Selling eBooks from your website seems like a dream business: no printing costs, no picking and packing, no postage to deal with. Plus, you’re connecting directly with readers in a way that you can’t when you sell through an intermediary like Amazon or Apple. If you are doing direct-to-reader sales already, selling eBooks can definitely be worthwhile: our client OR Books has just such a strategy, and sells significant numbers of eBooks as a result.
But there are complications. First, you will only generate sufficient traffic and sales on your website if you are already committed to selling direct to consumers. Just adding eBook sales to an otherwise static, low-traffic website is unlikely to be worth the effort. Second, the question of whether or not to utilize Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a thorny one.
The Benefits of Selling eBooks Direct to Consumers
The clearest benefit to selling eBooks direct is the increased revenue per sale. Selling direct means that you’re not giving a share of the sale price to Amazon or another reseller. This can mean 50-100% more revenue per sale, depending on your current arrangement with resellers.
Perhaps just as important, when you sell direct, you get the customer’s contact information, including their email. With their permission you can add them to your mailing lists and potentially gain additional business through followup marketing as you release new titles. Acquiring customers is hard: retaining existing ones by following up is smart.
DRM or no DRM?
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is what prevents readers from freely copying eBooks and giving them away, or, much much worse, putting them on a pirate download site where potentially thousands more can get your book without paying for it. From the point of view of most publishers and authors, this is uncontroversial: why should they enable pirates to steal the hundreds of hours of work on the part of the author and the investment the publisher makes in the book? Publishing is a risky and not particularly profitable business even without piracy.
But it is not quite that simple. There are many vocal anti-DRM voices on the web. Granted, most of them have no skin in the game: they argue from abstractions, having not spent years in writing the books in question or invested in their publication. But there are actually publishers that argue against DRM, including OR Books and the digital pioneer and computer book publisher Tim O’Reilly. Here are the arguments against DRM and my personal take on them:
- DRM inconveniences readers by preventing them from moving the eBook they legitimately purchased onto different devices, or reselling them.
- DRM facilitates the extension of monopoly power on the part of big resellers, Amazon in particular, by corralling your rightfully purchased content in a “walled garden” where you will be inclined to return when you want to make more purchases.
- Piracy, rather than depressing the sales of particular books, actually encourages it because the hardest thing to do in publishing is making readers aware of your book. According to this theory, free copies floating around raise awareness of books among people who will actually buy them.
- While DRM prevents legitimate users from casually making copies, it doesn’t really prevent the real bad guys: there are software tools out there to crack every DRM, including those for eBooks.
- Information just wants to be free. Especially, it seems, information created by the sweat of somebody else’s brow.
With all due respect to Tim O’Reilly, I think these arguments are mostly balderdash. I have purchased and read hundreds of eBooks from Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo and never been the slightest bit inconvenienced. Reading an eBook by its nature is like reading a cheap mass-market paperback, which is basically disposable. Nobody is buying eBooks to put on a bookshelf to treasure forever. eBooks are inherently less valuable than printed books, if more convenient. The argument that piracy generates sales is unprovable: all you know for certain is that you didn’t get paid for the pirated copies. And finally, the argument that the results of intellectual labor ought to be free just because the cost of reproducing it is low is persuasive, I think, mainly to those who build empires on revenue generated by free content or by acquiring customers via free content to sell them something else (think of Apple or Amazon)—or perhaps to academics whose salaries are paid by other means.
So, I am generally pro-DRM. For a publisher selling eBooks direct from their own website, however, DRM is a challenge. There is only one generally accepted technology for doing so, Adobe Content Server 4 (ACS4). The cost of installing ACS4 on your own servers is steep: $10,000 for the initial license, $1,500 per year, plus a per-book charge of around .25 depending on volume. ACS4 is not a standalone system, so you have to build your own accounting and content repository and integrate them with ACS4. We’re talking hundreds of hours of programming time, or tens of thousands of dollars. All before you sell the first eBook.
An alternative is to sign up with an eBook fulfillment service using ACS4 such as the one we provide. This reduces the setup costs drastically, to a couple of thousand dollars, and eliminates the need for you to set up dedicated servers just to sell eBooks. Because this service includes not just the furnishing of DRM but the fulfillment of the actual eBook files to your customers, the cost is around $0.50 per book in volume. We have customers who have been quite successful using this service.
How Adobe Content Server Works
When you are vending eBooks using ACS4 the books must first be “packaged” within the ACS4 system. Only ePub and PDF files can be packaged: no Mobi (Amazon) eBook files need apply. The publisher’s website is programmed so that when customers adds an eBook to their shopping cart and check out, they are provided with a link to ACS4 for the eBook they purchased. They simply click on the link and an encrypted copy is delivered to their device once they log in with their Adobe ID. (If they don’t have an Adobe ID they can sign up pretty seamlessly on the spot.)
Critically, the publisher’s website has to be set up so that the customer can come back and re-download their eBooks for whatever reason: typically a lost, corrupted, or new device.
An eBook service like ours typically charges to “package” the book on ACS4, and to fulfill an eBook using ACS4 each time it’s purchased.
ACS4 is not as streamlined as the DRMs used by Amazon, Apple, etc., but we fulfill thousands of eBooks every month with very few hiccups.
Selling eBooks Without DRM
Given the complexity and expense of setting up and operating ACS4, some publishers—OR Books among them—sell eBooks without DRM. eBooks can be added to their eCommerce website as a downloadable product. Customers can add them to shopping carts and pay for them just as they pay for a physical book. After they check out, the eBook is provided instantly as a download. Pretty simple. Another nice thing is that while ACS4 doesn’t support Amazon Mobi-format eBooks, it’s just as easy to sell them without DRM as it is to sell ePubs or PDFs.
The risk is, of course, that your files will make their way to a piracy site and harm legitimate sales.
So as a publisher, you have three choices for selling eBooks from your own website, either of which may be uncomfortable:
- Invest upwards of $40,000 to implement ACS4 and hundreds more a month to operate it
- Sign up with an eBook fulfillment service such as Bookmobile provides. Initial investment around $2,000.
- Sell without DRM.
Any of these options must be seriously evaluated against the probability of generating sufficient revenue to make it all worthwhile and against the risk of piracy.
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I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email. I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!
Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.