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05 December 2006 Blog Home : December 2006 : Permalink

Baen Free Library Updated

The always excellent Baen Free Library has been updated with Eric Flint's Rivers of War (not a Baen book) and Elizabeth Moon's Sheepfarmer's Daughter. Furthermore, Eric promises that the library will be updated  rather more frequently over the next year or so than it has been in the past. He explains the recent decline in his usual money-grabbing capitalist* style:

There are two main reasons for this. The first is my work schedule as a writer, which is always heavy and was especially so in 2006. I don’t make a dime from my position as librarian here, and it’s just a fact of life that working on it has to take a back seat whenever my writing schedule gets too heavy.

That’s not likely to change much, in the future. Certainly not in the near future. But what has changed is the second factor involved.

That’s this:

There is a huge difference to me, in terms of the work involved, between acquiring one title as opposed to another. There are two key variables, as follows:

1) Is the writer whose work I want to acquire someone who’s already familiar with the operations of the Library, and understands what’s involved?

If so, I can usually make the acquisition with a simple email or a phone call. But if it’s a writer who is not familiar with the Library, the process is a lot more time-consuming. I have to explain what’s involved, answer any of their questions—which are normally fairly extensive—and so on and so forth. It’s not only time-consuming but, what’s probably more important, it’s what you might call energy-absorbing also. [...]

2) Is the work already available in electronic format?

This is critical, and it’s something a lot of the users of the Library either don’t understand at all or don’t understand very clearly. [...]

Fortunately though it seems like the message is getting through / has got through and the author/publisher/permissions issue has been solved. This means its purely a mechanical exercise. and hence:

All that said, there is now good news. Time may not heal all wounds, but it does heal a lot of them. The simple fact that so much time has gone by since we did a major expansion means that I now have a hefty pool of titles available to put up in the Library. That’s even more true because, as time goes by, more and more authors have come to be familiar with the Library, so the number who are willing to provide titles has expanded also.

So, keep checking in. Starting in January of 2007, I expect to able to expand the Library with three new titles every month. That’ll be true at least through June, and while I may not be able to come up with three new titles every month thereafter, I’m sure I can come up with one or two.

On the note of a wider range of authors, I suspect that this may be part of the Jim Baen legacy. I don't know how many of the various tributes and memorials mentioned the Jim Baen approach to ebooks, but I bet most did. And, seeing as Jim Baen's Universe lauchned at about the same time I reckon a lot of people will have read Eric Flint's August column in that estemed organ where he goes into specifics about that detail that all capitalist pig authors and publishers care about - filthy lucre - and how the free library has helped keep one of his books selling steadily:

To give perhaps the clearest example, my most popular title is 1632. It has been available for free in electronic format to the public for five years now—and the book has never suffered any decline in sales during that time period. Year after year, despite being available for free as an e-book, the paper edition sells about fifteen thousand copies. That figure fluctuates a bit from one year to the next, of course, but there is no overall downward trend at all. The standard rule of thumb in the industry is that 80% of a book's sales happen in the first three months after publication. But in the case of 1632, sixty percent of the book's sales have come since the first year it came out—during which period the book was always available to the public for free in electronic format.

In the same essay he also points out how Baen's ebook policy - low prices, no DRM - has a track record that forces others to take note, soemthing that was obvious this spring when Tor appeared to be embracing the Baen approach and Baen's webscriptions. As John Scalzi wrote (in part):

No DRM? Really? Really really. Why? Allow me to quote Tor's Patrick Nielsen Hayden on this one:

We've tested a lot of e-book waters, including various cockamamie schemes involving overpriced e-books laden with DRM.Oddly enough, a lot of those "books" didn't even sell enough copies to pay for their file-conversion costs. Meanwhile, it hasn't escaped our notice that Jim Baen has been doing something that works, that people like, and that makes money. I'm delighted to be doing this pilot program; I think Jim has been clueful on this issue for a long time, while almost everyone else in publishing has been staggering around on stage hitting one another over the head with inflated pig bladders.

This is a very fine point to make: Tor's not doing this because it's a golly-neat idea, they're doing it because it makes money -- or at the very least, makes money for Baen, a book publisher who happens to be in the same line of business as Tor. Look, I know this much about Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor: the man knows the book business rather precisely like a jaguar knows his bend of the Amazon -- he knows every rock and cranny and food source and has an instinct about how to sell books that just plain weirds out other folks. I don't see him giving a greenlight to something that's going to mess with his livelihood, or the livelihood of his staff and writers. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor's senior editor, is likewise unspeakably smart and also knows his business. The two of them make money -- and more importantly for me, have helped me make money. If they think this is worth doing, I'm going to listen to them because selling my work is their business -- literally (a word that works on many levels here).


Well, see. The problem with digital rights management for literature is that there's a huge analog hole in the security called "books." Over at Baen's Bar, the online bulliten board run by the Baen folks, one of the members there describes how he's made an unofficial personal e-book version of Old Man's War with "a hardcover copy, an Epson scanner, FineReader 6.0, and some eyeball sweat." You know what's keeping him from uploading that copy to one of the online file-sharing services? Aside from his own personal sense of morality, not a damn thing. More to the point, anyone with a internet-enabled computer, a scanner, OCR software and a library card can do exactly the same thing.

Don't get me wrong: If you're stupid enough to upload a book of mine and leave a trail of crumbs I can follow back to you, I'll be quite pleased to sue your ass (or more accurately, will be quite happy to have Tor sue your ass, because its corporate parent Holtzbrinck has got a whole flock of lawyers assembled just for that very purpose). My information does not want to be free; it wants to pay my mortgage. But slapping DRM onto an e-book doesn't do a damn thing other than annoy people who buy the book online -- i.e., one's actual customers.

Unfortunately a month or so later Tor's parent company bean counters ended up have the vapours and nixed the whole deal. However I suspect that, even though the beancounters got cold feet, the message got out to a large number of authors and editors (and maybe even greedy publishers) that free eBooks make great publicity and hence I suspect that a lot of Eric's problem 1) above (explaining the concept) has become rather redundant because there are authors demanding that their works go up - in fact Sarah A Hoyt has been doing precisely that on the Bar. This means that Eric merely has to deal with the mechanical aspects, something that is comparatively straightformerward.

One great example of whether the Free Library works as a publicity device will be Elizabeth Moon's book. The Paksenarrion trilogy of which it is the first book is one of the better bits of 1990s fantasy but I would imagine that, while the book sales are still there, they are probably trickling in at a rate of a few hundred per year. I would be very interested to learn whether or not these numbers increase now that the book is available for free. Since Ms Moon was, I believe, at one point very much in the "DRM good" camp it will be fascinating to see if she reports positively on this experiment and whether she extends it to some of her other work.

*Eric Flint denies that he is a capitalist, he thinks he's a comunist of some sort. I reckon you judge a man by his actions and under those terms he comes out as a philanthropic capitalist... Of course he will no doubt claim that this is actually purely because society has forced him into this mold

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