This article was originally published in Jim Baen’s Universe Vol 1, Num 2, August 2006
by Eric Flint
My original plans for this issue’s “The Editor’s Page” got swept aside last month by the death of Jim Baen, the man who launched the magazine and whose name is—and will remain—on the masthead. Jim lived just long enough to see the first issue of the magazine come out on June 1. Less than two weeks later, on June 12th, he suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered consciousness. He died on June 28th.
That’s not much of a consolation, but it’s some. This magazine was important to Jim for several reasons, one of which I will spend most of this editorial discussing. He was only sixty-two years old when he died, after a life of many accomplishments, of which Universe was one.
And by no means the smallest, either. For Jim, the magazine was both a return to his own origins—he was the editor of Galaxy back in the mid-seventies, early in his career—and a continuation and expansion of a policy he had made central to Baen Books since the onset of the electronic era. That was his complete and total opposition to so-called Digital Rights Management and all the panoply of laws, regulations and attitudes that surround it. One of the reasons he asked me to be the editor of Jim Baen’s Universe is because he knew I shared, in full, his hostility toward DRM. He wanted Universe, among other things, to be a showcase demonstrating that it was perfectly possible for a commercial publisher to be successful without soiling themselves with DRM. (“Soiling” is the genteel way to put it. Jim was far more likely, in private correspondence and conversation, to use a simpler Anglo-Saxon term.)
There are a lot of ways you can examine Jim Baen’s life and his career. I spent some time thinking about how I would handle it, in this editorial. In the end, I decided I would concentrate simply on this one aspect of the man’s legacy. Partly that was because I couldn’t see where anything I could say in a general obituary would add anything to what David Drake already said in his superb one—which we are including in this issue of the magazine. And partly it’s because I think talking about Jim’s general accomplishments as an editor and publisher would fall in the category of hauling coal to Newcastle. Even leaving aside Dave Drake’s obituary, many other people by now have said or written a great deal on the subject. Locus magazine’s cover story this month is on Jim’s life, with appreciations by people who’d known him for many years and worked with him, such as Tom Doherty, Lois McMaster Bujold, Harry Turtledove, David Weber and others.
So, I decided I would concentrate on just this one aspect of his life.
Jim’s hostility to Digital Rights Management, along with the alternative approach to it which he developed as a publisher, will in my opinion eventually be accepted as his single most important legacy. It will take years before we know, but I firmly believe the eventual historical verdict will be that Jim Baen was a central figure in the fight to prevent giant corporations from hijacking humanity’s common intellectual heritage in the name of “defending copyright from infringement.”
Jim had many other accomplishments to his credit—but this is the one, and the only one, in which he played a unique role. As an editor, he was excellent, true enough. But there are other excellent editors. As a publisher, he carved out his own approach to fantasy and science fiction, which is in many ways quite distinct. But there’s a difference between “distinct” and “unique.”
There are other excellent F&SF; publishers, too, as Jim would be the first to agree. And if none of them had exactly his emphasis, there was always a lot of overlap. Many titles published by Baen Books could easily have been published by another house, and vice versa.
But in his fight against DRM, Jim stood alone as a publisher. No other commercial publisher, so far at least, has done more than slide a toe into the DRM-free waters that Jim cheerfully bathed in for many years—and, in doing so, demonstrated in practice that all the propaganda that its advocates advance to justify the increasingly Draconian nature of DRM is, in addition to everything else, so much hogwash even on the practical level of a publishing house’s profits and losses.
Here are the facts. They are simple ones, because Jim Baen made them so:
1) All Baen titles that are produced in electronic format are made available to the public through Baen’s Webscription service, cheaply and with no encryption. That policy stands in direct opposition to that of all other commercial publishers, who insist not only on encrypting their e-books but usually making them ridiculously expensive as well.
2) That policy has been maintained now for seven years, uninterrupted, since Webscriptions was launched in September of 1999. Month after month, year after year, Baen has sold e-books through Webscriptions using this simple formula: “We’ll sell e-books cheaply and unencrypted.”
