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

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.

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