Prime Palaver #1

Letters to the Librarian

Eric Flint

December 20, 2000

 

For this first installment of Prime Palaver, I decided to start by publishing the backlog of letters which I've received since we opened the Baen Free Library, along with my own commentary.

As of today, I've received 123 letters sent to me as First Librarian of the Baen Free Library. All of them have been supportive. I can't possible publish all of them, but I chose a selection which I think reflects accurately the general sentiment.

In the letters which follow, there are three themes which I would like to point out to people.

The first, repeated over and again, is that the major obstacle which little-known writers face is their obscurity. (And almost ALL writers are little known.) Readers are hesitant to spend money on an author they are not familiar with. As I argued in my introduction to the Baen Free Library, that's why authors should welcome the internet -- despite the inevitable piracy which it entails -- rather than dreading it. I can say with great confidence, based on these 123 letters, that I've sold four or five times as many books of my own because of the exposure which the Free Library and Webscriptions have given me than I've lost through putting the books up online for free.

The second -- obvious from the origins of so many of the letters -- is that the internet has internationalized the reading audience to an extent which was unimaginable in the days of purely paper communication. Again, the same phenomenon manifests itself in a different way: whatever income an author loses from the theft which the internet makes possible is more than offset by the expansion of his or her potential audience. Assuming, that is, that the writer is good enough to attract an audience in the first place, and isn't such a numbskull that he or she thinks the best way to build an audience is to lock up their writing ought of sight.

Income doesn't derive from preventing theft, it comes from making sales. A certain amount of loss due to theft is simply one of the overhead costs. Obviously, taking simple measures to eliminate as much theft as possible is sensible. But at a certain point -- and much sooner than you might think -- the measures you take to prevent theft can start cutting your income.

Any retailer in the world, after all, can put an ABSOLUTE stop to ANY shoplifting INSTANTLY. Just require your customers to undergo a full search when they leave your premises -- including body cavities. Yup, no more shoplifting. Congratulations.

Oh -- and, yup. No more customers. Congratulations.

The third point, brought home very forcefully in the letter by Kris Whitney and the last letter by Jimmy, is that the people who will be REALLY hammered by any "crackdown" on piracy are not pirates. They are the people who, like them, suffer from a variety of handicaps. For people who are blind, like Kris, or crippled like Jimmy, the advent of electronic reading has been a blessing. And they will be the ones who first feel the ax, if hysteria over "piracy" is allowed to shape public policy concerning access to free reading material.

Free libraries, electronic no less than paper ones, have always been the sanctuary for society's marginalized people. For most of us, the marginalization was a temporary economic phenomenon which we outgrew as our income reached normal adult levels. But for some of us, that marginal position will remain the lot of a lifetime.

Not the least of the reasons that I despise the arguments of the "tighten the laws!" crowd is that I know exactly who the victims of their policies will be in the real world. It won't be some pirate, twirling his mustachioes. Pirates will always figure out a way to steal. It will be Jimmy and Kris and people like them. Those people have a hard enough life as it is, without my joining the crowd that wants to drop another stone on their backs.

If I can't make a living as a writer by the quality of my writing outweighing any losses I might suffer from theft -- without trampling all over blind and crippled people in order to stop the theft -- I've got no damn business being a writer in the first place. I've still got my tool box, and I haven't forgotten how to be a machinist.

Eric Flint

PS. A word on Jimmy. After I posted his letter in Baen's Bar a few weeks ago, a number of people (including me) began an effort to ameliorate his situation. For further information, please check the following URL: www.readassist.org

 


Mr. Flint,

Your comments about the value (commercial and moral) of putting free books online are the exact truth.

Without reading Weber's On Basilisk Station on-line, I would never have bought any of his books. Now I have most of them. The same goes to your 1632 -- without reading half the book on-line, I wouldn't have come to appreciate the quality of your work. Now I have 1632 and most of the Belisarius series (and probably some other books as well).

I'm both satisfied with you and other authors with the same attitude, and I'm paying for your books.

Keep the good work

Ofer Imanuel

Software Engineer and a lover of SF and fantasy


Hi Eric

Just a note to say you have my whole hearted agreement for your arguments. I have been a websubscriber since last year (The minute I realized I could get Ashes of Victory a few weeks early) and I think it is money well spent. In fact in your case I loved 1632 so much I bought the hardback and have downloaded copies at a couple of friends who have all gone and either bought it or ordered the paperback once it is out.

