Prime Palaver #2

Letters to the Librarian

Eric Flint

January 16, 2000

 

            Since an article got published in slashdot.org, the Library has been flooded with hits and I received about 200 letters within 24 hours.  But even before that happened, I was receiving so many letters that I simply haven't been able to respond to most of them individually.  What I want to do in this installment of Prime Palaver is address a few of the questions which get brought up most frequently in the various letters which I receive.

            Three, in particular:

            1. Will we carry out-of-print books?

            2. Will we carry unpublished material?

            3. Will we expand the available formats?  (Most commonly, the question involves PDF.)

 

            Let me take them one at a time.

 

Publishing out of print material in the Library

 

            We will start putting some out-of-print titles in the Library, but only on a very limited and selective basis. At the moment, the only one planned is David Drake's Old Nathan.

            I well understand the reasons that people would like to see OP titles in the Library.  So would I.  But you also have to understand the practical realities involved.  The problem with "long lost" titles is that they are relatively expensive to put into electronic format, because they usually don't exist in that form. That means a lot of "hand labor" scanning in the old hardcopy, proofing them, etc.  Or, even if they do exist in electronic format, unless it's something that Baen Books published recently (when it started doing everything "in house") the material has to be obtained from someone else, who will charge money for it.  (And then, usually, the material has to be "reworked" electronically to make it usable for Baen.)

            For something like the Free Library, which by its nature brings in no direct income, doing very much of that is obviously not financially possible.  For that reason, the only out-of-print titles we will be putting up in the foreseeable future will be a few titles by established authors which might serve as a "drawing card" for the Library.  I'm sorry if that seems excessively cold-blooded, folks.  But, as the man said, "facts are stubborn things."  And the fact is that we can't afford to do any more than that.

 

Publishing unpublished works

 

            The answer here is unequivocal, and there will be no exceptions: the only thing that will be put in the Library are works which have previously been published in paper form.  And then -- except for possibly a few OP titles whose rights have reverted back to the authors -- only titles which were originally published by Baen Books.  We will not publish any manuscripts.

            This is, in short, a library -- which is not the same thing as a publisher's slush pile.

            All right.  Having put the matter as bluntly as possible, I now want to take some time to talk about it.  Because the question involved actually cuts right to the heart of the whole issue which produced the Free Library in the first place.

            Let me begin by explaining what is, always has been, and will always remain -- regardless of technology -- the central "transmission belt" between authors and readers.  That transmission belt can be called "the editing process" and it is every bit as essential to publishing as writers and readers.  The people who do the various jobs associated with that process go by different terms.  They are called: publishers, editors, readers, proofreaders, typesetters, etc., etc.  The specific names (as well as the specific functions) may change somewhat over time, as technology changes.  But the basic function is absolutely essential and remains the same: some mechanism has to exist to separate the wheat from the chaff.

            Or, to put in more modern parlance, the real "bandwidth problem" is that there is far -- FAR -- more junk being produced in the way of fiction than there is stuff worth reading.  I know that statement, coming from an established author, inevitably sounds arrogant.  But...

            Sorry, it's just a fact.  And if you don't believe me, you are welcome to set up your own online publishing house and solicit manuscripts.  You will shortly be amazed at the stuff that pours in. 

            Mind you, not all of it will be bad.  A fair amount of it will be decent, and some of it will be quite good.  You might even stumble across something which is very good.  But --

            Heh.  You won't believe (until you try it) how much work you'll do sorting through it all.  And it is work, just like any other kind of work.

            There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.  Or, truth to tell, a "free library."

            That's the whole problem in a nutshell.  People who blather that electronic publishing will remove the "artificial barrier" between the "auteur" and his or her adoring public are blowing smoke.  I guarantee you that the first thing that would happen if someone actually managed to "liberate" publishing and publish every piece of fiction being written immediately on the internet -- is that a demand would be instantly created for some kind of company which provided the public with the ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL service of hacking through all the weeds to find the stuff worth reading.

            Well.  Actually.  Those companies already exist.  They are called publishers.  That's what they do -- and will keep doing, regardless of technological advances, until such time as someone invents a robot which can do it instead.  Don't hold your breath.  Anybody who thinks something which is even as relatively "simple" as proof-reading can be done by "artificial intelligence" has never seen the weird stuff that happens when you simply let a manuscript go through with nothing more than a spell-checker at work.  (And God help you if you let a grammar-checker get out of control...)

