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Free the Books!

by Eric Flint

The Free Library was set up about a year and half ago, with the co-operation of Baen Books. Leaving aside the various political and philosophical issues, which I’ve addressed elsewhere, the premise behind the Library had a practical component as well. In brief, that in relative terms an author will gain, not lose, by having titles in the Library.

What I mean by “relative” is simply this: overall, an author is far more likely to increase sales than to lose them. Or, to put it more accurately, exposure in the Library will generate more sales than it will lose.

As a practical proposition, the theory behind the Free Library is that, certainly in the long run, it benefits an author to have a certain number of free or cheap titles of theirs readily available to the public. By far the main enemy any author faces, except a handful of ones who are famous to the public at large, is simply obscurity. Even well-known SF authors are only read by a small percentage of the potential SF audience. Most readers, even ones who have heard of the author, simply pass them up.

Why? In most cases, simply because they don’t really know anything about the writer and aren’t willing to spend $7 to $28 just to experiment. So, they keep buying those authors they are familiar with.

What the Free Library provides–as do traditional libraries, or simply the old familiar phenomenon of friends lending each other books–is a way for people to investigate a new author for free, before they plunk down any money.

That was the premise behind the Free Library, when I first set it up. At the time, since I had no experience to go by, I was basing that on common sense as well as Jim Baen’s experienced judgement as a longtime publisher.

Now, with a year and a half’s experience with the Library actually established and running, I feel confident that our original assessment has been demonstrated in practice. The Library’s track record shows clearly that the traditional “encryption/enforcement” policy which has been followed thus far by most of the publishing industry is just plain stupid, as well as unconscionable from the viewpoint of infringing on personal liberties.

And the stupidity seems bottomless. I just discovered, for instance, that one of the main e-book reader manufacturers (Gemstar) has now decided, in its new software, to make it impossible for its customers to read any unencrypted material–even material from something like Project Gutenberg. Gemstar customers will now only be able to read software purchased from Gemstar itself. So, once again, an industry which has been a failure from the outset because of its obsession with encryption is simply deepening its commitment to that obsession.

* * *

Let me ask a simple question. Does anyone have any real evidence that having material available for free online–whether legitimately or through piracy–has actually caused any financial harm to any author?

The entire argument for encryption rests precisely upon this PRESUMPTION. A presumption which has never once been documented or demonstrated–and which, to the contrary, has been cast into question any number of times.

I am about to cast it into question again. Here are a number of facts which you should consider:

1) The first title to go up into the Library was my own novel, Mother of Demons. That was my first published novel, which came out in print in September of 1997. At the time it went into the Free Library, in the fall of 2000, that novel had sold 9,694 copies, with a sell-through of 54%.

(“Sell-through” refers to the percentage of copies shipped which are actually sold, as opposed to being returned to the publisher.)

As of today, according to Baen Books–a year and a half after being available for free online to anyone who wants it, no restrictions and no questions asked — Mother of Demons has sold about 18,500 copies and now has a sell-through of 65%.

I would like someone to explain to me how almost doubling the sales and improving the sell-through by 11% has caused me, as an author, any harm?

To be sure, most of that improvement is not due to the Library. It’s simply due, I’m quite sure, to the fact that I’ve become a better known author in the meantime. Still, it is impossible to argue that the Library has hurt me any. To the contrary, I think there is every reason to believe that the added exposure the Library has given me helped the sales of that book — as well as all of my other books.

And the exposure is considerable, by the way. The fact that being in the Library does not seem to have hurt sales of Mother of Demons in the least — to put it mildly! — is not due to the Library’s obscurity. Quite the opposite, in fact. There were more than 130,000 visits to the Free Library in the last quarter of 2001 — almost 1,500 a day.

To date, my best-selling title has been my novel 1632. That book came out in hardcover in February 2000, and was reissued in paperback in February 2001. I put it in the Free Library at the same time as it came out in paperback format.

Today, more than a year later, the paperback edition of 1632 has a net sales of about 34,000 copies and has a sell-through of 88%. If being available for free in the Library has hurt me any, with that book, I’d be puzzled to see how.

