Watermarks: Finding a balance above the Waterline

Several readers have commented about our implementation of watermarks in e-books, and I wanted to share a bit more of our thinking. For now, we’ve decided to go with watermarking as a deterrent to piracy to protect our authors, but we’re listening to your thoughts, and we continue to have rich discussions on the topic. Here’s a little of the back story and the vectors we’re weighing in the decision.

Ease of access for readers. At Microsoft Press, we’re all about impact. We want to help our readers get to top quality information effectively and efficiently. Readers should be able to access their books on all their devices without the hassle of logins or PINs or other access controls. Ease of access is like ease of navigation. Readers need to get to the content they need in the most friction-free way possible.

Attracting and retaining the best authors. At Microsoft Press, we’re fortunate to work with some of the most talented technical authors in the business. These experts spend thousands of hours to craft a book filled with their hard-won experience and first-hand knowledge. Often, the financial rewards aren’t nearly as great as what the author would make as a consultant. Yet they still do it. Why? Impact. By writing a Microsoft Press book, they can reach thousands of readers. It’s hard work to be an author, and very difficult financially to do it full-time without other work. Like most of us, authors have to eat, like to have a roof over their heads and the latest technologies at their fingertips, so it is important that they earn appropriate royalties so that they can keep writing. If a publisher doesn’t take care of her authors, soon the authors won’t be able to afford to write anymore and all those great books disappear.

Dealing with Piracy. Those of you who follow the Born To Learn blog may have seen Kerri Davis’s post on anti-piracy. We receive notice daily of hundreds of unauthorized postings of Microsoft Press books. Like whack-a-mole, the number of instances is astounding, and they just keep popping up. Piracy is a real issue and has a huge impact to our business.

So, how do we provide the greatest ease of access for each reader, enable broad impact to the most readers, and support our authors in the process? Putting our books under DRM lock and key may mitigate piracy and protect authors, but it creates a hassle for readers. Staying completely DRM-free keeps access and impact high, but has a deep negative impact for authors. Soon they won’t be able to write great books anymore. If only there was something in between.

Fortunately there is, and it is our preferred solution at the moment. When you buy a Microsoft Press e-book, we watermark it with your name in the footer. Having a watermark is a subtle reminder to readers that as a crucial part of the publishing ecosystem, they have rights and responsibilities. Rights include being able to keep copies of an e-book on up to 6 devices. Responsibilities include supporting the author by not distributing personal copies on the internet or consuming pirated content posted by others. For the moment, we think we’ve struck a good balance, but it is an open dialog and we look forward to hearing from customers and authors on how to improve.

Comments (5)
  1. Brian K says:

    I have no objection to watermarks in the ebooks I buy as long as the price is reasonable. But when Microsoft Press was distributed by O'Reilly, we had the option to upgrade our purchase of the printed book to include a $5 ebook. Now if I want the printed book and the ebook, I have to pay nearly full price for both. Manning provides a free ebook when you buy the printed book; perhaps MS Press should consider doing something similar.

  2. Good news, Brian: we just launched on our site a 90% discount on the ebook when you purchase both a book and its ebook at the same time.

  3. Brian K says:

    Yes, that is nice, but what if I have purchased the printed book, either from the Microsoft Press Store or from a retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and later decide that I also want the ebook. There is no option to purchase the ebook at a steep discount in this case, is there?

  4. As of now, no, Brian. But we're always considering new options for our program. We'll announce it widely if we go this way in the future.

  5. Matt says:

    As a UK purchaser I don't want the added cost of postage so buying a bundle from the US store is not an option for me.  I prefer physical books for studying at home but an e-copy is handy for work and travelling.  Please urgently consider implementing the option of buying a heavily discounted e-copy after registering a physical copy.  

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