Random House Germany drops DRM for books – by mistake. A crack in the Adobe wall?

A week ago, German ebook buyers noticed in total surprise that ebooks from Random House – Germany’s by far largest publishing group – could be purchased without hard DRM. This was an ever more astounding discovery, as the group had not given any prior notice to such a change of minds.

So far, hard DRM had been hardwired in the DNA of big German publishing groups, notably Holtzbrinck (with S. Fischer or Rowohlt), Bonnier (Ullstein, Piper, Carlsen), or Random House (aka Bertelsmann), as to the trade association Börsenverein as well.

Well, it was only a glitch. Or, as Libreka explained, the German trade association’s own distribution platform, which served the RH titles: Some technical switch at RH had been misinterpreted by Libreka’s system – and that was that.

Was it only a glitch?

In fact, several mid-sized German publishers already have abandoned hard DRM, such as prestigeous Hanser, or more recently Hoffman & Campe. However, I am not sure if any consumers have noticed their move towards convenience thus far.

Dismissing hard DRM altogether would be “the smartest thing to do for publishers”, argued the (e-)reading blog Lesen.net.

One week later, nothing has happened though.

This is perhaps the biggest PR opportunity that German publishers have missed for years, for gaining headway in both of their fiercest, and most relevant battles:

– For winning over the minds and hearts of consumers (aka readers), as a bold move would have been to say: We trust you, as our most loyal partners, and prefer to offer you convenience, at our risk; because in the ever shrinking print trade book market, ebooks are the growth segment, hence the future element for the entire book business;

– In competing the prevalence of Amazon in the German market, both in print and ebook retail, by emphasizing DRM free offers as a convenience to their customers, and thereby regaining control over that key issue of who defines the market environment: The traditional local players, or (from such a ‘turf wars’ perspective), that challenger of Amazon, who had come in from afar (as the local players would want to portray the company from Seattle, whose base in Munich however was their first venture internationally, back in 1998).

In a few weeks, the Frankfurt Book Fair will open, as a perfect venue and PR opportunity for publishers to reaching out beyond the so far mostly walled-off perspectives on eBooks and innovation, by embracing their readers.

What, one week ago, perhaps really had been just an odd glitch, could then evolve into a crack in the wall of hard and consumer-unfriendly DRM for ebooks – a timely crack indeed, occuring exactly 25 years post the opening in the Berlin Wall, which had brought the cold war to an end.

From a reader’s, or consumer’s perspective, but perhaps also from a publisher’s point of view, it might indeed be simply the “smartest” (Lesen.net), and technically, the simplest thing to do, in order to leverage what ebooks can add to that good old trade of books.

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