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This is old news, yes, but I've bolded the very, very good points he has, that us the readers recognized long ago, yet many authors have failed to realize. I may have bolded the good bits, but it's worth it to read the whole thing.


Baen Books is now making available — for free — a number of its titles in electronic format. We're calling it the Baen Free Library. Anyone who wishes can read these titles online — no conditions, no strings attached. (Later we may ask for an extremely simple, name & email only, registration. ) Or, if you prefer, you can download the books in one of several formats. Again, with no conditions or strings attached. (URLs to sites which offer the readers for these format are also listed. )

Why are we doing this? Well, for two reasons.

The first is what you might call a "matter of principle." This all started as a byproduct of an online "virtual brawl" I got into with a number of people, some of them professional SF authors, over the issue of online piracy of copyrighted works and what to do about it.

There was a school of thought, which seemed to be picking up steam, that the way to handle the problem was with handcuffs and brass knucks. Enforcement! Regulation! New regulations! Tighter regulations! All out for the campaign against piracy! No quarter! Build more prisons! Harsher sentences!

Alles in ordnung!

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I, ah, disagreed. Rather vociferously and belligerently, in fact. And I can be a vociferous and belligerent fellow. My own opinion, summarized briefly, is as follows:

1. Online piracy — while it is definitely illegal and immoral — is, as a practical problem, nothing more than (at most) a nuisance. We're talking brats stealing chewing gum, here, not the Barbary Pirates.

2. Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc.

3. Any cure which relies on tighter regulation of the market — especially the kind of extreme measures being advocated by some people — is far worse than the disease. As a widespread phenomenon rather than a nuisance, piracy occurs when artificial restrictions in the market jack up prices beyond what people think are reasonable. The "regulation-enforcement-more regulation" strategy is a bottomless pit which continually recreates (on a larger scale) the problem it supposedly solves. And that commercial effect is often compounded by the more general damage done to social and political freedom.

In the course of this debate, I mentioned it to my publisher Jim Baen. He more or less virtually snorted and expressed the opinion that if one of his authors — how about you, Eric? — were willing to put up a book for free online that the resulting publicity would more than offset any losses the author might suffer.

The minute he made the proposal, I realized he was right. After all, Dave Weber's On Basilisk Station has been available for free as a "loss leader" for Baen's for-pay experiment "Webscriptions" for months now. And — hey, whaddaya know? — over that time it's become Baen's most popular backlist title in paper!

And so I volunteered my first novel, Mother of Demons, to prove the case. And the next day Mother of Demons went up online, offered to the public for free.

Sure enough, within a day, I received at least half a dozen messages (some posted in public forums, others by private email) from people who told me that, based on hearing about the episode and checking out Mother of Demons, they either had or intended to buy the book. In one or two cases, this was a "gesture of solidarity. "But in most instances, it was because people preferred to read something they liked in a print version and weren't worried about the small cost — once they saw, through sampling it online, that it was a novel they enjoyed. (Mother of Demons is a $5.99 paperback, available in most bookstores. Yes, that a plug. )

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Then, after thinking the whole issue through a bit more, I realized that by posting Mother of Demons I was just making a gesture. Gestures are fine, but policies are better.

So, the next day, I discussed the matter with Jim again and it turned out he felt exactly the same way. So I proposed turning the Mother of Demons tour-de-force into an ongoing project. Immediately, David Drake was brought into the discussion and the three of us refined the idea and modified it here and there. And then Dave Weber heard about it, and Dave Freer, and. . . voila.

The Baen Free Library was born.

This will be a place where any author can, at their own personal discretion, put up online for free any book published by Baen that they so desire. There is absolutely no "pressure" involved. The choice is entirely up to the authors, and that is true on all levels:

— participate, or not, as they choose;

— put up whatever book they choose;

— for as long as they choose.

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The only "restrictions" we'll be placing is simply that we will encourage authors to put up the first novel or novels in an ongoing popular series, where possible. And we will ask authors who are interested not to volunteer more than, at most, five or six novels or collections at any one time.

The reason for the first provision is obvious — to generate more public interest in an ongoing series. I'll have more to say about that in a moment. The reason for the second provision is that one of the things we hope the Baen Free Library will do is make it easier for a broader audience to become familiar with less well known authors. Burying the one or two novels which a new or midlist author might have under a mountain of Big Name backlist titles would work against that. And there's no reason to do so, anyway, because anyone can get a pretty good idea of whether they like a given author after reading a few of his or her books.