            Here's what would happen if I threw open the Library to unsolicited manuscripts:

            1.  I would get flooded with stuff, much of it -- even leaving aside the quality of the writing -- completely unsuitable for this web site.  (All kinds of poetry, philosophical/political tracts, tech manuals, you name it -- stuff that has no relationship to science fiction or fantasy at all.)

            Simply downloading that stuff would be time-consuming enough, much less the labor of sorting through it to eliminate everything which is inappropriate for a SF/F library.  That's my labor we're talking about -- and my labor, beyond a certain point, doesn't come any more free than anything else.  I've got a mortgage to pay, not to mention putting food on the table and taking care of my family's medical bills.  And none of the stuff involving Library work brings me a thin dime.  Not directly, at least -- and my creditors aren't going to be satisfied with vague speeches on my part about the "long term" benefits of making free copies available to the public.  I don't even want to think about their reaction to the inane slogan "information wants to be free."  Something along the lines of: Maybe it does, buddy.  But that refrigerator you bought from us AIN'T free -- so pay up or we're repossessing it.

            2. Hokay.  But let's assume, for the moment, that I've decided to do all that work.  Now I've got a mass of unpublished manuscripts neatly stored away on my hard drive.  (I leave aside the fact that I'd very soon have to buy additional memory to store all of it.)

            Now what?

            You think I could just somehow "put it up" on the Library?  Heh.  Not hardly.  The manuscripts would arrive in a jillion different formats, some of them downright exotic and almost all of them unsuitable as they stand for putting up in the Library.  Which means I'd have to send them to Baen's staff and they would now have to expend a lot of labor on the task.  None of which, again, brings in a dime.  So who's going to pay their mortgages and food bills and medical bills?

            THERE AIN'T NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH.

            Every single step along the way requires labor -- and labor, in the real world, has to get fed and clothed and housed.  There are no munchkins or leprechauns out there ready and willing and able to do the work for "free."

            3. Hokay.  But let's assume, for the moment, that Baen Books and its staff agreed to do it.

            Now what?

            I'll tell you what: interest in the Library would plummet like a stone, because now I would be transferring the labor of sorting through all the junk onto the shoulders of the readers.  Which is also labor -- and labor which 99% of them would be quite unwilling to do.  Very few people are going to be willing to spend hours in front of a monitor slowly working their way through the electronic equivalent of a slush pile.  Trust me on this one, people.  They won't.  Professional readers and editors do it because they get paid to do it. 

            The point to all this is that there is no "magic recipe."  I understand full well that what is driving most of the enquiries I've gotten on this subject is the frustration of the authors involved.  They've been trying to find an outlet for their writing -- which is a thankless task if there ever was one -- and are hoping that somehow this Free Library might serve the purpose.

            But it won't.  Not even for them -- and for me, it would be a nightmare.  I've been an unpublished author myself (for more years that I like to remember), and I know exactly how frustrating an experience it is 99% of the time.  But...

            That's life in the real world, folks.  I'm sorry if that sounds heartless, but it's just the plain, unvarnished truth.  Every publisher in the US, whether of a magazine or books, gets flooded with hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts -- sometimes that many in a single month.  Most of them those publishers do eventually read through this "slush pile," as it's called.  But, to be honest, it's a relatively low priority.  The meat and potatoes of what almost any publisher produces are writings from already established authors.  Not more than perhaps 1-2% of the material submitted to a slush pile will ever get published -- and that usually takes many months (years, often enough) to sort itself out.

            This much I will say, to brighten this otherwise dark picture.  I am convinced that if anyone has written something which is good enough to get published that it will eventually get published -- provided they have the tenacity to keep plugging away at it. 

            But it does take a lot of tenacity, believe me.  I was writing for five years before I got my first novel published -- and that novel sat in the slush pile for almost two years before it even got read.  In the meantime, I collected a fair number of rejection slips from other publishers.  But, eventually...

            The novel did get read, and the editor liked it.  After that, things finally started moving.

            Every single professional author I know personally has basically gone through the same experience.  If there are any "short cuts," I don't know what they are.  What I do know, for sure, is this: if you do write well enough to get published, the worst mistake you can make is to get obsessed with finding a "short cut."  There aren't any -- or, if there are, the chances of stumbling into it are equivalent to winning the lottery.

            Just keep plugging away, as disheartening as that experience often is.  Keep writing and keep sending in your manuscripts to established publishers.  Do NOT try to "find an angle."  Or, if you do, at least make sure you keep your efforts to a minimum.  Because that is also labor -- and the time and work you spend trying to find the "angle" doesn't come free, either.  It's time and work you are not spending doing what might really get you published.