3) Baen earns more income as a publisher and pays its authors more in the way of royalty payments from Webscriptions than any other outlet for electronic books. Typically, a popular Baen author—I’ll use myself as the example—will receive royalties from electronic sales that are well into four figures. Granted, that’s still a small percentage of my income as a writer, but that’s a given since the electronic market is so small. The fact remains, however, that as a percentage of my income, the royalties from electronic sales of my books are higher—considerably higher—than the overall sales of all e-books represent as a percentage of the entire book market.
4) The difference between the level and amount of these royalties and those paid by other publishers, who are still addicted to DRM, is stark. Actually, “stark” is the polite way of putting it. The more accurate way of stating this reality is that the royalties paid by other publishers in the way of e-book sales are derisively low.
I will give you two examples:
In one royalty period, from a major publisher who was not Baen Books—that was Tor Books, generally considered the most important publisher in the field—David Drake once earned $36,000 in royalties for the paper edition of a popular title, Lord of the Isles. The electronic royalties from that same book, during that same period, came to $28.
That’s right. Twenty-eight dollars. Less than one-tenth of one percent of his paper royalties—where a Baen title, typically, will pay electronic royalties that are somewhere in the range of five percent or more, measured against paper royalties.
Five percent is still small, of course. As I said, that simply reflects the small size of the e-book market. But five percent reflects market reality, where one-tenth of one percent reflects nothing more than the absurdity of DRM—even on the practical level of making money for publishers and authors.
The second example, from my own experience, is not quite as extreme. My novel 1812: The Rivers of War was published by Del Rey, another of the major F&SF; corporate publishing houses. In the first royalty report, Del Rey reported sales of the hardcover edition at slightly over ten thousand copies with earnings for the author of $27,810.65. The electronic sales for the same edition came to one hundred and twenty copies, with earnings of $545.30.
Translating that into percentage terms, again, that means that the electronic sales were two percent of the paper sales, in terms of money, and one percent in terms of actual sales. That’s quite a bit below what Baen would have sold, but it begins to approach the ballpark.
I can’t prove it, because I don’t have access to the detailed records, but I’m pretty sure the difference between my sales and David’s were due to the fact that several years elapsed between the two books coming out, over the course of which time other publishers were influenced by Jim Baen’s policies. Del Rey agreed, after I requested it, to make at least one version of the electronic edition of Rivers of War available in an unencrypted format—something which I’m sure they wouldn’t have done a few years earlier. The e-book was still grossly overpriced—they charged $17.95 for it, where Baen would have charged between $2.50 and $5.00—but it wasn’t encrypted.
Before I move on, I should take the time to make clear that the problem here doesn’t usually lie with the editors and managing staff of other publishing houses. All of these people, who have a hands-on relationship to fantasy and science fiction publishing, knew Jim Baen as a colleague and were often friends of his. In the case of Tom Doherty, who runs Tor Books, a very old and close friend. They followed what he was doing carefully. And, far more than the abstract arguments advanced in this debate by such vocal opponents of DRM as myself or Cory Doctorow or Charlie Stross, it was Jim’s ability to demonstrate in practice that his alternative worked that made the key difference.
More and more often, the editors and managing staff of other F&SF; publishing houses are starting to turn in Jim’s direction. Or trying to, at least. The problem they run into, however, is that where Jim ran his own publishing house, the others are usually owned by large corporations—and, as is almost always the case, at the level of top executives of major corporations, DRM is considered Holy Writ.
Still, it’s progress—and all of it was made possible by Jim Baen. It was his position as a commercial publisher that made him unique in the anti-DRM movement. That’s because while an individual author who rejects DRM might risk as much as Jim, in the way of lost income, they simply can’t prove their claim the way he could.