In fact if I seriously believed an author didn't want me to lend his book to someone I know would enjoy it, then I probably wouldn't buy any more of his books. One of the great JOYS of reading a book is sharing it afterwards, talking through it with your friends, remembering and quoting passages. trying to guess what comes next.

Every David Weber book I own (and that's everyone published including the Starfire scenario books Stars at War and Crusade) has been lent to between 6-8 people and most of them have started buying their own copies, so tell me WHO is losing money by my "pirating" these books, the Author? The Publisher? The Shopkeeper? Or are they gaining?

I admit I haven't read all the books I've bought but most of them are good enjoyable reads, a few are brilliant e.g. 1632(plug!), and 2 I hated, but that is a better strike rate than I get looking at books in a store and at $10 a month!!!!!!!!!!!!! I think I'll stay a subscriber for a little longer, maybe, possibly at least until Hell freezes over and the Sun explodes. I once had the choice between buying a book or not eating for a day....... I still have the book.

Keep up the good work, and you have my complete support

Mark Jones


Mr. Flint

I am an avid reader of Sci-Fi and Fantasy books who found the Baen website a couple of years ago by accident and have returned regularly ever since.

What attracted me back to start with was the preview chapters of the up and coming novels. This had me doing advance orders for books well in advance of them coming out whereas I used to wait for them to come out and IF I saw them in the shops I MIGHT pick them up.

Then Webscriptions came along and this proved to be a boon as I could now read a book and then wait until it came out in paperback before buying it (1200 novels so far take up a lot of room on my bookcases). I also got to read some work by authors I had never read before (yourself, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, Steve White, Mercedes Lackey and others) which led me into some mammoth book buying sprees.

Then came the Free Library. What can I say, it's brilliant. I don't know what else can be said about it.

If you manage to loose money on these books I would be amazed (read the first part of the David Drake 'Belisarius' series and immediately bought the 3 books that were in paperback) and astonished. If more publishers tried this sort of innovative technique then maybe more of the younger generations would be lured back into that unfashionable habit of reading a book and stretching their imagination instead of being glued to the TV/N64/Playstation.

Thank you for this great gift that you have given Sci-Fi/Fantasy book reading community.

Simon Howard


Dear Eric Flint

As a hard core science fiction/fantasy fan from Asia or in particular Singapore, I could not agree with your sentiments more:

a) word of mouth advertisement that your collaboration and single books especially 1632 are great

b) that great/good authors will always get their hooks into readers as I'm one person like you , who nows buy certain books to keep even though I've read them ten times eg J RR Tolkien, 3 copies so far.

Please continue your great writing and your library. Will be waiting for hopefully any follow up to 1632 to purchase and keep.

Yours faithfully

Felix Wang

Singapore


Eric,

You make some good points in your introduction to the library. I have been and continue to be a great fan of Webscriptions. It has introduced me to several writers that I may not have found through other means. 1632 is a book that I might not have seen under other circumstances. I've read it at least twice since it came out through Webscriptions in February.

You were right about the comfort involved in settling in with a good physical book. I, myself, am equally comfortable with screen or printed word. I generally read the Webscription selections and then buy a hard copy of the ones that I like. There is something to be said for instant gratification.

My two cents,

Jeff Morrissey


Nicely put. Every point you brought up matches my own viewpoint on this matter. I've been a frequent visitor to the Baen web site and a frequent purchaser of Baen books; I have at least one copy of each of the titles currently in the Baen Free Library (I've got three copies each of An Oblique Approach and In the Heart of Darkness, one set of which I use to hook friends on them by loaning them out), and with maybe one or two exceptions have purchased copies of the titles that I've read as free samples prior to publication. I think it's a great way to expand readership and to introduce those who may not otherwise have the economic resources to purchase books to the world of reading.

Of course, putting titles from the Belisarius series or the Honor Harrington series in the free library is akin to providing a "try it once for free" program for the science fiction equivalent of crack cocaine... :-)

Us poor readers don't have a chance against you authors!

