Selling PDFs & ebooks as digital downloads securely online
Selling ebooks and other digital downloads can be a profitable business. However, with piracy frequent, you need to choose your platforms and protection methods carefully.
Selling a physical book is complex and expensive. Without the help of a publisher, who will take most of your profit, it can be very difficult to succeed. Thankfully, you don’t need to go that route. For most businesses, it makes more sense to forgo the printing process and sell PDF files online instead. Your customers get their product faster, and you don’t have to worry about printing costs. There are other benefits and drawbacks, of course, which we have covered in-depth in what is digital publishing, but those are the basics.
If you’ve ever tried to sell an ebook online, however, you’ll know it’s not as simple as it sounds. There are various platforms you can publish to with varying fees, rules, and other aspects to consider. When looking to sell an ebook online, it’s therefore best to start with the basics: where and how.
Where to sell ebooks or PDF files online
There’s a good chance that you already know where most PDFs in your given format are sold. If you’re publishing fiction or non-fiction, the answer will be:
- Google Play
- Nook / Barnes & Noble
The important thing to remember is that some of these platforms come with heavy fees. Amazon, for example, can get your ebook in front of a lot of eyes if you land in the 1% of sellers that get featured. However, the platform takes a hefty cut of up to 65% plus digital delivery fees.
If you’re selling an ebook online for another purpose, you could be using any number of sites. Online retailers, a specific trade site, a learning platform, or even social media. Most will take a cut. Any cut you take will still be a better deal than you’d get from a traditional publisher. However, with marketing, cover art, proofreading, and editing costs all on you, it’s not always sustainable.
The bigger cost of doing business on these sites, however, is piracy. Some use specific Digital Rights Management (DRM) software or don’t offer any protection at all. So, you just choose one that does apply DRM, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The problem with popular ebook DRMs
The DRMs used by Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, etc. take just a few clicks to remove. Researchers have cracked all of them because they were implemented as an afterthought, with either poor obfuscation or implementation.
As a result, you can open practically any ebook in .epub, .mobi, or .azw format in a cracking application and remove the protection in seconds. You don’t even need to go on a shady site to get these tools – they’re freely and legally available because they’re marketed as “conversion” tools.
The problem is that most ebook retailers only allow the use of their specific flavor of DRM. This is somewhat understandable, as they need to ensure that the customer can open the ebook after their purchase and will want to track sales, usage, etc. for improvement purposes. For the seller, however, it means being forced to accept piracy if you want to self-publish there.
Increasingly, then, it makes more sense to sell ebooks on your own website instead. You get 100% of the revenue, don’t have to worry about competing for the homepage, and most importantly can choose your own DRM and distribution formats.
How to sell ebooks on your own website
Selling digital downloads on your own website is a great way to maintain control of your ebook’s sales and distribution. However, as we have already covered, the most common DRMs are easily removed. This includes those from Adobe – whether it’s Adobe Digital Editions or basic Adobe Acrobat password protection.
So, what are the alternatives?
Limited time download links
Limited-time download links are easy to implement and even easier to pirate. While a limited-time download link will stop the customer from sharing the download URL with anybody else, that’s far from the point. Once they’ve downloaded your ebook/PDF, they can just share that instead. If there are no other protections or it’s bundled with poor DRM, it’s still useless. It also makes the customer experience frustrating, as they’ll have to ask for a new link every time they want a fresh copy of the file.
You can potentially sell ebooks on your own website using social DRM. Social DRM is really just another word for watermarking. A solution applies both visible and hidden watermarks that identify the user. The thinking is that users will not share documents with the wider internet if there’s a chance of them getting caught.
For the most part, this is true. However, social DRM does not apply any additional protection to ebooks. All users need to do is search for the watermarks in the ebook’s code and remove them. Once the location your particular DRM solution uses becomes public knowledge, this becomes pretty easy.
For the sake of reasoning, however, let’s say that the scenario that social DRM is supposed to protect against happens. A customer shares your ebook and either misses a watermark during their removal search or doesn’t bother trying to remove them at all. What happens next?
If you have the funds, you could pursue legal action. This will, however, be a drawn-out process with likely not much to gain on your part, and at great expense. Even if you win, it’s too late – your ebook is already out there on piracy sites that refuse to comply with takedown requests. All you can do is try to get what little remediation the sharer can provide.
In all, it may work for some use cases, but it’s far from perfect.
The best way to sell PDF files online & stop piracy
The best piracy protection stops ebooks and other digital documents from being accessed by unauthorized users in the first place. You can sell PDF files online and protect them with Locklizard Safeguard to prevent piracy and provide additional control over your distribution. Unlike other ebook DRM solutions, Locklizard Safeguard security cannot be easily removed or bypassed.
Here’s how to permanently stop sharing, copying, editing & printing of ebooks and other digital downloads you sell online to protect them from piracy:
- You encrypt a PDF on your local PC and add any DRM controls you want to enforce.
- Your protected PDF is saved to your disk and a document record is created on the Admin System.
- You create a user account for each user you want to view your protected ebook or use the Safeguard e-commerce add-on to automatically create the user at checkout.
- An email is automatically sent to the user with a link to the Viewer and their license file.
- Once the Viewer is installed and the license file activated (clicked-on) it is registered to that device and cannot be registered elsewhere (unless otherwise specified).
- You control from the Admin System which protected ebooks each user can access.
- You sell a digital download of your DRM protected ebook on your website
- A protected ebook or PDF document can only be opened by someone who has been authorized to view it. Depending on your DRM protection controls, they also cannot be printed, edited, copied, or screen grabbed.
Using this method, sharing is always prevented. While the customer can technically share the encrypted .pdc file with others, it will be useless to them because the license can only be registered on a set number of PCs (which you decide). The PDF document or ebook cannot be decrypted without the secret key, which is only transmitted if the user has a valid license file. The file is therefore useless to the pirate.
In fact, you can even have the encrypted .PDC available on a public-facing webpage if you like. When you sell PDF files online with Locklizard, the only thing that matters is who has been authorized to view it.
Despite its effectiveness, Locklizard is a far better deal than Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM, which takes a cut of each ebook sale. Here’s a cost comparison:
In short, Locklizard will cost you less in initial and ongoing costs despite its far more effective protection. You get all of the revenue from every PDF ebook that you sell online.