A Tribute to Baen Books

I am a long-time science fiction fan.  I started young, and of all the genres of literature, science fiction is the one constant in my reading.  There are others that I’ve bounced into (mystery, westerns, classics, humor, etc.), but they’ve been phases.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I subscribed to several science fiction magazines.  The one I enjoyed the most was Galaxy.   Later on, as I was buying books I noticed that quite a number came from one publisher:  Baen Books.  “Boy, that name sounds familiar.” I thought.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that the same man who had made Galaxy one of my favorite magazines was the man behind Baen Books.

A few years ago, I was browsing through my local library, and, out of curiosity, borrowed David Weber’s War of Honor.  I hadn’t read anything by this author, and unfortunately, my local library has a pretty skimpy selection of SF. I also now live far away from any book stores, so the opportunities to read new science fiction was pretty limited.  In the back of this book was a CD.  A CD containing electronic books.  A wide selection of electronic books.  Books I hadn’t read.  Not only that, I was allowed to make a copy of it! Over the next few weeks I read most of the books on the CD.  Some I liked a lot, some I was rather ho-hum about.  Still, it was reading material.  Not only that, but there was a link to a Free Library of titles, that I could download and read.  The result was that I was exposed to a lot of authors that I may not have otherwise read.  Let’s face it, if you’ve never seen anything by an author, you’re going to be hesitant to spend  money on one of their books.  Is it any good?  Is it worth the money, or should I spend it on a book by someone I know I like?  Here was a selection of authors, and not only that, you didn’t spend money.    What the heck, give this one a try, it’s not costing you anything!

If you were to listen to the MPAA and the RIAA, I was ripping off these poor authors and their publisher.   I was reading their works without paying for it!  Oh, the loss of money!  Here I was stealing the fruits of their hard labor!  OK, with their permission, but still.  Except… they’re making money from me that they otherwise would never have seen.  How’s that?  Because once I like an author, I tend to buy other books by that author!  Authors like John Ringo and Eric Flint, among others, would never have gotten a dime from me, if I hadn’t read some of their books for free, liked what I’d read, and bought others by them!

Not only that, but Baen Books made it easy for me.  They have a service called WebScription eBooks.  I can quickly see what’s new.  I can search by author, by series, or type.  I could buy the books in an electronic format of my choice, with no digital rights management (DRM).  Whatever I wanted to read it on, I could.  If I decided I wanted a different format later on, I could download that – at no extra charge. I could burn it to CD if I wanted.  Heck, I was even allowed to send a copy to a friend if I wanted to!  The cost was reasonable, too! New book?  Hey, I could read the first few chapters for free!   If I wanted to cough up a little more money, I could even read a book before it was officially released!

Compare that with most other publishers.  Browsing their sites is a pain in the butt.  Yes, I can see the covers of the books, and maybe a short blurb, but not much else.  That’s if their site is up-to-date!  Even if I do decide to buy one of their “e-books,” it’s irritating.  I have a choice of (maybe) two formats, and they’re heavily encumbered with DRM.  Trying to read those formats on a computer is frequently an exercise in frustration.  Want to move it between computers or from your computer to your PDA?  Want to make a copy for later on, or pass to a friend?  Want it in a different format? Are you insane?  No can do!  If you want to do any of that you have to buy it again!

After a few experiences with other publishers,  I won’t buy an electronic book from any  site but WebScriptions .   It’s not because I’m a hard-core “anti-DRM fanatic,” or that I’m not willing to pay for them.  It’s simply because of all the publishers, only Baen and the other publishers who have joined them make it easy for me.  I get a chance to preview before I buy, I get to read what I bought on whatever computer I want, in whatever format I want, and I don’t have to worry about losing “keys,” completing it in a certain amount of time, the numbers of times accessed, or accidentally deleting it.

Am I alone?  No.  It turns out there’s a lot of people like me.  That’s the really funny part.  Every other publisher is losing money on their electronic publishing!  They’re spending fortunes on “protecting” their works.  They release them only in formats like Microsoft Reader, Adobe PDF, and so on, and putting all sorts of DRM locks on them.  They make it difficult to change anything like the fonts, margins, or do anything to enhance the readability, and then blame the equipment manufacturers for not having an “e-ink” capability.  They spend even more money on putting up hard to navigate, cumbersome sites that make it difficult to get a book from them.  Then they charge as much for an e-book as they do for the paper version.  Yes, no one is going to pirate their works!  No one is buying and reading them, either.

The reason no one is buying electronic books from them is because they’ve made it a pain in the ass to do so.  There’s no price difference,  you have to deal with a locked format, and it’s tough to read.   Except for Baen Books.  They don’t bother with all that DRM.  They make it easy to browse and to buy.  They give you a choice of formats, and if you want to tinker with fonts and margins, go to it. Like a book and want to loan it to a friend?  No problem.   They’re making money at it, too.  People are buying their electronic books.  Not only that, but they’re going out and buying up the  back catalog paper books, and often a paper copy of the electronic books as well.

There’s a lesson in this, and one that seems to only gradually be percolating into the other publishers’ consciousness.   Everyone is losing money on electronic publishing, except for Baen.  Why not duplicate what they’re doing?  They aren’t willing  to quite accept it yet, because the corporate mentality is to lock down everything in sight, and it’s a radical idea.  An old idea, but radical to them.  Treat your readers like honest people.  Give them fair value.  Give them a taste for free.  Make it easy for them to find your books, and buy them.  Don’t restrict what they can do with what they bought.  Treat them like valued customers.  I know, it’s radical as hell, and I’m sure that they’re sweating about the impact on their bottom line.  Why… they might lose money!  As opposed to what you’re doing now?

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