On E-Readers and the Future of the Baen Free Library

July 22nd, 2011

For years now there has existed a part of the Baen Books web site called the Baen Free Library. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a site where Baen books gives away many of their books for free in electronic format. No strings attached, no sign up, just download and enjoy. Created by author Eric Flint, it was, and is, a bold experiment in publishing, begun at the height of the use of DRM within the music industry.

Here is (part of) Eric’s story as to the founding of the Free Library:

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!

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.

That was about ten years ago. Today, the book publishing landscape is changing rapidly, and I decided to write Eric a letter discussing the future of ebooks and the Free Library. As i think it’s an interesting topic, I present the letter, in full, below:

Hi Eric –

First off I want to say that I’ve been a big fan of the free library since the beginning. I discovered it fairly early on, and when I read your arguments regarding piracy and DRM and crackdowns, etc., I heard a voice that echoed my own quite closely. I thought it was a bold move to create the library, and am immensely gratified that it has been a success. Thank you!

I actually discovered David Webers HH books when Basilisk Station was in bookstores at a sale price — $3.99 I think when paperbacks were commonly $5.99. I bought it, loved it, and looked for later books. The twist is that that was right around the time I discovered the free library, (and I think that’s also when you started putting CDs in hardcovers). I had a Palm Pilot, so I downloaded some books, converted them to Doc format, and read them on the Palm.

So, of course, you didn’t get many direct sales from me, because I was getting them for free; BUT… I was also telling my friends what I was reading, and am pretty sure I turned at least three people on to the series, who probably bought paper copies. That was pretty much the intent though, wasn’t it? Seems to be working.

Jump forward ten years or so. It’s 2011 and I’m reading the Vorkosigan series on my Kindle, having gotten the books from one of the Baen CDs. (Incidentally, I didn’t use the mobi books, I converted the ePub versions, which had better cover images.) Back in the day the free library worked because I was unusual. The system as I understand it is basically predicated on the idea that people will prefer to read a paper copy, so the freebies will foster sales of the hard copies. Most people didn’t have Palms, nor were those who did all willing to read novels on the tiny dim screen. Today I go to the lunchroom at work, and there are four people (non-geeks) happily reading from Kindles or Nooks. Not a bit of paper in sight.

So here’s the big question:

With the rise in popularity of e-ink readers and iPhones, what do you see for the future of the Free Library? If I recommend books to friends, they’re today much more likely to just get the free copy and read it. The “people are honest” factor doesn’t enter into it because you’re giving the books out willingly.

Of course I read other books, both physical and electronic. Some ebooks I buy, some I get for free. But if a book people want to read is available for free in a format they commonly use anyway, where are the sales going to come from?

As a side note — I also fear that bookstores will go the way of music stores — and that would be a shame. Music stores aren’t a great loss to me, because in general you couldn’t listen to the stuff anyway — just look at the cover art. But bookstores are a different animal, and something will be lost when you can no longer browse shelves of books and discover something new that way.

Comments welcome, and if Eric responds I’ll let y’all know.

Mad Max

June 16th, 2011

Story from Wisconsin, driving toward Milwaukee, several years ago:

I’m heading north on Rt 43, a divided highway with a speed limit of 65MPH. Two lanes going my direction. Light to no traffic. I’m cruising along in the right lane going 65 (give or take). I come up behind a guy going about 45.

No problem; it’s two lanes and I can easily pass him. I swing over into the left lane and accelerate. He accelerates with me, matching my speed increase so that I’m pretty much glued to his blind spot. I’ve seen people do this before of course, but usually they accelerate no more than about five to seven MPH before you can pass. This guy? No matter how fast I went*, he matched it. He accelerated hard if he had to — whatever was needed to stop me from actually passing him.

Well, Hell. If they guy wants to drive fast, I don’t care if I’m behind him or not; but I don’t want to cruise along in his blind spot. I back off and slip back behind him. He promptly slows to 45 MPH. I pull out to pass him again. Exact same thing. He accelerates hard to prevent me from passing.

This went on for about 15 minutes. Speed up, slow down, repeat. This clearly wasn’t that unconscious acceleration that many people do when passed. This was deliberate. For whatever reason, he was NOT going to let me pass him, and would only let me up to the speed limit if I was riding his left rear fender.

I finally managed to pass him by backing way the heck off (slowing down even slower than he was going, and falling back about a quarter mile), and then speeding up so that by the time I reached him again I was going 20 MPH faster than he was. No chance for his car to accelerate hard enough for him to keep up. Got in front of him, stayed at 65MPH. Strangely, or not, he made no effort at that point to match my speed, and fell behind quite quickly as he continued along at around 20 under the speed limit.

(This post was inspired by How to get on the Highway in SE Texas, via Mostly Cajun)

*: Of course I never exceeded 65MPH in my attempts to pass. Any reports that I was pushing 90 are strictly exaggerated.

Sunday Poetry Corner

April 25th, 2011

One day late, perhaps, but I thought I would share this anyway….

I was at a friend’s house last week for a party, during which one of the guests decided he was going to, on the spot, compose “a limerick for Holy Week”. Without further comment, here is what he came up with:

We follow a crucified Jew
Who suffered, then bid us Adieu.
But he knew beforehand,
For his Dad had it planned,
That in three days he’d be good as new.

Hope Y’all had a nice holiday.

It’s a Big, Big, Big, Big Universe

December 23rd, 2010

A small lesson in a large topic:

(via Kevin)

Testimonial

September 24th, 2010

Behold! The Greatest Product Endorsement Ever!

