industry is shifting away from publishers towards authors so the solution lies in our hands. I don’t think most traditional publishers will get the point until it’s too late, at least for them.

  3. Narwhal says:

    I get frustrated with articles like this because there is no mention of B&N Nook. I realized that Kindle / Amazon is a major player but it is far from the ONLY player. And things with Nook are NOT the same as with Kindle. Now that Microsoft owns a major piece of B&N/Nook there should be no worry that the Nook will go belly-up financially.

    I use Barnes & Noble Nook because it has no restrictions on the number devices registered to an account. There are four family members using multiple devices. Two of us live out side the US in Switzerland and Brazil. I am not sure how many devices we use currently but they include various Nooks, computers, and at least one iPAD. Neither B&N Nook nor Kindle allows international purchases via their devices due to “copyright restrictions”. BUT, with B&N you can buy books via the internet, provided you use a proxy server located in the US. Once purchased and in ‘My Library’ in the B&N cloud, the book will download automatically to any and all devices where-ever they are located in the world without the need for a proxy server.

    I decided to go with B&N Nook because, at the time it, would have been impossible to use a Kindle for purchases/downloads outside the US in our situation. Also, the NOOK had more flexible side-load capabilities for books / files from other sources.

    My only complaint is that occasionally the Amazon prices are lower. This happens during the launching of new books. But the pricing is soon equalized. Also, new books are available via Amazon before they are B&N.

  4. James says:

    If you have old Kindle devices that you don’t use anymore, you can click on the “Manage Your Devices” link for your Kindle account. From there, you can deregister devices you don’t use anymore. You then need to wait 30 days before you can replace that device with a new one.

    Also, the Kindle Cloud Reader allows you to read your books in your web browser. It counts as a single device, but allows you to read your books via multiple PCs, Macs, or iPads.

  5. CdrJameson says:

    One of the nails in the CD coffin for me was too many times I’d mail order one and find it was so ‘copy protected’ that it would refuse to play on my PC, my main listening device.

    Worse, it might attempt to install some software if placed in my work PC, potentially a firing offense (listening to CDs was fine).

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