The introduction to the library contains insightful thoughts on the state of online piracy of books and why authors shouldn’t worry about it. While the introduction was written in the context of books, I think it is still relevant for other types of content that have been digitized. I’m surprised that this was written in 2000 and how after 8 years, the worry still exists and the embracing of free online is only beginning.
I have reproduced the introduction below.
Baen Books is now making available — for free — a number of its titles in electronic format. We’re calling it the Baen Free Library. Anyone who wishes can read these titles online — no conditions, no strings attached. (Later we may ask for an extremely simple, name & email only, registration. ) Or, if you prefer, you can download the books in one of several formats. Again, with no conditions or strings attached. (URLs to sites which offer the readers for these format are also listed. )
Why are we doing this? Well, for two reasons.
The first is what you might call a “matter of principle.” 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.
Sure enough, within a day, I received at least half a dozen messages (some posted in public forums, others by private email) from people who told me that, based on hearing about the episode and checking out Mother of Demons, they either had or intended to buy the book. In one or two cases, this was a “gesture of solidarity. “But in most instances, it was because people preferred to read something they liked in a print version and weren’t worried about the small cost — once they saw, through sampling it online, that it was a novel they enjoyed. (Mother of Demons is a $5.99 paperback, available in most bookstores. Yes, that a plug. )
Then, after thinking the whole issue through a bit more, I realized that by posting Mother of Demons I was just making a gesture. Gestures are fine, but policies are better.
So, the next day, I discussed the matter with Jim again and it turned out he felt exactly the same way. So I proposed turning the Mother of Demons tour-de-force into an ongoing project. Immediately, David Drake was brought into the discussion and the three of us refined the idea and modified it here and there. And then Dave Weber heard about it, and Dave Freer, and. . . voila.
The Baen Free Library was born.
This will be a place where any author can, at their own personal discretion, put up online for free any book published by Baen that they so desire. There is absolutely no “pressure” involved. The choice is entirely up to the authors, and that is true on all levels:
— participate, or not, as they choose;
— put up whatever book they choose;
— for as long as they choose.
The only “restrictions” we’ll be placing is simply that we will encourage authors to put up the first novel or novels in an ongoing popular series, where possible. And we will ask authors who are interested not to volunteer more than, at most, five or six novels or collections at any one time.
The reason for the first provision is obvious — to generate more public interest in an ongoing series. I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. The reason for the second provision is that one of the things we hope the Baen Free Library will do is make it easier for a broader audience to become familiar with less well known authors. Burying the one or two novels which a new or midlist author might have under a mountain of Big Name backlist titles would work against that. And there’s no reason to do so, anyway, because anyone can get a pretty good idea of whether they like a given author after reading a few of his or her books.
Jim has asked me to co-ordinate the project and I have agreed. After a humorous exchange on my appropriate title — I tried to hold out for. . . never mind — we settled on “Eric Flint, First Librarian. “That will allow me to give the periodic “newsletter and remarks” which I will toss into the hopper the splendid title of “Prime Palaver,” a pun which is just too good to pass up. (I’d apologize to the ghost of Isaac Asimov, except I think he’d get a chuckle out of it. )
Earlier, I mentioned “two reasons” we were doing this, and stated that the first was what you might call a demonstration of principle. What’s the second?
Common sense, applied to the practical reality of commercial publishing. Or, if you prefer, the care and feeding of authors and publishers. Or, if you insist on a single word, profit.
I will make no bones about it (and Jim, were he writing this, would be gleefully sucking out the marrow). We expect this Baen Free Library to make us money by selling books.
How? As I said above, for the same reason that any kind of book distribution which provides free copies to people has always, throughout the history of publishing, eventually rebounded to the benefit of the author.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon of people lending books to their friends — a phenomenon which absolutely dwarfs, by several orders of magnitude, online piracy of copyrighted books.
What’s happened here? Has the author “lost a sale?”
Well. . . yeah, in the short run — assuming, of course, that said person would have bought the book if he couldn’t borrow it. Sure. Instead of buying a copy of the author’s book, the Wretched Scoundrel Borrower (with the Lender as his Accomplice) has “cheated” the author. Read his work for free! Without paying for it!
The same thing happens when someone checks a book out of a public library — a “transaction” which, again, dwarfs by several orders of magnitude all forms of online piracy. The author only collects royalties once, when the library purchases a copy. Thereafter. . .
Robbed again! And again, and again!
Yet. . . yet. . .
I don’t know any author, other than a few who are — to speak bluntly — cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer’s audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.
Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author — and it’s ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it’s the one form of promotion which people usually trust.
That being so, an author can hardly complain — since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author’s table. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Think about it. How many people lend a book to a friend with the words: “You ought a read this! It’s really terrible!”
How many people who read a book they like which they obtained from a public library never mention it to anyone? As a rule, in my experience, people who frequently borrow books from libraries are bibliophiles. And bibliophiles, in my experience, usually can’t refrain from talking about books they like.
