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The Shrinking Baen Free eBook Library Reminds Me How eBooks Used to be a Pain in the Ass

There’s a notice over on the Baen Books Facebook page this week, and while it is causing some readers to break out in hives the notice made me glad I read ebooks in 2012.

I read the notice over at MobileRead. The tl;dr version was that Toni Weisskopf informed us that Baen was going to pull some of the titles from the Baen Free Library due to contract issues (some titles had reverted to the author, or something).

Some MR members groused about authors who didn’t understand the value of free ebooks in driving sales. I demurred. I can think up several other ways to use ebooks to drive sales now (possibly even better than the Baen Free Library).

And yes, Baen had always used the Free Library to drive book sales. It’s also why Cory Doctorow releases all of his ebooks under a CC license. His reason was the same as Baen’s; it was the most effective promotion tool – at the time.

The thing is, Baen launched the Free Library in a very different ebook market.  This was back in the year 2k or so, back when ebooks were a pain in the ass.

The thing that some people forget nowadays is that before the Kindle Store launched ebooks were a negligible part of the market due to technical, availability, and pricing issues. At that time it made a lot of sense to have one site for all of Baen’s free ebooks, and that was mainly because the ebook buying experience was a pain in the ass. Plus the Baen Free Library was directly adjacent to Webscriptions, the Baen ebookstore, which at that time was the best option for buying SF ebooks (Fictionwise came in second).

As late as 2007 there were 4 dominant ebook formats. And I don’t mean a situation like we have today with Kindle plus 3 variations of Epub; at that time you could find DRMed ebooks in eReader, Mobi, MSReader, and Adobe PDF. What’s more, you would often find all 4 formats sold by a single ebookstore. (While ebookstores like that still exist, they are now the exception not the rule.)

And the issues were endless. Often times you could only complete a series by buying 2 or more formats. Sometimes you’d try to buy one format and end up with another – which you would not be allowed to refund or exchange. MSReader had DRM which broke mysteriously and I sometimes heard reports of Adobe PDFs expiring with no warning.

Even though I only got heavily into ebooks in 2007, I was sitting by the sidelines and watching the ebook market throughout most of aughts. The reason I sat out was all the  horror stories I had heard about DRM as well as buying and using ebooks.

The Point I Am Trying to Make

This might be of interest more to ebook sellers than readers, but my point is that Baen launched the Free Library at a time when the ebook buying options were terrible. It made sense at that time for Baen to maintain one single site for free ebooks. Readers could then go looking for the paper copies of the book wherever they prefer to buy their books.

The ebook market is very different today. Now ebooks are given away to drive ebook sales just as much as sales of paper books.  As such, ebook creators should look at where and how they give away ebooks and how those freebies will connect a reader with other related ebooks. And while Baen’s ebookstore is okay, it is now dwarfed by the Kindle, Nook, and other ebookstores. Baen authors might see a benefit from going it alone and giving their ebooks away in other ebookstores.

None of this is new, and in fact I’m sure the more savvy self-published authors already know these details on some level. But I have the gut feeling that not all readers understood it and that made it worth repeating.

And not even all ebook creators have realized how the market has changed; Doctorow’s strategy of releasing everything as CC licensed ebooks is likely not a workable marketing technique any more. He’s doing it out of principle as much as anything, and it’s not a trick which I think should be repeated.

My Other Point

The reason the ebook market took off was that the launch of the Kindle Store changed the ebook buying experience from being difficult to being easy. If the digital publishing industry had any decency they would be sending Jeff Bezos flowers every year on 19 November, the anniversary of the launch of the Kindle Store, rather than cursing his name. Of course, some in publishing probably wish the market had not changed; they are welcome to burn him in effigy on the anniversary.

image by The-Lane-Team

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Isles October 20, 2012 um 8:17 am

I really enjoy learning about the history of the eBook market and eBook readers. It is really interesting how everything has evolved.

Richard Herley October 20, 2012 um 8:26 am

@Isles — Nate is a phenomenon! 🙂

Isles October 20, 2012 um 3:57 pm


Mike Cane October 20, 2012 um 9:57 am

Nowadays you can just Follow some accounts on Twitter and all the free eBooks *come to you*. By the frikkin hundreds and thousands each week.

Mark October 21, 2012 um 5:32 pm

Mike, do you have to follow the authors? Or is there some generic accounts to follow?

Bill Smith October 20, 2012 um 11:18 am

Yes, buying ebooks is much easier through Amazon now, but I think publishers and authors should be leery of eliminating alternatives to Amazon — by cutting back on outside sources, authors are only encouraging readers to think only of Amazon and B&N and that could spell trouble for all of us.

There’s nothing stopping Amazon (or anyone else) from arbitrarily cutting royalty rates when they think they have enough leverage to get away with it.

Likewise, Amazon and B&N have both basically told Linux users that they utterly do not matter, with no apps for us. B&N’s "read on the web" feature is only Win/Mac — Amazon at least will let us Linux folk sit at the kiddie table in the back of the room by letting us use the read on the web feature if we have just the right web browser.