Jim has asked me to co-ordinate the project and I have agreed. After a humorous exchange on my appropriate title — I tried to hold out for. . . never mind — we settled on "Eric Flint, First Librarian. "That will allow me to give the periodic "newsletter and remarks" which I will toss into the hopper the splendid title of "Prime Palaver," a pun which is just too good to pass up. (I'd apologize to the ghost of Isaac Asimov, except I think he'd get a chuckle out of it. )

Earlier, I mentioned "two reasons" we were doing this, and stated that the first was what you might call a demonstration of principle. What's the second?

Common sense, applied to the practical reality of commercial publishing. Or, if you prefer, the care and feeding of authors and publishers. Or, if you insist on a single word, profit.

I will make no bones about it (and Jim, were he writing this, would be gleefully sucking out the marrow). We expect this Baen Free Library to make us money by selling books.

How? As I said above, for the same reason that any kind of book distribution which provides free copies to people has always, throughout the history of publishing, eventually rebounded to the benefit of the author.

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of people lending books to their friends — a phenomenon which absolutely dwarfs, by several orders of magnitude, online piracy of copyrighted books.

What's happened here? Has the author "lost a sale?"

Well. . . yeah, in the short run — assuming, of course, that said person would have bought the book if he couldn't borrow it. Sure. Instead of buying a copy of the author's book, the Wretched Scoundrel Borrower (with the Lender as his Accomplice) has "cheated" the author. Read his work for free! Without paying for it!

The same thing happens when someone checks a book out of a public library — a "transaction" which, again, dwarfs by several orders of magnitude all forms of online piracy. The author only collects royalties once, when the library purchases a copy. Thereafter. . .

Robbed again! And again, and again!


Yet. . . yet. . .

I don't know any author, other than a few who are — to speak bluntly — cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer's audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.

Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author — and it's ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it's the one form of promotion which people usually trust.

That being so, an author can hardly complain — since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author's table. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

Think about it. How many people lend a book to a friend with the words: "You ought a read this! It's really terrible!"

How many people who read a book they like which they obtained from a public library never mention it to anyone? As a rule, in my experience, people who frequently borrow books from libraries are bibliophiles. And bibliophiles, in my experience, usually can't refrain from talking about books they like.

And, just as important — perhaps most important of all — free books are the way an audience is built in the first place. How many people who are low on cash and for that reason depend on libraries or personal loans later rise on the economic ladder and then buy books by the very authors they came to love when they were borrowing books?

Practically every reader, that's who. Most readers of science fiction and fantasy develop that interest as teenagers, mainly from libraries. That was certainly true of me. As a teenager, I couldn't afford to buy the dozen or so Robert Heinlein novels I read in libraries. Nor could I afford the six-volume Lensmen series by "Doc" Smith. Nor could I afford any of the authors I became familiar with in those days: Arthur Clarke, James H. Schmitz, you name it.

Did they "lose sales?" In the long run, not hardly. Because in the decades which followed, I bought all of their books — and usually, in fact, bought them over and over again to replace old copies which had gotten too worn and frayed. I just bought another copy of Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, in fact, because the one I had was getting too long in the tooth. I think that's the third copy of that novel I've purchased, over the course of my life. I'm not sure. Might be the fourth. I first read that book when I was fourteen years old — forty years ago, now — checked out from my high school library.


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In short, rather than worrying about online piracy — much less tying ourselves and society into knots trying to shackle everything — it just makes more sense, from a commercial as well as principled point of view — to "steal from the stealers. "

Don't bother robbing me, twit. I will cheerfully put up the stuff for free myself. Because I am quite confident that any "losses" I sustain will be more than made up for by the expansion in the size of my audience.

For me to worry about piracy would be like a singer in a piano bar worrying that someone might be taping the performance in order to produce a pirate recording. Just like they did to Maria Callas!

Sheesh. Best thing that could happen to me. . .

That assumes, of course, that the writer in question is producing good books. "Good," at least, in the opinion of enough readers. That is not always true, of course. But, frankly, a mediocre writer really doesn't have to worry about piracy anyway.

