Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tor UK goes DRM-free for e-books... Yay?

In fairly big genre publishing news, as of today Tor UK have gone DRM-free for their e-books. This means e-books from their store (link takes you to the Pan Macmillan store, which includes Tor) will not have any restrictions. As far as I'm aware, this means they're at least the third major genre publisher to do so - behind Baen and Angry Robot - although arguably the largest. Those who read this blog may remember that I blogged about e-books earlier in the year, and some of those criticisms apply to this too.

First, let's compare some pricing. I decided to go for a small variety of authors, one with a large series, another with a hardcover, a third who is classed as a Tor author but his books are published outside of the imprint (on Pan rather than Tor) and finally self-publishing legend Amanda Hocking.

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Heirs of the Blade (Shadows of the Apt #7)
Amazon UK - £4.71 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £7.07 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - £7.19 (EPub DRM)
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

Mark Charan Newton - The Broken Isles (Legends of the Red Sun #4)
Amazon UK - £7.47 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £8.47 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - Not Available
Tor UK Store - £10.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £10.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

China MiƩville - Embassytown
Amazon UK - £3.99 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £6.37 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - £6.39 (EPub DRM)
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99 (Restricted to iDevices)

Amanda Hocking - Switched (Tyrelle Trilogy #1)
Amazon UK - £0.94 (Kindle Edition)
WHSmith - £1.00 (Kobo w/ Adobe DRM)
Waterstones - Not Available
Tor UK Store - £7.99
Apple iTunes Bookstore - £7.99

(All prices are correct at time of publishing this post)

As you can see - Hocking is a little bit of a special case, as she was originally self-published and her books have largely retained a low price - there's some fairly big pricing differences. In one case (MiƩville), you're paying twice the price for the same book. Tor are not competing whatsoever with the Kindle, which is all the more bizarre when the only dedicated e-reader their store claims it supports is the Kindle.

Morality of Amazon and its pricing aside, when you consider the Kindle is the single most owned e-reader on the market, it seems a little bizarre that they're basically selling the same product at a non-competitive price, especially when they claim they really only support the Kindle with their product.

How about the store itself?
Well, it's dull, it's really obtuse and it doesn't seem to be particularly user-friendly. This is what a product page looks like in Firefox:
Doesn't that just excite you? No clear indication where it fits in the series, no cover art (despite smaller sizes showing elsewhere) and a preview that gives you quite a bit too much of a preview. If you can purchase it from Tor UK, there is a small 'Buy' box with the editions listed, otherwise it links you to other vendors. It doesn't even tell you which file type the e-book is, so you're unable to tell if it will or won't work with your e-reader without purchasing it. A number of books have no e-book edition available from Tor UK, but still list a price that's equal to the cover price of the average MMPB (so £7.99), so it may direct you to a vendor who sells it cheaper (as most do).

I've also noticed bizarre things like these editions for Peter F. Hamilton's The Naked God:
You can have the e-book for £7.99 or the e-book for £8.99 (or go to Amazon and get it for £4.86). Clear and sensible, it is not.

Compare this to Baen, if you will. Baen offers seven formats for a variety of e-readers and devices with e-reading capabilities. They carry books at a fairly flat rate of $6, even if it's a brand-new hardcover, e-ARCs at $15 (get the uncorrected book ahead of schedule!) and they're all DRM-free. On top of this they offer monthly bundles, containing 5-6 books for $18 - roughly half-price for each book. To compare again with Amazon, they offer free WhisperNet delivery to the Kindle (or you can download the book and add it yourself), one-click purchasing and lower prices.

But you're supporting the authors and publisher more this way!Am I? Maybe. They're certainly getting the cost of the book without anything taken by Amazon, Apple, WHSmith and so on, but that's about it. The author may get a little bit more from this, but I would think that two Kindle sales (totalling roughly the same as one book from the Tor store) from, say, Amazon would give roughly the same to the author in royalties but it would also give an extra sale figure, meaning the publisher (or another if the author looks elsewhere) will be more likely to continue publishing that author and/or market their books better.

What I'm trying to say is this - Tor UK have the right idea. DRM-Free is a great way to go for all digital media - comics, music, games, video, books - but it's easy to do it wrong, and I feel Tor UK have done that with their move. They've had a chance to bring people to their store rather than go through Amazon, WHSmith/Kobo, the iTunes bookstore and so on, but beyond DRM-free there's no grab. The store is confusing, complex and incomplete, it has very little stated compatibility with other e-readers (what's the point of going DRM-free if you're only supporting the Kindle?) and the prices are high relative to other vendors. There is no grab here for the customer, no feature that really makes the 'extra' expense worth it. Prices could be dropped to match the Amazon ones, and that alone would make it a much more appealing store - and both publisher and author would benefit more than they do from other vendors.

But for this store to succeed, truly, Tor UK need to look at their competitors - Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Baen's e-book store and so on. They need a cleaner, clearer, simpler website, but that's the least of their worries. Between the relatively high prices and the lack of supported devices, there's little benefit to the user. With Baen's store you get the book in seven formats, which means the majority of devices are supported - including almost anything with a web browser - for a price not far below that of the paperback editions. That's the direction Tor UK should have taken with their store.

(Thanks to Simon from Gollancz (@Gollancz) and Angry Robot author Anne Lyle (@AnneLyle) for help in understanding some of the finer aspects of royalties and sales)

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