Wu Liu


Hi, in the greater scope of the world it probably isn't that important, but electronic books make a huge difference to me. I am blind, and usually obtain books by scanning the paper copies into my computer and reading them with speech software. This is a very long and slow process; the average paperback is about two and a half hours and a big hardback can be five or more hours.

I am fairly hesitant about trying new authors since the time investment is so high before I can even try reading the book! I have always been willing to buy books if I think there is a good chance that I will enjoy them, and this free library will probably widen the selection of authors I buy because it removes that "is this going to be worth the time?" question.

Thanks for the idea of this library, and I wish you many more profitable books!!

Kris Whitney


Dear Mr. Flint,

I agree whole-heartedly with your arguments about Free Library's. I know from my own personal experiences that I have first read a number of books either from acquaintances or the Municipal Library which I have later purchased for my personal collection. Almost all of those books are favourites which have been re-read many times over many years.

By the way there is one further method that "robs authors", i.e. Second-hand book stores. Authors and publishers don't benefit from these "sales" either.

Congratulations on a very worthwhile idea.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Katz

Ontario, Canada


Just a compliment. I am a very fast reader and enjoy my books very much and therefore read them over and over again. The backside of this is I don't buy many new authors if I'm not sure I will like them. Due to David Weber's first book on the net, I now own the whole series, including the one made available free. However without the preview, I never would have looked at it. This is also true for the sample chapter section. It has exposed me to many new authors that I like and buy their books. I hate purchasing anything sight unseen, this way, I already have an idea that I will like it before I buy it. I think this was a great idea, and I doubt Baen will suffer for it.

Thank you very much.

Sandra Sambirsky


Hello Eric,

I can only say that I agree completely with you on the reasoning behind the Baen Free Library.

I've read a few books, which are available on the Free Library. I also read (a lot of) the sample chapters which are also available. This gives me the chance to read a sample of the works of authors that I don't know.

After I read "On Basilisk Station", I just went out and bought the complete Honor Harrington series. I'm also a fan of David Drake. I must say that I haven't got any of his books, which are not about "Hammer's Slammers". Now I've read "An Oblique Approach" and I must say that I like it very much, so I guess I'll buy that one too (amongst others).

E-books are all very well, but in the end a printed book is so much better (and easier to read). E- books will never replace printed books in my humble opinion.

Best regards,

Mark Van Wambeke


Sir,

I wanted to thank you, the other participating authors and Jim Baen for starting this library. I don't have a lot of money to play with. So I get very frustrated at local bookstores where many store clerks do not know anything about science fiction or fantasy and I spend money on a book where the only interesting things that happened are in the first chapter. This way, besides checking the chat room, I can look at a author's 1st book and see if I like his or hers style of writing. Without spending the dough and then finding I hate the thing. Which means I don't spend the money on a book I like and figure I can eat cheese sandwiches for a while so that I can get the rest of whatever they have written.

Yeah, you guys and my dentist make a lot of money from me. Though I doubt you bought a new x-ray machine from what I last paid.

Thanks again

Elizabeth Trussell


Thank you! By visiting the Baen sight I have already picked out my next book purchase. In the book store I go to, the shelves are so packed I don't have time to look through a lot of authors. I go back to the ones I've read over and over. Joint ventures between authors helped. Anne McCaffery, started me on Jodie Lynn Nye and Elizabeth Moon. David Weber was recommended by someone filing his books at the store. The first of Moon and Weber's I read were both well into their series. I bought all back issues of each after that. Ringo's new book I would not even have seen without this site and I will buy it as soon as I get the cash.

You are giving me something beside a dustjacket, that I don't alway have time to read, to base my reading purchase on.

THANKS, June


First (and I'm sure this is going to be the opening paragraph of most of your letters), congratulations on a great experiment. Baen is leading the way in e-publishing, and I can only dream that the other publishing houses will follow. You guys have the right attitude -- price, delivery method, and selection are all in line with what people want.

That said, I have a quibble with one of your statements. You equate piracy and lending. The difference is a big one -- when you lend a book to someone, you can't read it until you get it back. This isn't true for piracy. You may have lost a sale if the receiver of the goods doesn't mind the format, because the distributor won't be bugging him to return the book.