Quote of the Day, Stimulus Edition

September 22nd, 2010

“We’ve gone from a country who’s population instinctively knew there was no free lunch to one who’s population has convinced itself that the consumption of free lunches is a revenue generating activity.”

(found in comments here)

To Battle The Unimaginable

September 13th, 2010

A nice read — an ode to the Flag and what it represents, published on the 9th anniversary of 9/11.

She is the symbol of a unique nation: born in the defiance of tyranny, baptized in the destruction of slavery, and coming of age when it rescued the world from genocidal evil.

Go read: http://www.doczero.org/2010/09/to-battle-the-unimaginable/

Pretty Soon You’re Talking Real Money

September 1st, 2010

A million. A billion. A trillion. Once upon a time, when politicians talked about spending millions of dollars on something, peoples’ ears perked up — that was a lot of money. When the word “billion” started cropping up, it was a bit of a sticker shock, but people basically got used to it. It wasn’t their money, after all.

In recent years, we’re suddenly hearing about spending in the trillions of dollars, and though again it’s a sort of sticker shock to hear this word bandied about, many politicians are hoping that, as with “billions”, we’ll simply adjust and not get too upset. It’s just numbers, right?

All of this has been helped along by a little-known fact: the human brain is simply not capable of envisioning the meaning of numbers beyond a certain level. Try this experiment: Think about ten people. They don’t have to be real people; just imagine you’re standing in a field, and there are ten people standing in front of you. See their faces in your mind. Okay, now make it a hundred people. We’re getting a pretty good crowd here, but it’s a large field. You can probably, if you think about it, come up with a hundred actual people that you know personally.

Now make it a thousand. What just happened? Most likely, the image in your mind suddenly turned into a rather faceless mass of people. I’m guessing you’re no longer seeing faces really. You’re figuring out the size of the overall crowd, but you’ve stopped seeing individuals. It’s just a crowd. We’re only at a thousand, and already you’re reaching (or have passed) your mind’s ability to truly hold on to the concept of that many… somethings. Now make it a million. You probably just lost track of how big the crowd even is. I know I did. “Million” isn’t a solid concept — it’s just a word meaning “a lot”. Billion? That’s “a lot” too. “Trillion”? Sure sounds big, but again your brain is basically hearing “a lot” and stopping there. We grasp the concept that a trillion is bigger than a million — a lot bigger even — but it’s hard to grasp just how much bigger.

So, I’d like to try framing it a bit differently. Perhaps we can see it better if we relate it to time. People are pretty good at grasping time.

Think about what happened ten seconds ago. Probably you were sitting right where you are now, reading a paragraph or two above this one. Easy. A thousand seconds ago? That’s about seventeen minutes. Again, well within the range of memory. A million seconds ago? Sounds like a lot! It’s a lot to count, but really, one million seconds ago was only about twelve days ago.

Okay. Let’s pause for just a moment and fix that idea in our minds. One million seconds ago is still pretty much within ready memory. Twelve days. Not quite two weeks. Specifically, one million seconds ago is eleven days, thirteen hours, forty-six minutes, and forty seconds in the past.

Now. One trillion seconds? One trillion seconds ago was before you were born. It was before your grandparents were born. It was before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Before Columbus first set foot in the New World. Before the printing press was invented. Before the Jews fled Egypt with Moses into the desert. Before the rise of the first emperor of Japan.

One trillion seconds ago was thirty-one thousand six hundred eighty-nine1 years ago. Before mankind invented the wheel.

The entire known history of mankind is within the last one trillion seconds. That’s a lot more than merely “a lot”. Now stop a moment and consider, again, that the federal government is spending trillions (plural!) of dollars per year more than it takes in. It’s not merely a trick of accounting, and it is not merely a large number. It is insanity. It is unsustainable. It must stop. And make no mistake — this debt was not caused by tax cuts. It was not caused by fighting a war. It was caused by close to a century of ever increasing “rights” in the form of monetary entitlements, corporate and individual welfare, and just plain corruption. It was caused by the simple fact that power corrupts, and a powerful government will grow as much as it is allowed to. After a century of runaway expansion, it is time for the people of this country to seize the reins and pull hard.

As I write this, it’s 62 days (that’s 5,356,800 seconds for those keeping score) until the November 2 elections. Where will you be?

1: This calculation is based on a year that is precisely 365.242199 days long

Stealing from children

June 6th, 2010

Had a guy knock on my door recently. Claimed he was raising money for his own education in participation with a charity organization called Worldwide Circulation (WWC). He was looking for donations to WWC, which took that money and purchased books for sick children who are in the hospital. He explicitly named a local hospital. Friendly guy. Good schpiel.

Scumbag stealing money from sick children.

He was lying his ass off. Worldwide Circulation is not a charity organization. It’s a foreign corporation with a front “headquarters” in Michigan. (Technically, they are selling magazine subscriptions.) They drive to neighborhoods and go door-to-door until someone catches on, then move on to another neighborhood. If you see these folks, call the police.

They appear to operate pretty much nationwide.

I made the mistake of telling him I knew he was a scam artist. He was long gone by the time the police arrived. My suggestion is just close the door and make the call, so they’re standing at your neighbor’s door when the police pull up.

So, about all that “hostile, violent rhetoric?”

June 6th, 2010

A bit dated at this point, but definitely worth a link: So, about all that “hostile, violent rhetoric?” « Tattered Bits of Brain.