Learn About eBooks

Digital Rights Management

The question of eBook file protection is an important one. Most authors and publishers want their files to be protected from illegal copying and piracy, but the standard approach of applying Digital Rights Management (DRM) to eBook files comes with its own set of difficulties, especially if you are planning to sell your own eBooks.

Let’s talk about the basics of DRM, then get into some more specific ideas on implementation.

What is DRM?

DRM is essentially a lock that is placed on a digital file that keeps the file tied to the account of the person who purchased it. Different types of DRM are used to lock down movies, music, and eBooks, but they all do essentially the same thing. In the eBook market, DRM is either applied as a wrapper around the actual eBook file, or as part of the package of the eBook file itself. The DRM keeps someone from being able to open the file unless their device or software has the correct key, and most DRM also locks other features of the eBook even for valid owners, such as printing and copying content.

DRM in the eBook Marketplace

There are essentially three DRM systems currently in use by the major eBook retailers: Amazon’s, Apple’s, and Adobe’s.

Amazon applies its own DRM to Kindle eBooks, and they completely control the DRM system. This means that if you do decide to sell a Kindle eBook from your own website you will not be able to do so with DRM applied.

Apple applies its FairPlay DRM to files that are purchased from the iBookstore. As with Amazon’s DRM, FairPlay is not compatible with any other devices or applications, so the reader will be very locked down unless they take the DRM off the file.

Adobe‘s DRM system, called Adobe Digital Editions Protection Technology (ADEPT), uses a program called Adobe Content Server 4 (ACS4) to manage the DRM of eBook files from a server. The great thing about ADEPT is that it is currently in use by a variety of retailers, including B&N, Sony, Kobo, and Overdrive. It is also possible to license the ACS4 software and host your own DRM server for your own eBook store. However, there are some significant hurtles to overcome in that process, and it is best to have a company that specializes in using Adobe’s DRM help you with the setup and maintenance of that solution. Bluefire Productions is the best resource for those services in the industry, and we highly recommend you contact them if you want to set up your own DRM-protected eBook store. They also have a series of blog posts on the topic of Adobe’s DRM system, all of which are very informative and enlightening (see here, read from the bottom up).

Our take on DRM

Despite the value of the intended goal of DRM (protecting files from illegal use), it does not actually perform that task very well. One main issue is that all of the DRM systems that are in place right now have been “cracked” (broken), so someone who is committed to the idea of pirating eBook content will be able to easily pull the DRM off your eBook file.

Since the DRM can be removed, the main benefit that DRM gives is really to keep honest people honest. Some people who buy an eBook may not think that there is anything wrong with copying the file and giving it to a friend, so the DRM protection will keep that from happening. However, that same DRM also keeps the purchaser from being able to do valid things with their eBook files.

For example, imagine a reader who owned a Barnes & Noble Nook and bought a lot of eBooks from the Nook store over the course of a year or two. Once the device started to get old and needed an upgrade, the reader decided to purchase a Kindle as a replacement device. Once they get their new Kindle, they will find out that the DRM placed on files purchased for the Nook platform will keep them from being able to put those legitimately purchased eBooks on their new Kindle device. That kind of lock-in does not happen in the print world (my bookshelves don’t care where I bought a book), and it is very frustrating to eBook consumers.

There are other issues with the concept of DRM, and there are some very good points in favor of not using it on eBooks. Tim O’Reilly, founder of technology publisher O’Reilly Media, wrote a great article about this topic in 2002, laying out the issues with DRM better than we can here. Go read that article now, then come back here.

Another issue with DRM is that many of the discussions about it tend to be filled with fear and based on bad information. The effects that are commonly quoted as a reason to use DRM are just not provable. The U.S. Government Accountability Office completed a one-year research study [PDF] in 2010 that came to the conclusion that there is just not enough information to show that piracy is having a negative impact on the sale of digital goods. Tor Books UK, an imprint of Macmillan, went DRM-free for all of its titles in April 2012, and after a full year had seen no discernible increase in piracy.