I'm afraid we're raising a generation of people who think that art magically appears, that everything is free, and that any artist who doesn't produce for the sheer joy of it is somehow less than everyone else. We've seen it most recently with the new definition of "sharing" that's cropped up in the Napster debates.

As we all know, there's no technological solution to piracy. It's going to keep happening and it's going to get easier. The only way to fight it is to attack people's sense of entitlement -- get them to see that what they're doing IS dishonest.

You guys are going about this the right way. By making material available free and at reasonable prices you keep people aware that this is a store where things are purchased, not a buffet table at a dinner party.

Bill


Eric,

Just an interested comment on your editorial on the Baen site.

I agree with the "free samples sell books" note. As another example, I read some of the free chapters on the Baen site, and they tuned me into an author called David Weber. I then joined webscriptions and read "On Basilisk Station". I've subscribed to about 4 months so far mainly picking ones with James Schmitz, David Weber, and Elizabeth Moon. But I've dropped about $A100 on Weber books in the meantime filling in the holes. (I am already a possessor of a number of books from the other 2).

<grin> Must get around to sampling books by Eric Flint.......

Nice editorial.

Ross Lane

PS. Dunno how many times I've rebought books over the years either. I recently went and rebought all the Lensman series again, and I know for a fact that my family has worn out 2 full sets of the Narnia series (and the current box is a little frayed).


Dear Eric,

I would like to express my appreciation to you for taking the lead and to Jim, David and David for their kind cooperation. After being a lurker on the bar for a while, it's obvious that Jim has created a community with many neighborhoods. Since I enjoyed Webscriptions so much, I've taken every reasonable opportunity to direct people to the Baen website and sign-up. Now, you've given me an even better tool.

Cheers,

Bob


I commend you on your forward thinking. Piracy will always be with us but I believe you are correct when you state that most people would rather be honest than not. I am following the evolution of ebooks closely and am somewhat dismayed by the attitude of other publishers. Their idea seems to be to sell books at very small discounts from the street price of hard copy. The savings realized by not having to print, bind and distribute books, never mind the lack of returns, will not be passed on to the consumer but will rather be almost entirely retained by the publishers and perhaps the authors. Direct electronic distribution of books can result in a substantial increase in profits to authors and publishers alike and still allow for a large reduction in price.

Living in Canada, I am faced with popular fiction pocket books prices often exceeding $10 and hard covers approaching $40. Where I used to buy hardcopy books by the dozens in a year, I might now only purchase 4 or 5. On the other hand I have purchased every book on your Websubscription list since last January (which amounts to some 60 or so books). Even for someone who has voracious appetite for the printed word, price does matter.

As to the future, if there is any industry which has a natural synergy with the internet, it is publishing. With prices of various ebook readers forecast to approach $100 within a year (Franklin is already close to that now), the future for ebooks should be boundless. Piracy is a function of cost. Make prices fair and reasonable and few people will bother.

I think other publishers would do well to copy your business model. By operating as you do, you have gained a faithful subscriber who will always come back for more.

Please carry on with your good work!

Paul Elmgreen


I just received the Baen newsletter with your "soap box" um, what is the right word here, dialogue? Sounds good.

I have to agree with your viewpoint. When Baen first came out with webscriptions, I immediately downloaded "On Basilisk Station". I read it -- then went out and started building my Honor Harrington Library. The only HARDCOVERS I don't have (3) are the ones that are only available in paperback, but I have them too. Then I started on other Weber books.

Then I downloaded Lisanne Norman's "Turning Point" onto my brand new Palm Pilot -- I have all those in paperback now.

Then I got involved with Telzey and friends by Schmitz -- yep, I'm in the process of getting them in print!

Right now it's "The Survivalist" series by Ahearn, the first one of which was offered as a freebie to introduce readers to the series -- these seem to be almost impossible to find in print -- but my e-library of them is steadily growing! And I will continue to purchase them until I catch up!

Then there are all the e-publishers out there who are introducing me to even more new authors!

The whole point is that while I enjoy being able to download and read on either my computer, or my palm pilot, I still pay for most of my books. And when I find an author I may have passed up in the store, silly me, I can always go back for more. And sometimes, all right a lot of the time; I have both the e-book version and the print version. Yeah, I'm double spending, but with my favorite authors being able to pick up either version, depending on what is convenient, lets me catch up on that pile I want to read that much faster. Then again -- I sometimes buy both the print and audio version of some authors too.

