Harvard Business Review Press goes DRM Free (and expensive)

Publishers have been slow to adopt DRM free eBooks even though experience in music publishing suggests a natural evolution. To be sure, part of this relates to Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format that is involves DRM and that has enlisted major publishers behind it. But there are some big exceptions and some others including TOR books and O’Reilly media who have moved to an all DRM free business model. From this, one would be tempted to think that DRM free is a product of massive bargaining power or publisher positioning at the ‘geek end’ of the spectrum.

Yesterday, however, a publisher that fits neither of these classes entered the DRM free mould. Harvard Business Review press launched their own eBook store with a variety of formats; all of them DRM free.

We make our ebooks available to you DRM-free so you can read them on the device of your choice. We trust that our customers will abide by copyright law and refrain from distributing ebook files illegally. Please note that in the case that you download a PDF, it will be personalized with your email address.

So HBR have adopted the “buy once, read anywhere model” and that anywhere includes a Kindle. This means their consumers aren’t locked into a device or format. And it means that their purchases are ‘future proof’ to a good degree. It also means that if they want to share a book, there are no ‘technical’ things stopping that. To be sure, selling an HBR eBook is illegal but this mode is more tolerant of sharing.

How tolerant? Well, the business book market is a little different than other book markets. Many sales are generated by people giving books to each other. The typical case is of a boss insisting all of his underlings read something. But there are also bulk distributions to clients and the like. Amazon and all other platforms do not offer bulk sales so HBR had to do something different. Moreover, to manage that with DRM would just be too hard. So instead they went their own way and so now you can buy eBooks in bulk with a volume discount. A real innovation.

But there is a cost to this. HBR have not gone ‘all in’ on DRM free. For instance, one of the books they offer is Clay Christensen’s famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Buy it from HBR directly and it will cost you $17.99 (and you can also see there they currently have the eBook ‘In stock’) but on the Kindle from Amazon it is $9.89 and from the iTunes bookstore it is $10.99 (not sure what happened to the most favored customer clause there!). Now as a Professor, that might give me pause from assigning a book to buy from HBR. However, if I assign the book, I can get my students a 50% discount from them so it evens out. To the ordinary consumer, what HBR are saying is “you can buy from Amazon and be locked in or buy from us and we will make sharing a little easier.” It isn’t what they officially say but like iTunes DRM free music, that is what they are telling the market. It is an option tolerant of a small amount of sharing and, as I have written before (at HBR of all places), that is a good direction to move in.

I have my own eBook coming out with HBR Press in a very short time. I’d love it to be the case that they decided to offer the book on their site with an explicit ‘sharing’ option. For instance, the normal ‘don’t share’ this book might cost the same as Amazon while the ‘sharing’ option may be somewhat higher but would say allow you to assign ‘ownership’ of the book to another person as well.

Indeed, there is more room for innovation here. Publishers, including HBR, are worried about being locked into Amazon. What if a consumer who has already bought Christensen from Amazon, could produce their Kindle receipt and then be assigned ‘ownership’ of the book direct with HBR? This type of move would go a long way towards ensuring publishers against the adverse future consequences of any market power by Amazon.

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