While we here at eBook Architects do see a need for DRM protection on certain categories of eBooks, especially expensive eBooks like textbooks, we also think that the use of DRM is not a foolproof method of protecting an eBook from illegal copying.

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Is it a good idea to put my Table of contents at the end of my eBook?

Some people do this to increase the size of the free samples automatically generated by the eBook retailers. However, the Kindle and other devices will re-set the “last read location” to the end of the book if you have your Table of Contents there, so we normally recommend against that practice.

What is the difference between HTML5 and XHTML5?

HTML5 is the latest version of the HTML standard used on the Web and in eBooks. XHTML5 is a stricter and cleaner version of HTML5, with rules from XML imposed on the code. For example, when a tag is opened it has to be closed, and all of the tags have to be properly nested. XHTML5 allows the code to be more easily interpreted by the display engine, and it keeps the code more consistent and easier to edit.

I have heard you can’t use color in eBooks. Is that correct?

No, that is absolutely incorrect. eBooks look great with color, and we highly recommend using color images and even colored text (within reason) in your eBook files. Some devices have grayscale eInk screens, so the color will not show up on those devices. However, the color will be in the file, and it will work on all of the color devices. We do recommend you test colored text on a device with an eInk screen and ensure that the text will not be too light to read.

Do you need to have a separate ISBN for each version of the eBook for different companies?

Technically, yes. See an extended answer on our ISBNs page.

What is KindleGen?

KindleGen is Amazon’s eBook creation/compiling program. It is used on the KDP website to auto-convert files uploaded into the Kindle store, and it is also integrated into the Kindle Previewer program to handle the conversion of non-Kindle files loaded in that program. You can download KindleGen and get access to other Kindle creation information at amazon.com/kindlepublishing.

What is a fixed layout eBook?

Fixed Layout eBooks are HTML-based eBook files that are usually designed to match the layout of a print book. The key difference between fixed layout files and reflowable files is that reflowable eBooks allow the reader to have more control over the reading experience, such as changing the font size, background color, etc. For more information, please see our Fixed Layout Children’s and Non-Fiction pages.

Does Amazon sell HTML files or only Kindle?

Amazon only sells eBooks in the Kindle format, but that format, just like ePub, is built using HTML and CSS files.

How is fixed layout different from a pdf of the book?

Fixed layout eBooks are built using HTML, so they have more functionality than PDF files. For example, the narration overlay functionality used in many children’s eBooks is not possible in PDF files. In addition, none of the eBook retailers sell PDFs, so fixed layout eBook files offer the best sales opportunities.

A university librarian told me they are not acquiring any Kindle books but only HTML5/ePub. Have you found that to be common with other libraries? I know our local public library does buy Kindle books.

Libraries acquire their eBooks from services like 3M and Overdrive. These services sometimes offer an option for Kindle checkouts, but typically they are limited to ePub files because of the more common use of the Adobe DRM.

Has the Kindle format gotten any more sophisticated in how it handles tables or floating images?

Yes, Amazon’s Kindle Format 8 has support for many great design features, including floating images, tables, color text, embedded fonts, and more.

How are page numbers handled in an eBook?

Print book page numbers are included in the HTML code of both the Kindle and ePub formats as anchors. They are also listed in the PageList section of the NCX or Navigation file. The PageList is used by some reading systems (like the Kindle and iBooks) to show the reader the print page numbers of the book as they read.

How are page headers created in eBook files?

The different reading systems control what shows up in the header of your eBook. Most will display the title of the book, and some will also display the author name. That text cannot currently be set to display the chapter name or other information about where the reader is currently reading in the text.

How do eBooks handle hyphenation of long words?

Some eBook reading systems will apply hyphenation to longer words to make the text better fit on the screen. This is typically controlled by the reading system, and will change depending on the font size and other settings the reader has set on their device.

What about protecting the file?

eBook file protection is called Digital Rights Management (DRM). Please see our DRM page for information on how it works and suggestions on how to use it.

Can I sell my eBooks on my own website?

Yes! You are certainly able to sell your eBooks on your own website. For more information, please see this page.