What an individual author does, however valuable, is one thing. What the head of a major publishing house does, is something else entirely. Today, measured in terms of titles produced every month, Baen Books is the second most important paper publisher in science fiction, after Tor Books. (A reality that is recently being reflected in Locus polls, I notice, whose readers are now listing Baen as their second most popular publisher.) And it is, easily, the pre-eminent F&SF; publisher in the electronic market.
Having that publisher on your side of a debate as important to the public and far-ranging in its implications as the fight over DRM makes a huge difference. In fact, it makes a qualitative difference. Individual authors can be dismissed; lawyers can be dismissed; political pundits and theorists can be dismissed; anyone can be dismissed—except another publisher. Jim Baen was in a position to prove what others like myself could only argue; or, at best, demonstrate by such things as making many of my titles available for free in electronic format.
I’ve done that for years now, as have a number of Baen authors like David Drake, David Weber, John Ringo and others. Some other authors, who don’t publish through Baen, have done much the same. Two examples are Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross; there are others.
About two-thirds of all my titles are available for free to the public in the Baen Free Library, which we opened in December 2000, not much more than a year after the start of Webscriptions. True enough, I can use that fact to demonstrate that a consistent anti-DRM policy followed by an individual author does not cause the sky to fall. To give perhaps the clearest example, my most popular title is 1632. It has been available for free in electronic format to the public for five years now—and the book has never suffered any decline in sales during that time period. Year after year, despite being available for free as an e-book, the paper edition sells about fifteen thousand copies. That figure fluctuates a bit from one year to the next, of course, but there is no overall downward trend at all. The standard rule of thumb in the industry is that 80% of a book’s sales happen in the first three months after publication. But in the case of 1632, sixty percent of the book’s sales have come since the first year it came out—during which period the book was always available to the public for free in electronic format.
Impressive, yes. But, in the end, it’s really just a stunt. That’s about all an individual author can do. Putting my most popular title up for free to the public was my literary equivalent of Evel Knevel jumping over twenty cars on a motorcycle. I did it to demonstrate, as graphically and daringly as possible, that people who worry about the so-called “threat of online piracy” are being spooked by shadows.
Stunts have the great value of drawing a lot of public attention, but the problem is that most people figure they’re just that—stunts.
Who knows? The fact that it worked for one author doesn’t mean it would work for others, much less all authors. Just as the fact that people will marvel at Evel Knevel’s ability to jump over twenty cars on a motorcycle doesn’t make them in the least bit inclined to follow his lead. Many of them also know, after all, that in the course of his dare-devil career Evel Knevel broke just about every bone in his body.
But what Jim did wasn’t a stunt. All the arguments that people can and do marshal against me, such as:
— you’re just lucky;
—you would have been popular anyway, regardless of the free e-books; in fact, they may have cut into your sales and you prospered despite them;
—yadda yadda yadda . . .
Simply can’t be made against Jim Baen, because what Jim did wasn’t a series of stunts, it was a major publishing house’s policy.
In the end, the Free Library is an excellent demonstration of some truths, but it doesn’t prove anything. What does prove something is the much more mundane, even—by now—humdrum, regular sales of all its e-books through Webscriptions done by Baen Books.
Year after year, month after month, Baen Books keeps proving that DRM is, in addition to everything else, a liability for a commercial publisher. All the arguments that can be advanced against me—or David Drake, or Cory Doctorow, or Charlie Stross—simply can’t be advanced again Baen. That’s because it all evens out in the wash, when you’re dealing with a major publisher’s policy.
If someone insists that I probably would have done well anyway, I can point out that all of Baen’s authors do better in electronic sales through Baen’s Webscriptions than anyone else.
What? Are we all “lucky”?
If someone insists that Cory Doctorow’s policies with regard to DRM prove nothing because Cory doesn’t make most of his income as an author, I can simply point out that all of Baen’s authors do better in the electronic market than other authors do. And not one of them has an equivalent to Cory’s very popular Boing Boing web site, and many of them—including me—do in fact depend on writing for their entire income.