And, just as important — perhaps most important of all — free books are the way an audience is built in the first place. How many people who are low on cash and for that reason depend on libraries or personal loans later rise on the economic ladder and then buy books by the very authors they came to love when they were borrowing books?
Practically every reader, that’s who. Most readers of science fiction and fantasy develop that interest as teenagers, mainly from libraries. That was certainly true of me. As a teenager, I couldn’t afford to buy the dozen or so Robert Heinlein novels I read in libraries. Nor could I afford the six-volume Lensmen series by “Doc” Smith. Nor could I afford any of the authors I became familiar with in those days: Arthur Clarke, James H. Schmitz, you name it.
Did they “lose sales?” In the long run, not hardly. Because in the decades which followed, I bought all of their books — and usually, in fact, bought them over and over again to replace old copies which had gotten too worn and frayed. I just bought another copy of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, in fact, because the one I had was getting too long in the tooth. I think that’s the third copy of that novel I’ve purchased, over the course of my life. I’m not sure. Might be the fourth. I first read that book when I was fourteen years old — forty years ago, now — checked out from my high school library.
In short, rather than worrying about online piracy — much less tying ourselves and society into knots trying to shackle everything — it just makes more sense, from a commercial as well as principled point of view — to “steal from the stealers. ”
Don’t bother robbing me, twit. I will cheerfully put up the stuff for free myself. Because I am quite confident that any “losses” I sustain will be more than made up for by the expansion in the size of my audience.
For me to worry about piracy would be like a singer in a piano bar worrying that someone might be taping the performance in order to produce a pirate recording. Just like they did to Maria Callas!
Sheesh. Best thing that could happen to me. . .
That assumes, of course, that the writer in question is producing good books. “Good,” at least, in the opinion of enough readers. That is not always true, of course. But, frankly, a mediocre writer really doesn’t have to worry about piracy anyway.
What about the future? people ask. Even if reading off a screen is not today as competitive as reading paper, what about the future when it will be? By which time advances in technology might make piracy so easy and ubiquitous that the income of authors really gets jeopardized?
My answer is:
I’m not worried about it, however, basically for two reasons.
The first is a simple truth which Jim Baen is fond of pointing out: most people would rather be honest than dishonest.
He’s absolutely right about that. One of the things about the online debate over e-piracy that particularly galled me was the blithe assumption by some of my opponents that the human race is a pack of slavering would-be thieves held (barely) in check by the fear of prison sentences.
Sure, sure — if presented with a real “Devil’s bargain,” most people will at least be tempted. Eternal life. . . a million dollars found lying in the woods. . .
Heh. Many fine stories have been written on the subject!But how many people, in the real world, are going to be tempted to steal a few bucks?
Some, yes — precious few of whom, I suspect, read much of anything. But the truth is that most people are no more tempted to steal a few dollars than they are to spend their lunch hour panhandling for money on the streets. Partly because they don’t need to, but mostly because it’s beneath their dignity and self-respect.
The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.
Jim Baen is quite confident that, as technology changes the way books are produced and sold, he can figure out ways to keep that “gap” reasonable — and thus make money for himself and his authors in the process, by using the new technology rather than screaming about it. Certainly Baen’s Webscriptions, where you can buy a month’s offerings “bundled” at a price per title of around two bucks has demonstrated his sincerity in this.
(But he’s just a publisher, of course, so what does he know?On the other hand. . . I’m generally inclined to have confidence in someone who is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. Instead of demanding that the taxpayers’ money be put into building more prisons. )
The reason I’m not worried about the future is because of another simple truth. One which is even simpler, in fact — and yet seems to get constantly overlooked in the ruckus over online piracy and what (if anything) to do about it. To wit:
Nobody has yet come up with any technology — nor is it on the horizon — which could possibly replace authors as the producers of fiction. Nor has anyone suggested that there is any likelihood of the market for that product drying up.
The only issue, therefore, is simply the means by which authors get paid for their work.
That’s a different kettle of fish entirely from a “threat” to the livelihood of authors. Some writers out there, imitating Chicken Little, seem to think they are on the verge of suffering the fate of buggy whip makers. But that analogy is ridiculous. 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.
Is anyone eliminating the demand for fiction?Nope.
Has anyone invented a gadget which can write fiction?Nope.
All that is happening, as the technological conditions under which commercial fiction writing takes place continue to change, is that everyone is wrestling with the impact that might have on the way in which writers get paid. That’s it. So why all the panic? Especially, why the hysterical calls for draconian regulation of new technology — which, leaving aside the damage to society itself, is far more likely to hurt writers than to help them?
The future can’t be foretold. But, whatever happens, so long as writers are essential to the process of producing fiction — along with editors, publishers, proofreaders (if you think a computer can proofread, you’re nuts) and all the other people whose work is needed for it — they will get paid. Because they have, as a class if not as individuals, a monopoly on the product. Far easier to figure out new ways of generating income — as we hope to do with the Baen Free Library — than to tie ourselves and society as a whole into knots. Which are likely to be Gordian Knots, to boot.
Okay. I will climb down from the soapbox. Herewith, the Baen Free Library. Enjoy yourselves!
October 11, 2000