Over the last several weeks, I’ve found myself explaining the Baen Free Library to people. Now, I like introducing people to cool stuff, but even the best things can get repetitive, and repetitive can easily become boring, and boring quickly becomes frustrating. (Huh, that sounds like a Jedi mantra or something.) So I figured I should put up a blog post on it; that way I can link people to the post when it comes up, as well as introduce it to any of you in the CG audience who might not have heard of it already.
Back in 1999, in the ancient days of the impeachment of President Clinton, the war in Kosovo, and the apocalyptic Y2K Bug (ask your parents, kids), an argument was finally settled. It’s an argument that some continue today, but as the end of the century loomed, Jim Baen (founder of Baen Books, probably the best single publisher for science fiction and fantasy today) and Eric Flint (editor and bestselling author for the same) decided to settle the question: what would happen to sales if some ebooks were made free?
Now, to many of you, this might seem a strange question. We see free ebooks all the time, after all. People wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. But the question is still an issue today: does it hurt sales? Does it encourage piracy? Do people really care?
Nearly two decades later, the answer is somewhat mixed. Yes, ebooks help; but no, they’re not guaranteed. Free ebooks got so oversaturated in recent years that people would fill up their readers with more than they could get through, resulting in a decrease in how many ebooks were offered for free. However, the Baen Free Library, established in 1999, proves it works — if you have the right approach.
More importantly, the piracy question was answered, both by Baen and by others who tried it. Piracy was a big debate in the early days of ebooks; how do you prevent someone from just making another copy? What Baen and Flint believed, and proved to be true, was that pirates come in three types: people who don’t care, people who just want to break the rules, and people who can’t afford to buy a lot and so they’ll try another route.
The first type won’t buy your books regardless, because they won’t want to pay even if they have the money. The second type get a kick out of how many torrent files they have seeding, and don’t actually care about the content. The third type, though . . . they’re potential customers who just aren’t sure if it’s worth it. Many admitted they’d downloaded pirated copies of movies and books, and then decided to buy what they liked. So what if there were a legal way to do that?
But Baen Books took it a step farther. Most publishers tried putting restrictive DRM (digital rights management, a term for copy protection) on their files, limiting you to one copy or even just one download. They would only give things to you in watermarked files (annoying to look at) or in a clunky format that would restrict how you could read it. Baen, in contrast, decided to not only use no DRM in their ebooks (free or paid), but also give you the book in multiple formats, in perpetuity. There are six formats: HTML, RTF, Word Document, Sony Reader, Mobipocket, and EPUB — all as part of the same purchase. You can read what you want, on essentially any device.
Currently, there are 49 titles in the Baen Free Library, though this changes on an infrequent and irregular basis. There have, in the past, been more than double that amount at one time, but for various reasons these have been reduced. Most of those in the Library are the start to bestselling series (such as several David Weber novels, including the first two Honor Harrington books; or Flint’s own expansive 1632 universe), letting you try them out before you spend money on them.
Any novel in the Free Library is also available for free on Amazon; but remember, you get multiple formats, and you don’t need an account to download any of Baen’s free titles.
Fair warning, though: if you’re an SF&F fan, you’re probably going to find something in there to be addictive. You’re going to want to buy more. Baen Books knew this. When they first started the Free Library, they advertised it with a banner ad featuring a bug-eyed alien in a trenchcoat promising us that “The first taste is free!”
But if that’s not enough, Baen tried out another experiment a few years later. Starting with an Honor Harrington book, Baen started handing out Free Library CDs. These CDs didn’t contain just one installment; they often contained the whole series, as well as books from the author’s other series, and sometimes just books that Baen thought the readers might enjoy. All for free, all in different formats, all without DRM. And even better, with an extra notification: the permission, or more precisely the encouragement, to make as many copies as you want and hand them out to friends. Their only restriction? You can’t sell them.
That’s it. No other limitation. Even today, when the CDs have been discontinued (the last one was in 2010), anyone who holds a copy can give a copy to anyone else. You just have to know someone. Like, say, me.
Fortunately for my email inbox, though, you don’t have to ask me for copies. They’re available on multiple websites, including Archive.org; but I would encourage you to go to the famed Joe Buckley’s website, which has the full archive of every Baen Free Library CD. (What’s that? You don’t know why Joe Buckley is famous? Well, it’s kind of a tradition for Baen authors to kill him off in their books, frequently in gruesome ways.)
And if for some reason you need more information on how the Free Library was a success to both the company’s bottom line and to readers’ wallets, try reading these thank-you letters. As you might guess, though my handicap isn’t as bad, the one that really resonates with me is Jimmy’s. I’ll let you read it for yourself.
So that’s basically it. The story behind it, and the links to it. You now have a world of adventure before you, across many worlds born of imagination and the magic of the printed word.
Have fun storming the castle.