            And there endeth the sermon.

 

Expanding the available formats

 

            We have no plans at present to expand the formats available, although we are looking into the question of whether some additions or changes might be helpful to readers who are blind or otherwise disabled.  If we make any changes or additions, that will be our top priority.

            Since most of the questions around this involve PDF, I can say that we will not be adding a PDF format in the foreseeable future. 

            The reason is as simple as it gets.  This Library is maintained through the good graces of Baen Books, which is (for all practical purposes) owned and operated by a man named Jim Baen. One of the "perks" of Jim's status is that he gets to make the final decisions.  And Jim detests PDF.

            In his own words:

 

A few words on .PDF:

 

            Adobe Acrobat ==>> pdf files. I don't know what all the perceived virtues of Acrobat are, except that supposedly it will suck Word and spit Word Perfect or something. Why I don't like it:

            Acrobat allows you to design and print pages as if you were the editorial staff of Time Inc. complete with pictures and flowing text and captions in funny types and whatnot, just exactly the way the Publications Design Department wants. For this reason (I suppose) Design Depts just love it to pieces and flog it everywhere, and assume that everyone else will love it and its output too.

            The thing is, it is not what you would call empowering to the end consumer. What it does, is generate files, .pdf files, that are extremely opaque to standard word processing software, so that if, for example, you downloaded Time's table of contents, you would be stuck with that appearance: no changes allowed, or possible. Can't change the margins, can't change font sizes, can't grab text for pasting, can't anything.

            Thus if we wanted to present a PDF file we would have to make every single decision that God intended for users to make for him (or her! or her! But I digress...:).

            Anyway, the text would have to be X wide, placed to the pixel just so with an anchor point there on the screen when you look at it. Straight jacket city. Now me, I find this anathematic. Sometimes, when my sinuses are going, I don't much care about proportions or whatever: I want everything bigger than everything else, starting at 16 point on-screen. I want my text to be whatever size I find comfortable!!!

            But with PDF you cannot do that. What you see is what you... see. And for some reason the designers always use a font that might be called Ten Point Terminal Myopic because it will print nicely on paper. Of course if you want to just read it on a screen, too bad. Squint.

            This is why we offer, at my insistence and in spite of my cohort's mild negativity, RTF files. Why? Well, bluntly because Word reads them. So do some other word processing progs, I'm told. This means that those word processors treat .RTF files as native, and you can do anything with them that your wp prog can do with its files. Pick fonts, pick margins, font-size, color, color background, space between lines -- anything. Now it seems to me that this is the way text should be offered: just exactly the way you want it. In a sense, you become a publisher when you read a Baen e-file text.

 

Saint Jimmy

 

            And there it is.  You don't have to agree with Jim, of course, but one of the perquisites of putting stuff up for free is that you can do it however you want.  That ought to be obvious, but I was rather astonished by the rudeness of a number of the letters which brought up this issue.  (Not all, of course.  Most people who raised it did so quite politely.)  Quite frankly, the writers had the manners of boors.  The kind of people who march into a party and immediately start complaining because the free liquor isn't what they like.

            Fine.  Go somewhere else.  If you don't like the free stuff -- BUY your own brand.

            Sheesh.

            As I said earlier, we are making an attempt to accommodate the special needs of readers who suffer from disabilities such as blindness.  But, to be blunt, we don't consider the problems which some people have because they choose to use a less common system such as Linux to be in the same category.  If you don't like Microsoft products, or WordPerfect, or whatever, that's certainly your prerogative.  But you don't have the right to demand that the rest of the world has to accommodate you -- especially when you're not paying for it.

 

Eric Flint

January 14, 2001

           

            Oh.  One last thing, which I keep forgetting to announce here.  In addition to the complete titles offered here in the Library, there are two other sites on the web where people can go to sample (free of charge) a number of titles produced by Baen Books.

            The first is right here in the Baen web page, if you haven't noticed it already.  If you select "Our Publishing Schedule," you will find that most of the books listed have a number of sample chapters available.  (Look for the little icon next to the title which looks like a book.)  Those can be read free of charge.  You won't get the entire book, but you'll get enough of a sample to determine if it's something you'd like before plunking down your money.

            In addition, with the permission and co-operation of Baen Books, Joe Buckley maintains a site known as Dahak's Orbit. That site contains sample chapters from various works-in-progress which in many cases haven't yet been published (or even have a definite publication date).  Again, complete titles are not available -- but enough to give you an idea if it's something you'd enjoy.

            The site can be found at: http://dahak.ne.client2.attbi.com:8080/