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What about the future? people ask. Even if reading off a screen is not today as competitive as reading paper, what about the future when it will be? By which time advances in technology might make piracy so easy and ubiquitous that the income of authors really gets jeopardized?

My answer is:

Who knows?

I'm not worried about it, however, basically for two reasons.

The first is a simple truth which Jim Baen is fond of pointing out: most people would rather be honest than dishonest.

He's absolutely right about that. One of the things about the online debate over e-piracy that particularly galled me was the blithe assumption by some of my opponents that the human race is a pack of slavering would-be thieves held (barely) in check by the fear of prison sentences.

Oh, hogwash.

Sure, sure — if presented with a real "Devil's bargain," most people will at least be tempted. Eternal life. . . a million dollars found lying in the woods. . .

Heh. Many fine stories have been written on the subject!But how many people, in the real world, are going to be tempted to steal a few bucks?

Some, yes — precious few of whom, I suspect, read much of anything. But the truth is that most people are no more tempted to steal a few dollars than they are to spend their lunch hour panhandling for money on the streets. Partly because they don't need to, but mostly because it's beneath their dignity and self-respect.

The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the "gap" between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.

Jim Baen is quite confident that, as technology changes the way books are produced and sold, he can figure out ways to keep that "gap" reasonable — and thus make money for himself and his authors in the process, by using the new technology rather than screaming about it. Certainly Baen's Webscriptions, where you can buy a month's offerings "bundled" at a price per title of around two bucks has demonstrated his sincerity in this.

(But he's just a publisher, of course, so what does he know?On the other hand. . . I'm generally inclined to have confidence in someone who is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. Instead of demanding that the taxpayers' money be put into building more prisons. )

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The reason I'm not worried about the future is because of another simple truth. One which is even simpler, in fact — and yet seems to get constantly overlooked in the ruckus over online piracy and what (if anything) to do about it. To wit:

Nobody has yet come up with any technology — nor is it on the horizon — which could possibly replace authors as the producers of fiction. Nor has anyone suggested that there is any likelihood of the market for that product drying up.

The only issue, therefore, is simply the means by which authors get paid for their work.

That's a different kettle of fish entirely from a "threat" to the livelihood of authors. Some writers out there, imitating Chicken Little, seem to think they are on the verge of suffering the fate of buggy whip makers. But that analogy is ridiculous. Buggy whip makers went out of business because someone else invented something which eliminated the demand for buggy whips — not because Henry Ford figured out a way to steal the payroll of the buggy whip factory.

Is anyone eliminating the demand for fiction?Nope.

Has anyone invented a gadget which can write fiction?Nope.

All that is happening, as the technological conditions under which commercial fiction writing takes place continue to change, is that everyone is wrestling with the impact that might have on the way in which writers get paid. That's it. So why all the panic? Especially, why the hysterical calls for draconian regulation of new technology — which, leaving aside the damage to society itself, is far more likely to hurt writers than to help them?

The future can't be foretold. But, whatever happens, so long as writers are essential to the process of producing fiction — along with editors, publishers, proofreaders (if you think a computer can proofread, you're nuts) and all the other people whose work is needed for it — they will get paid. Because they have, as a class if not as individuals, a monopoly on the product. Far easier to figure out new ways of generating income — as we hope to do with the Baen Free Library — than to tie ourselves and society as a whole into knots. Which are likely to be Gordian Knots, to boot.

Okay. I will climb down from the soapbox. Herewith, the Baen Free Library. Enjoy yourselves!

Eric Flint


You can find the Baen Free Library here and here.

Comments

( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
adriannebrennan
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
As a published ebook author, I vehemently disagree. Beyond giving away copies for contests as promo, there's no way that giving away my book for free will benefit me, nor will it cause people to buy my book when they already have a free copy.

This system works if the book exists already in print or the author has books published in print. If you write solely for the electronic medium and THAT is how you earn your royalties, then giving away your book for free is essentially asking for what little money you make to be flushed down the drain. I might as well be self-published and write for free, in that instance.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:01 am (UTC)
I was not, nor do I believe the author of this was talking about books published as only ebooks.

Of course if someone can get a book that is only a ebook for free as a ebook, they aren't going to pay for it.

However, personally while I very much like electronic copies of books, I love print books so much more. And I think even though we are entering a time where ebooks are more prevalent, I believe actual books copies are still preferred. Nothing really beats the feeling of a real book in your hands, I even love the smell of them (which I admit is probably a tad weird).