Does this mean I never borrow or lend a book - no way! If I recommend a book and let someone borrow it chances are they are a "readaholic" like me and will probably want their own copy anyway! And most of the people I borrow from have the same tastes I do -- I rarely pass on getting a copy of a book I enjoy. Re-reading a book is always a pleasure -- I always find deeper nuances the second or third or tenth time around.

By the way - I enjoyed "1632", another Baen download, so much, I am keeping my eye open for more by this author! Looks like I'm in luck.

Great idea - and great attitude - Thanks!

Lorri-Lynne Brown


I was just reading your 'Introducing the Baen Free Library' and noticed something I had to laugh over.

"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."

I hate to tell you but they sell MORE buggy whips now than they ever dreamed of doing before Henry Ford came along... though I must admit that very few of them are used for the advertised purpose. Grin!

Thank you for working with Baen books and for your support of the WebScription service. I know that I've ended up buying far more books than ever before and that most of them are by authors that I wouldn't have given a second glance at if not for WebScriptions.

Also, thanks for your own books. I enjoy and own most all of them and am busy filling in the few remaining gaps.

Yours,

Kirk Sauber


Thanks Eric,

Read the e-book, bought a hardcopy as well. Look forward to buying my hardcopy of the next Belisarius book. In fact I think every one of the e-books that Baen have put up that I've read right through I've bought the hardcopy. Those I couldn't read for style etc I didn't buy so this works for me.

Keep up the good work,

Regards,

Ian Birchenough


As an Author your actions in initiating free library are very commendable and realistic. I have read Baen's free samples for years now ,and you are correct! They have led to purchases of many books that caught my interest. While having the free library will certainly be great , I hope that Baen will not abandon free samples , after all , not knowing the ending is a definite lure to purchase.

Good fortune in this new enterprise and congrats to another Baen leadership example on line.


My God, Eric!! What is the world coming to? Common sense is popping out all over! Run and hide, the Therbligs are gonna twiddle the Farsartas if this keeps up.

Like you, I cut my teeth on the Heinlein "Juveniles" e.e. "Doc" smith and Robert E. Howard. I used to haunt the library hoping and praying for something new to crop up. And, like you, I now have my own copies of all those books, so no author or publisher lost any money on my account.

In my honest opinion, the Nervous Nellies who are whimpering and crying about "internet piracy" have a serious case of cranial/rectal insertion syndrome.

You might want to pass this little tidbit to those folks. I am the reason that they are in "business." Without me, the publishing business would not exist, and as a result, there would be a lot of writers in the food stamp line. Who am I? I am the dude that is fondly called a "Customer." Without me, they don't exist. If they (excuse my bluntness here) piss me off, I don't buy the books. Keep me happy, I buy the books, and buy the books, and buy the books. I very carefully do not count the number of books I own, nor do I calculate how much I have spent on them. Just a hint, both numbers would be pretty significant if I did.

I will certainly use the Baen Free Library to check out authors I may not be familiar with, but it won't be to download or replace my books. Computer screens are fine, but they ain't books! Not now, not ever. Sorry, letting my prejudices show here.

Ok, enough of my babbling and soap boxing. Oh, I almost forgot. Thanks to you and Mr. Baen for putting the free library up for me, the customer.

Warmest Regards,

Larry Lanning


Eric, I think you and Jim are just wonderful. What a great way to move into the future. Three cheers for optimism! After all, if everybody thought men couldn't go to the moon....

The first science fiction I ever read was loaned me by a friend. It was the first english book I read that I liked (hey, it was not homework). I have been buying books ever since. Reading science fiction and fantasy is how I learned most of my english (and watching american movies, of course, but that's not quite english). And now I work for the Canadian foreign ministry, where bilingual people are really appreciated (you know we have 2 official languages up here) and trilingual (maybe I should start to read in spanish....or arabic!)

Most books I get from libraries or used bookstores are those impossible to find, out of print! I want to have the WHOLE series!!! kind of books. And when I find an author I like, I just can't wait for the library to get it, never mind the french translation, I need it NOW, so I buy it.