For readers, having only a couple of vendors also means that DRM lockin is all that more likely to stay in place rather than going away, which means you only can use "your" books in ways that the vendor approves. I want to be able to own my books — that means being able to download a DRM free file so I am not dependent upon the benevolence of the ebook vendor to actually use the product I have "bought."

If anything, publishers and authors should be pushing more and more alternatives to Amazon and B&N, places like Smashwords, Kobo, self-hosted sites (whether you have your own shopping cart or do fulfillment through a service like

By making books available through a wide variety of sites and vendors, publishers and authors are encouraging readers to go looking for cool stuff beyond the normal channels and normalizing that exploration process. If readers are accustomed to searching in a variety of places for good material — not because they have to, but because they want to — authors and publishers have given themselves a powerful tool so they are not turned into captives of the big one or two vendors.

By simply giving in and deferring to Amazon/B&N, publishers and authors are allowing these vendors to become the "Facebook of ebooks." And honestly, one or two entities with that much power over royalties, distribution, rankings and visibility, who control almost entirely what potential customers see and know, is dangerous for all of us.

— Bill Smith

Ellen Hage October 21, 2012 um 3:54 pm

Was it really that much of a PITA? Back in 2000 I got the Franklin Rocket ebook reader. I think my greatest frustation was finding ebooks to read. I didn’t mind connecting to my PC to download a book. My next complaint would be price. BN was charging like $20 to $30 for some books. I was able to find free books…hard since the tech was new and devices were really expensive. I agree that Amazon has made it easier to get books and created a lower barrier to entry (as far as owning an ereader and the availability of low cost books).
Either way, it is nice to look back and remember the old days.

Nate Hoffelder October 21, 2012 um 7:24 pm

Wasn’t the Franklin eBookman the device which stored the OS in RAM, not Flash? I seem to recall that users had to be careful not to let the battery die, otherwise they would have to plug the eBookman in to the computer and reinstall the OS.

That would certainly seem to fit my definition of PitA.

Twilight of the Promotional E-book « The Scholarly Kitchen October 31, 2012 um 5:30 am

[…] was pondering “the consumer connection” when I happened on one of Hoffelder’s latest posts. Hoffelder notes, in his words, that “e-books used to be a pain in the ass,” but that is no […]

Mike February 5, 2017 um 10:59 pm

I am hoping someone can identify a book for me; details follow.

My first experiences with ebooks were buying six novels by Mack Tanner. The books were $2 each and he kicked in the 3.5″ floppy. My wife and I were nearly in the poorhouse but we could afford this price.

My next ebook almost experience involved two well known print writers who tried selling an ebook with bizzare conditions. They required that:

1. Their book could only be installed and read on one computer.
2. The text would disappear at 6 months on this one computer.
3. You could only reread the book once and then the sections which had been read twice disappeared.
4. This book cost $35!

We were still fairly broke when this book came out (and are better off today). It was a no brainer to decline to buy this overpriced book.

Does anyone remember the name of this book and it’s authors?

Nate Hoffelder February 5, 2017 um 11:02 pm

I have never heard of this, but I can help you find out if it is a true story.

If you don’t mind I will publish this query as a blog post.

Chris Meadows February 6, 2017 um 5:10 am

Never heard of that one. It kind of reminds me of that William Gibson poem, "Agrippa," that was published as an intentionally-deteriorating digital book.

Mike February 5, 2017 um 11:04 pm

I use a Kindle Keyboard which ignores DRM and a Kindle Fire which loves DRM. I say "loves" because I have lost track of the number of times I have bought a book from Amazon, downloaded it to my Kindle Fire, read part of it and have gotten a notice that amounts to "You are not authorized to read this book because if violates DRM. You can download this book again or BUY IT AGAIN FROM AMAZON."

I find this highly annoying. Does anyone know of a workaround to turn off his annoyance?

Chris Meadows February 6, 2017 um 5:18 am

In retrospect, after Baen effectively neutered its ebook store in order to get its titles into Amazon just a couple of months later, it’s funny to consider the big fuss made over Baen having to remove some titles from the Free Library at this point. Baen often had to remove titles from the Free Library, or drop them from Webscriptions, after the rights reverted to the authors and they took them elsewhere. For that matter, the Baen CD repository at The Fifth Imperium had to remove an entire CD of Lois McMaster Bujold’s stuff after Baen lost the rights to those books.

Nate Hoffelder February 6, 2017 um 6:58 am

That’s not why the Bujold CD was removed. it was pulled because there had been a miscommunication. Baen thought she had agreed to the CD, and she thought it would be something else. So the CD was pulled.

keith February 4, 2018 um 12:46 am

I have been reading ebooks for a long time. Was burnt by Apple, had purchased ebooks from Apple and it was fine until Apple did an u pgrade to my phone and the book reader quit working, all my purchased books disappeared. I have downloaded and read every book in Baens free library and they still are readable. I download in the HTML format. I have bought books from authors that I like and will continue to do so. So keep up the great work Baen and I will continue to buy books. Some of my favorites I have gone back and bought hard cover books for my reading pleasure.

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