The subject of DRM and e-books has been a hot topic in recent years, and in an afternoon talk at the opening International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) at BEA, Tor Books founder Tom Doherty talked about the publisher’s 2012 decision to dump DRM from its e-books.

“After discussing it with authors and readers, it became pretty clear that DRM was not much of a problem for the sophisticated pirate, but it was, however, a meaningful problem and an annoyance to many of our readers,” Doherty told the audience. “So, we went all in.”

Although piracy continues to be an issue for Tor, and the publishing industry in general, Doherty acknowledged, dumping DRM on its entire list has paid off.

“So far, the lack of DRM has not increased the number of Tor e-books online illegally, nor has it visibly hurt our sales,” Doherty said. “We decided that if we play fair with [our customer] they will play fair with us. And, you know, it's working.”

While those looking for numbers or more concrete evidence about Doherty and Tor’s DRM experience were likely disappointed, Doherty’s broader message about DRM was much-needed, and well-timed. Good publishing, he stressed, is about fostering a community.

And not just a community of publishers and booksellers, Doherty stressed, but librarians, authors, readers, teachers, fans, and critics.

"Books create the conversations we hear and are part of, so it's important that we make these conversations critical to any decision we make in our publishing programs.”

Doherty said the Sci-fi community has always talked in the physical space, and shared books and ideas. Now, they also do so in the digital space and DRM, he felt, was throttling that; the issue of DRM, he added, had become a “central concern” at Tor. “Authors need to connect,” he noted. “And barriers, whether DRM or something else, disrupt these connections.”

The "community" approach has worked well for Tor, Doherty, said, taking the opportunity to announce a new DRM-free imprint——which will be dedicated to publishing novellas, shorter novels, and serializations. Doherty said he sees digital as a way to “reclaim the length of the novella, a format that I have always felt is a natural form to science fiction,” and was once “very important when magazines were dominant in SciFi readership, but which has almost disappeared as that market declined.”

In perhaps his most cogent observations, though, Doherty spoke of “the bigger issue” with DRM: the dangerous “lock-ins” that it can impose.

“Many of our customers have seen what can happen when vendors control proprietary DRM formats,” he said. “It hasn’t happened much in the world of books, but it has happened in gaming, music, and video, when a business went belly up or simply stopped supporting DRM formats, leaving customers with big stacks of content they had paid for, which only runs on devices now orphaned.”

Of course, it is not just consumers that can suffer. The lock-ins can also affect publishers. In fact, DRM plays a part in the current Amazon/Hachette battle. After all, Amazon is not just a retailer, but a DRM-protected platform. Thus, Kindle owners are in effect Amazon customers first—a consumer cannot walk away from Amazon and take their purchased Kindle books with them to a competing platform.