Rights matter in at least three major ways when you self-publish an e-book:
- Do you have the right to publish the work?
- How well are your rights protected when you sign up with a distributor?
- Do you retain all rights?
We’ll review these points with the various distributors.
Do you have the right to publish the work?
All distributors need to be sure that you have the right to publish the work you’re offering. In fact, Google Play stopped accepting new accounts because so much pirated work was being sold through them. Thieves made money from Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Most sign-ups will ask if you have the rights to the work you are submitting. Of course, anyone can say “yes” - Amazon actually checks. If your e-book is a compilation of other material on the web, such as a series of blogs, you have to go through additional steps to confirm that you have the right to publish the material and it is not in the public domain.
No distributor accepts material in the public domain (although you can certainly quote it). After all, if a work is in the public domain, the distributors don’t need you. They can publish the work themselves and reap all the profits.
How well do they protect your rights?
E-books are extremely easy to copy. If they can be copied, they can circulate without being tracked, meaning that you receive nothing when people read your books. In fact, some websites even charge money to readers, without sharing royalties with the authors.
So there’s a real reason to yearn for protection, and some distributors such as Apple iBooks and Amazon use electronic systems to keep readers from sending off a copy of your book to hundreds of their friends. These protections are versions of Digital Rights Management (DRM).
DRM has both pros and cons. The pros are mostly the protection. The cons are for readers, who cannot read their purchases on just any device. DRM may also make it difficult to sell your own works yourself; for example, at your own website. Finally, if DRM software changes, older e-books may no longer be compatible with a new e-reader.
So many people, especially readers but others as well, are against DRM. Some authors have the attitude that the more people who read their works the better; getting paid is irrelevant. Some truly believe that they will make more money, in the end, this way. (They may be right -- Amazon operated at a huge loss for years before establishing itself.) For most self-published authors, obscurity, not piracy, is the problem.
Others point out that DRM only stop the honest people, who would pay for your books anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t respect your works enough to protect them, can you expect others to respect them? At least when you use DRM you let readers know that you prefer to be paid.
There are those with the philosophy that all intellectual property should be free. The counter-argument is that while the author lives – or even the author’s partner--because spouses so often provide financial, emotional and editorial support – royalties should be paid.
On the other hand, DRM may matter little. Many websites have step-by-step instructions on how to strip it out, and some jurisdictions don’t protect intellectual property anyway.
So now that we have discussed some of the pros and cons of DRM – and you have some information to help you decide what you want – what do the major distributors offer?
- Amazon allows you to opt for DRM
- Apple iBooks uses DRM
- Barnes & Noble’s Nook uses DRM
- Kobo allows you to opt for DRM.
- Smashwords is DRM-free
Do you retain all rights?
One more significant point: because you are self-publishing, you should retain all your rights. That means you should be able to withdraw the book when you like (sometimes you need to give notice, but that’s understandable), edit or update, sell translations, movie rights, and so on.
Retaining all rights is frequently not the case with traditional publishers, who may claim some percentage of these extra sales for their own bottom line – either some percentage or the whole shebang.
The distributors discussed in this article all let you keep your rights. However, some may offer special programs that fall somewhere between self-publishing and traditional arrangements. If the distributor has the ability and the will to promote, as Amazon certainly does, a special program may be worth it. However, read the fine print before you agree to anything.
This article has tried to guide you through the most significant issues with respect to rights and self-publishing. It was written in spring of 2017, so if you read this much after that, be aware that although the issues may be the same, the conditions may have changed. Make sure you review every agreement thoroughly before accepting. And, if you have a different experience, please share it in the comments.