Let’s look in closer detail at the progress of another title in the Library, this time using a novel I co-authored with David Drake: An Oblique Approach, the first volume in the Belisarius series. I think these figures demonstrate the impact of the Library more clearly than any other.

An Oblique Approach went into the Library a few days after Mother of Demons — i.e., it’s been available for free for a year and a half now. That novel first came out in paperback in March of 1998. (There was no hardcover edition.) Here are the royalty figures on that novel, beginning with the first period for which figures are available and ending with the last:

Period Net sales S/T New sales

July-Dec 1998 30,431 70% 30,431

Jan-June 1999 35,977 80% 5,546

July-Dec 1999 36,812 78% 835

Jan-June 2000 37,607 77% 795

[An Oblique Approach goes into the Library mid-way through this period]

July-Dec 2000 39,268 77% 1,161

Jan-June 2001 41,172 77% 1,904

The most interesting — and unusual — aspect of these figures are the ones on the right, in the column titled “new sales.” From the beginning, An Oblique Approach has enjoyed an excellent sell-through — 77 to 80% — so it would be surprising to see much change there. (The average for SF paperbacks in the industry as a whole is no better than 50%, and probably a lot closer to 40%. In short, in terms of sell-through, An Oblique Approach is doing almost twice as well as the average.)

The overall net sales figures are not especially surprising either. An initial “out of the gate” net sales figure of about 30,000 is nothing outstanding, but is eminently solid for a paperback title, especially when combined with a good sell-through. (The average paperback sells, traditionally, about 15,000 copies — but the actual figure has probably been lower for several years now because of a “soft” market.) And, given that the standard experience is that 80% of a book’s sales happens in the first three months, it’s not surprising that the sales are concentrated in that period. In the next period, January-June 1999, the novel had a solid 5000-plus sales. Thereafter…

What usually happens. Within a year after a novel comes out, the sales usually drop right through the floor. Thereafter, sales steadily dwindle away. And, sure enough: in the third and fourth periods, An Oblique Approach sold considerably less than a thousand copies each period — 835 and 795 respectively, showing the expected slow and steady drop.

It’s what happens next that is significant. Because, all other things considered, those “new sales” figures should have kept steadily dropping. Slowly, perhaps, but what most certainly shouldn’t have happened is a sudden rise in sales — and a rise which increases in the next period.

Nor can this be explained, as the sharp rise in sales of Mother of Demons perhaps can, as the result of me becoming better known as an author. David Drake, not me, is listed as the lead author of An Oblique Approach — and Dave has been a very well known SF author for at least fifteen years. Granted, my increasing popularity as a writer was undoubtedly responsible for some of that increase. (Just as, for that matter, the fact that Dave’s popular Lord of the Isles and With the Lightnings series started coming out during this period and undoubtedly attracted some readers also.)

But… but…

Nonsense! Between the January-June 2000 reporting period and the period one year later, the sales for that title — which had now been out for two years, remember, long past the time when it should have been selling very much — were suddenly almost 250% higher. (239%, to be precise: 1904 compared to 795.)

What happened in the interim? Well, obviously I can’t “prove” it, but it seems blindingly obvious to me that it was the fact that An Oblique Approach went into the Library in the fall of 2000 that explains most of that increase. It would certainly be absurd to claim that being available for free somehow hurt the novel’s sales! I can guarantee you that most authors would be delighted to see a two-year-old title suddenly showing a spurt of new sales.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the second volume in the series, In the Heart of Darkness, shows much the same pattern. In the Heart of Darkness went into the Library at the same time as An Oblique Approach, a year and a half ago. In the last period before it appeared in the Library (Jan-June 2000), Heart of Darkness sold 1,704 copies. A year later, during the equivalent reporting period, it sold 1,886.

The difference is certainly not as dramatic as the difference in sales of An Oblique Approach, much less the near-doubling of sales which Mother of Demons experienced. Still, the mere fact that sales increased at all instead of declining is significant.