I think the idea is sound, for books in publication. Besides the fact that even though someone may want to be able to purchase a book, in some countries it could very well be impossible for them for a variety of reasons.

I would never support the sharing of ebook only books, because that WOULD hurt an author.
adriannebrennan
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:04 am (UTC)
I personally think it'd be great to get a foot in both worlds. While I passionately believe in the ebook industry, I also believe that people who don't have technology should be able to read my books. I had a booksigning recently where someone came up and said he had no computer, no PDA...he'd love to read my book but it'd be useless for him and he'd never get the chance to do it. And that sort of thing is a shame.

The idea is definitely sound for books in publication, but not for people struggling in the epub world. Then there is the fact that most epubs are small businesses and when piracy occurs, it REALLY hurts.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:11 am (UTC)
Which is why I think people who share epublished books are wrong for doing it. Whenever I'm feeling down the best way to bring myself back up is to buy a brand new book. Lately for me that has been ebooks. There are so many wonderful authors out there and it's a shame their books have yet to be published in paper format. Some of my favorite authors now are only epublished and I know if they ever got into paper format, I'd be at the store in a blink to scoop them up.

I have never and would never download or share a epublished only book. I'm thoroughly against it. I apologize if you thought I was promoting the sharing of ebook only books.
adriannebrennan
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:15 am (UTC)
I actually have a friend who goes above and beyond--if she gives someone a copy of an ebook she purchased, she'll delete her own copy on her computer. I don't know of anyone who is that honest, but she's pretty passionate about it.

I didn't think that YOU were, but I've noticed often in some places that some people aren't totally aware of the reality of the different sorts of publishing out there, and once you get into epublishing you're talking smaller companies and not always is the existence of the availability of print. I wish that all epubs did both, but a lot of smaller ones don't, usually for a variety of reasons. On one hand, there's costs. For another, there's the desire to first establish in the ebook industry then do print lest the ebooks get shoved under a rug in the corner of the room somewhere.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
I know of at least one ebook site that has a DRM on their books that allows you to share that book with up to 5 other people. I'm not entirely sure how they decided that was allowed but, apparently no one has said anyting. Of course, you have to get into the very small print to find that fact.

There are probably quite a few people who believe that any ebook is also a printed book and then there are people, like my mother, who have no idea what an ebook is.

I heard recently that there is a bookstore in Australia that is now offering ebooks in their store, a place to download them from or something. Which I think is a marvelous idea.

The epublishers have the right idea though, and ask for a reasonable price for their ebooks. Others however, books that are in print and put into ebook form, I think it's ridiculous to ask $30 for a book that you can't even touch. And that is where I think much of the controversy comes from. The fact is, the resources put into making a print book were not put into making the electronic version.

What really disgusts me are the people who SELL the books they've likely downloaded without paying for. Asking what they call 'a reasonable price' compared to what they supposedly paid.
adriannebrennan
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
Yup, there's a lot of weirdness around ebooks. I've been asked with raised eyebrows how an ebook can go out of print. Simple, I tell them--my publisher closed down. :P It's currently undergoing a submission process with another publisher, and I'm really hoping to have it back on the market soon. But yeah, being out of print does exist as an ebook status.

Reasonable prices are good. Mine has gone for about $8 and in print shouldn't be more than $14-15. At one point it looked to be over $20 and I thought to myself that even with 100k that's a bit much. Unfortunately it comes down to a) knowing standard costs for equivalent sized paperbacks for books and b) being able to afford the costs of printing, which not all epubs can do.

As for 5 being allowed to share... how can you control that?? There's no way that can be enforced or even known.

Depending on the size of the ebook, you shouldn't be paying more than $2-8. Mine's larger size than most--decidedly full novel length--and I've noticed that some epubs refuse to touch books over 75k. I'm not sure why this is, or how they justify it.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:56 am (UTC)
I'm trying to remember the name of a site (and I just can't seem to get the name into my head) of a epublisher that does print books on the basis of a preorder. If you can get enough people to preorder it, they will make a limited number of printed copies. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and now I just can't seem to even remember the name of the place.

The place that allows the 5 shares is the Sony Connect Bookstore. It's in the small writing, the book can be put onto up to 6 seperate devices. I'm not sure how their DRM controls it.