So congratulations to all the folks at Baen, others may hide shaking in the closet from the great monster internet, but you're riding the wave! And having a lot of fun I hope.

Thank you, and keep up the good work! I want more....more...MORE :-)

Anabelle Lacharité


Mr. Flint:

This letter is to express my deepest and most sincere gratitude, to you and Mr. Baen, for creating the Baen Free Library and, before it, Baen Webscriptions. I am so very happy that you have done these two things. I am so thankful that I am almost teary-eyed, a little bit, and I just had to write this letter.

I am what you call, I guess, a bibliophile, a great lover of books, and I have been such since I first learned to read so many years ago. Although I have siblings, and a mother and father, most of my life has been spent in loneliness and isolation. I have been afflicted with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since before I was three years old. I have never gone to school, and did not have friends or playmates---aside from my sisters and brother---while I was growing up. But I had books, my wonderful, beloved books.

With books I learned a great many things. About America. About the world. About life itself. There were virtually no limits to what a person could do with, or because of, books. With historical novels I could easily visit the past; with science fiction I could see the miracles of mankind's tomorrow. With fantasy I could encounter places and beings that only our intellect tells us could never exist and yet somehow just might have been real, if only we merely took the time to wonder, and perhaps believe.

Ah! I could tell you endlessly how wonderful I think books are---they have been my greatest teachers, friends and companions, for almost my entire life. I could sing the praises of both the written word and the imagination and skill of the person behind that word, but I assume that you, as a writer (and no doubt reader) already know how precious books are.

The point of this letter is, as I said, to thank you for what you have done. You, by bringing books to the electronic age, have given me an immeasurable boon---you allowed me to continue my reading.

I am, for the most part, used to all of the many things my misshapen body has made me unable to do, but about three years ago my affliction started making it difficult for me to hold open books. Now I cannot hold them open, at all, and for a long while I was in deep despair, because I thought my enjoyment of books had come to an end. I feared that I would be forced to get both my entertainment and information solely from the television, that my mind would turn to mush as I, out of necessity, was force-fed a diet of soap operas, game shows, and wrestling. I shuddered at the thought that I would never read again.

But then, God invented computers---well, the realization that there was such a thing as electronic reading came to me as almost a message of divine wisdom. I was fortunate enough to get a computer, and then, this past January, a Rocket e-book. Now reading was just a trackball click away, or the tap of a stylus; I could enjoy books again, and indeed, I firmly believe that e-books are a reward from God. E-books are still relatively new, I know, and the selection of titles is not massive---yet, but the transformation from paper to plastic is a Godsend to me. I cannot think of a better reason for me to spend my hundred dollars a month on, than books. E-books, to be more exact. By creating webscriptions and the Baen Free Library you have saved both my spirit and my sanity.

Last month---September---I confess, I went a little book crazy. I spent $70 on Baen webscriptions. My father was not too happy when he found out (he feels that books are a luxury, not a necessity) but, since it was my allowance I used and not his money, he was mollified. And I was ecstatic. I purchased the novel "Frost". And then "The Year of the Warrior". And "The Vlad Tapes"; "1632"; many, many others from Baen, over 30 titles in all. I was especially happy to get "Destiny's Shield". It just reached out and grabbed me. I was a tad dismayed to find out that there were two titles in the series that came before it. I started reading it anyway, installed on my REB, got all the way to chapter six and then, about four days ago, I went to
Baen's website (for the first time in a couple of weeks) and I saw that it had changed, been updated. Imagine my surprise and sheer delight when I saw those first two titles that I didn't have, and they were free!!

I felt like it was christmas, or my birthday, or like I was saying positively to Regis Philbin, "Final answer."

Forgive my enthusiasm, but books mean the world to me, especially science fiction and fantasy titles, and for a while I thought they were gone from me forever. I am more grateful than words can truly express. You have my sincerest appreciation, and I hope that the BFL and Baen Webscriptions never ends, that other book publishers will wise up and do something similar to what you've done, and, if you see David Weber, tell him to consider putting his novel "The War God's Own" online.

Must go, now. Supper's done---my mother cooked meatloaf. Typing is very hard for me to do---which is why I don't go into chat rooms---but I wanted to let you know how very happy you have made me.

Sincerely,

Jimmy