Before I move on to my next point, I want to take the time to emphasize the significance of these HARD FIGURES. I stress “hard figures” because those people arguing the “encryption/enforcement” side of the debate NEVER come up with hard figures. Harlan Ellison, for instance, screams that he has “Lost sales!” because of piracy — but, to the best of my knowledge, has never once even tried to demonstrate that this is true. Not once has he done more than endlessly assert the “axiom” that since a title of his was pirated he “must therefore” have lost sales of that title.

I think my hard figures demonstrate how absurd that claim is. It does not follow that simply because a copy is available for free that sales will therefore be hurt. In fact, they are more likely to be helped, for the simple reason that free copies — call them “samplers,” if you will — are often the necessary inducement to convince people to buy something.

Everyone should remember, also, that the titles available for free in the Baen Library — very much unlike pirated copies — have the following two unusual characteristics:

a) They are readily available in a well-known, well-advertised and STABLE web site. I stress “stable” because one of the inevitable characteristics of pirated copies is that trying to find them is a monstrous headache in the first place. For obvious reasons, those addresses tend to disappear constantly. In fact, every time I speak publicly on this issue I urge my audience — please! be my guest! — to test my claims by going online and trying to steal one of my titles. (The one you find easily and immediately in the Baen Free Library doesn’t count, of course. That one is not pirated.) And I confidently advance the prediction that they will soon discover that the amount of time and hassle they have to go through in order to find a pirated copy somewhere of an Eric Flint title — again, excepting the legitimate copy available in the Free Library — is hardly worth the effort.

b) The titles — again, very much unlike the typical pirated product — are in excellent shape, having been professionally prepared, and are available for downloading in no less than five different electronic formats. (For which we even provide the software, if the reader doesn’t have it already.)

Try finding ANY pirated copies of which you can say the same, even if you can find them in the first place. As anyone knows who has ever looked at a pirated edition, as a rule they are very sloppy scanned-and-barely-proofed editions which are miserable to read.

And yet… and yet… despite the fact that these COMPLETELY LEGITIMATE copies are available for free — easily, conveniently, and professionally prepared — you have seen for yourself that in no less than four instances I have been able to demonstrate no discernable financial damage done to me as the author. To the contrary, I have been able to advance a very strong case that the Library has helped the sales of those books.

2) Since we set up the Free Library, I’ve received a total of 1,161 letters to me as “Librarian.” Well over a thousand letters in about a year and a half — and, at a rough estimate, I’d say that about two-thirds of those letters (certainly well over half) state specifically that, as a result of becoming exposed to an author through the Library, the sender of the letter went out and bought some book of theirs in a print edition. Very often, a number of books.

I will grant you immediately that this is purely anecdotal evidence. Still, the fact remains that I have well over a THOUSAND anecdotes. How many does Harlan Ellison have, based on which he filed his now-famous (or, in my opinion, notorious) lawsuit? Five? Six? As many as a dozen?

The thing you should not overlook for a moment is that everyone’s argument in this dispute is based entirely on anecdotal evidence. (Except for me, I should say. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only author who has put up free titles and then tracked the actual effect on royalty statements. Still, even there, I will immediately grant that there are a number of variable factors which cloud the issue.)

The difference is that I can marshal a huge number of anecdotes to support my viewpoint. My opponents can marshal, at most, a handful. And even that handful is suspect, since they base their logic on the assumption that simply because a title has been pirated that the author has therefore “lost sales.” I think that assumption is highly dubious — and is precisely what needs to be proved in the first place. (See my various remarks elsewhere in the Free Library for an expansion on this point.)

Keep in mind the difference, because it’s quite significant. Not all anecdotes are equal. I can point to hundreds of letters where a specific person says specifically: “based on reading Book X in the Library, I went out and bought it.” Whereas the anecdotes of my opponents are not specific at all. In essence, what they do is simply demonstrate that someone put up a pirated edition somewhere. Fine. But it does not thereby follow that a SALE was lost. Who knows if the person who downloaded that title would have bought it in the first place? In order for my opponents to have anecdotes which carried the same weight as mine — even in quality, much less in quantity — they would have to show statements where a specific person stated that they had intended to buy a copy of Book X but didn’t because they found a pirated one instead. If Harlan Ellison has even ONE anecdote of that nature, I’ll be surprised.