I do have a question though however, once you get a book epubished, couldn't you yourself sell it? Or does it then become 'property' of whomever published it?
adriannebrennan
Mar. 19th, 2008 03:00 am (UTC)
I'm selling the copies which I had procured in advanced from my publisher that were burned onto CD. I have full rights, but the thing is, once I'm distributing and selling it myself, I become self-pubbed versus pubbed through a publisher. And I have no desire to self-publish nor be a publisher.
elfwreck
Mar. 20th, 2008 05:24 am (UTC)
It worked for Scalzi's Agent to the Stars--his first book, published for free online with a donation button. He made over $4,000 on it, and eventually it wound up in hard copy print. It helped him to make the jump from e-text to print. It got him great amounts of general goodwill from readers.

People are happy to pay for writing they like. They're less happy to pay for writing they may-or-may-not like, especially if the can't hand it off to someone who might like it better when they're done.

How many books have you read? (Rhetorical question; no answer expected.) How many of those did you buy full-price new in the store?

If we had no libraries, no shared-from-a-friend books, no garage sale books, no used book stores, no books dropped at bus stops for whoever might want to read them, no classroom copies used for each class for several years running... we'd be a damn near illiterate society.

I don't know what the answer is; I just know that "one purchase, one reader" has never been the standard for books, and there's no reason to expect people to latch onto it now.
adriannebrennan
Mar. 20th, 2008 10:20 am (UTC)
There's a huge difference between publishing yourself and being published by an e-publisher. What worked for him would NOT work in the industry.

There isn't a single way to publish an ebook, nor can people expect that all ebook authors should just expect their stuff to be given away for free. If you're published through a company and wind up being pirated online, not only are YOU being hurt by it but so is your publishing company.
caughtshort
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:12 am (UTC)
Excellent article, thank you for posting it. Eric Flint may just have increased his audience by 1. :-)
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:35 am (UTC)
Eric Flint writes absolutely wonderful books. And you can always try one of his books for free at his free library. :D

More and more published authors have come to see his point of view, most recently it was Neil Gaiman, deciding to see for himself if offering out a free ebook increases his sales. He plans to tell everyone the results on his website. I think he'll find that it does indeed increase the sale of his print copies.
amothea
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)
the Baen bookstore is the only online ebook store where I spend my money. I love that I can try out an author and see if I like them and their ebooks are reasonably priced. :) I also love that they have different formats you can download in so I can fix the RTF so it looks good on my Sony PRS-505.

I was reading the debate about ebook publishing (the one where the books aren't printed at all) I'm curious to know if they at least have sample chapters? Because I don't know that many people that buy books without at least reading a chapter or the first page.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:19 am (UTC)
Some ebook sites have free previews and some don't, I tend to stick to the ones that allow you a peak at the writing, unless I already know the author and know I like their work.

Love my Sony reader! Hate that a lot of sites don't have the formatting for it though, my first choice is always a lrf (or lrs). I noticed that Baen has RTF which is great, I'll definitely be getting some books from them. Fictionwise also offers in the sony format, another place I frequent. They have great deals and something called a micro rebate that make books 'free' (basically you pay for the book but get all that money as a credit to your account to buy more books).
amothea
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:21 am (UTC)
when did you get your sony reader?? is it the 505 or 500 version? :) last time we talked I didn't know you had one. but I think it's been a few months...
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:25 am (UTC)
I've had mine about a year now :) So, it's the 500 version.
amothea
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)
My husband has my 500 version now I couldn't help it I had to get the new one when it came out.

But I figured it's no worse than buying lots of video games. (I read a lot of fan fiction with my book reader) So that's where I'm saving money on not buying books.
cock_a_snook
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:47 am (UTC)
I read fan fiction on mine too! It's just so much easier to read on then a computer or PDA, because the screen isn't backlit, so no more eye strain.

It's also handy when you have to go anywhere, I used to tote a ton of books around with me, I probably looked like a crazy bag lady. I seem to always be reading 8 books at once.

I'm currently trying to find all of my favorites and buying them in ebook format. True, you can always find them around the internet filesharing, but it's never in such as nice of formatting or spelling as an actual copy from a ebook site. Also, it's always a bargain when they do the book bundles.

Buying a book has always been a pick me up. Shopping and books, not sure there's a better combination out there, lol.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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