For years, I’ve danced about and done my best to draw public attention to the issue, like a virtual Gene Kelly. Nor was that work unimportant, because it did in fact get a lot of publicity. Business Week‘s online magazine ran an article on me, and I was once invited to attend—all expenses paid—an international conference in London on the subject of electronic publishing.
But I could only do it—and it only made a big difference—because I had Jim Baen at my side. I could dance, but he could hammer. And hammer, and hammer, and hammer, and hammer, like a blacksmith at his trade.
Which, in the end, is what he was. And when the day finally comes, as I believe it will, that the American public decisively repudiates DRM and demands that giant corporations cease and desist from their efforts to lock up society’s intellectual heritage for their own private gain, the world will look back and recognize Jim Baen as the man who, more than any other, forged that outcome. Not by words, but by deeds.
One last thing. In a jocular manner, in the course of an email exchange we were having on the subject of DRM, Jim once called me “Baen’s bulldog.” The reference, to those familiar with the history of evolution, is to Darwin’s most forceful and popular advocate, Thomas Henry Huxley.
Jim was joking . . . mostly. And I responded in kind, at the time. But there was an underlying seriousness to the statement, and we both knew it. Leave aside the humor, and it was true.
And still is. Jim Baen is gone. The bulldog remains—and I intend to continue using this magazine the way Jim wanted me to. Among other things, as a bully pulpit for explaining to the public that DRM is a serious and deep threat to the liberties of the American population and that of the world as a whole. And that a clear and practical alternative exists, created and maintained by Jim Baen, that guts all the claims made by DRM advocates that their anti-democratic policies are essential for the preservation of copyright and the livelihood of authors, artists, and other intellectual creators.
The reason I will be able to do that illustrates another part of Jim’s legacy. The difference between what an author like myself can advocate and demonstrate, and what a publisher can do, is that the latter leaves behind an institutional framework where the former does not.
There will be no change in Baen Books’ policy, now that Jim is dead.
First, because there is no reason to change the policy. It works, and it works well.
Secondly, because—like all successful policies—Jim’s has left behind a coherent and organized vested interest, in the form of a staff that is accustomed and comfortable with his policies, and, just as important, a large fan base that is also comfortable and accustomed to it.
People usually use the term “vested interest” as a pejorative, but that’s just silly. It all depend on whether the interest being vested is a good one or not. Democracy, after all, is also a “vested interest”—and it becomes more difficult to undermine or destroy, the more thoroughly rooted it becomes.
So it is with Jim’s anti-DRM policies. By now, even if the incoming management wanted to change those policies—which it has no intention of doing, I can assure you—they would find it so damaging to Baen’s financial interests that they would shy away from even thinking about it. The uproar from the very large fan base that Baen Books has created for Jim’s policies with regard to electronic publication—which, I will point out, is so far the one and only clearly defined “vested interest” that can be matched against the vested interests of music recording and movie industry executives and their powerful lobbies—would be enormous.
That, too, is Jim’s legacy. Thousands of regular readers—and buyers—of electronic books whom he created as a vested interest in the right way to handle the challenges of the electronic era for the publishing industry.
I asked Jim to read and approve all of the editorials I wrote in my Salvoes Against Big Brother column. I did that because, although I am listed as the author of those essays, I considered Jim to be the co-author of them in all but name.
He was able to read and approve the first three of those essays. With regard to the first, he sent me the following email:
Hi. I’ve read both. The DRM one has my enthusiastic approval, and you certainly did not say anything I don’t agree with.
He gave me his verbal agreement to the second and third essays, one of which appears in this issue and the other will appear in the next. That was in the course of a telephone conversation that may have been the last one I ever had with him. If not, certainly one of the last.
He won’t be able to read the ones that will come after. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and neither did Jim. But if we’re both proven wrong, whatever other problems I may face in that life-after-death, I’m not at all worried that Jim’s shade won’t be pleased by the rest of what I have to say.