3) Here’s another anecdote. Last April, I attended an international conference in London on the current state of the e-publishing industry. In general, the tone of the conference was pessimistic — accurately reflecting the general state of the industry.

I was invited to come by the organizers more-or-less as the “devil’s advocate.” In my own remarks at the conference, I stated that the fundamental obstacle to the success of electronic publishing was the industry’s obsession with encryption. The only successful electronic outlet I knew at the time — <> can now be added to the list, from what I can see — was Baen Books’ Webscriptions. And that was precisely due to the fact that Baen made no attempt to encrypt its product. As a result, they were able to sell electronic books both cheaply and with no hassle and aggravation to their customers.

I measure “successful,” by the way, using the only criterion that means much to me as an author: Webscriptions, unlike all other electronic outlets I know of, pays me royalties in substantial amounts. As of now, I’ve received about $2,140 in electronic royalties from Baen Books for the year 2000. (The last period reported.)

That sum is of course much smaller than my paper edition royalties, but it can hardly be called “peanuts.” Every other electronic outlet I know of, in contrast, pays royalties — if at all — in two figures. My friend Dave Drake has given me permission to let the public know that his best-earning book published by anyone other than Baen, in one reporting period, earned him $36,000 in royalties for the paper edition — and $28 for the electronic edition. And that’s about typical for even a successful book issued electronically.

In contrast, Dave earned probably about as much as I did in electronic royalties from Baen for the year 2000. (I don’t know the exact figure, but since a lot of my Webscriptions royalties come from titles I co-authored with Dave, I’m sure the amounts are approximately equal.)

At the conference — at least in the public sessions — my remarks were basically greeted with pained silence. But, in private, several publisher representatives told me that they agreed with me — but also told me that trying to get the publishing industry to give up encryption would be impossible. Why? Basically because the corporate bean-counters who now run most of the publishing industry just can’t bear the thought of — gasp — GIVING something away for free. Even if it benefits them in the long run.

There was one exception. A gentleman from a publishing house which primarily produces textbooks rose in support of my point. He stated that, much to their own surprise, his company had found that those textbooks which they made available for free online ALSO had the best sales.

4) A disconnected anecdote? No, not really. MIT Press discovered the same thing. A friend of mine sent me a letter recently after listening to the President of MIT on a radio talk show. Here is the relevant excerpt from his letter:

I just have a little more fuel for you to add to the fire. Yesterday on my way home from work I was listening to “All Things Considered” on NPR a little before 5pm CST. They had a story on MIT’s offer to create a Web site for most of its classes and to post materials (outlines, detailed class notes, homework assignments, etc) from each course.

Besides being an interesting story in itself on free information on the net the guest, Charles Vest, president of MIT, as an aside mentioned that when college textbook presses (like the one at MIT) put up free e-text copies of their new textbooks at the same time they published the print version, sales of the print versions went UP.

If it works to increase the sale for things as over priced as the normal college textbook…

All right, I’ll stop there. I believe I’ve provided enough evidence to support my point. Making one or a few titles of an author’s writings available for free electronically in the Free Library seems to have no other impact, certainly over time, than to increase that author’s general audience recognition — and thereby, indirectly if not directly, the sales of his or her books.

I believe it also — I leave it up to each individual to weigh this out for themselves — places such authors on what you might call the side of the angels in this dispute. For me, at least, this side of the matter is even more important than the practical side. It grates me to see the way powerful corporate interests have been steadily twisting the copyright laws and encroaching on personal liberties in order to shore up their profit margins — all the more so when their profit problems are a result of their own stupidity and short-sighted greed in the first place.

Eric Flint is a gifted new star of military SF. His writing career began auspiciously with the impressive first novel, Mother of Demons (Baen), which was selected by Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year With David Drake, he has collaborated on An Oblique Approach and In the Heart of Darkness, the first two novels in the “Belisarius” series. Flint earned a masters degree in African History from UCLA. A Trotskyist, he has remained true to his faith by working as a steel worker, machinist and meatpacker.

Copyright: Eric Flint

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