Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tor, the Universe, and Everything Baen

I've raved about Baen on this journal in the past. I feel that they've been doing a great thing for promoting the usefulness of ebooks, and promoting general readership of science fiction while they were at it.

But Baen has not been content to rest on their laurels. In just a couple of months, they'll be launching a new science-fiction e-zine called Jim Baen's Universe. Planned to come out six times yearly, it will feature stories from both established writers and newcomers, and offer significantly better payment rates than other SF 'zines are able to offer today. Jim Baen and Eric Flint describe it in terns that border on hyperbole as possibly being the last chance to save written science-fiction from becoming irrelevant as its primary audience gets older and the young readers are attracted to computer games and movies and other diversions instead. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but it does look like an interesting opportunity for new writers—part of each magazine is explicitly set aside for stories from as-yet-unpublished new talent.

But a more exciting development has taken place in the last couple of weeks: Tor Books, a substantially larger and broader publisher of science fiction and fantasy than Baen, has taken notice of Baen's success. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor's senior editor and manager of their SF line, has said:
We've tested a lot of e-book waters, including various cockamamie schemes involving overpriced e-books laden with DRM.

Oddly enough, a lot of those "books" didn't even sell enough copies to pay for their file-conversion costs. Meanwhile, it hasn't escaped our notice that Jim Baen has been doing something that works, that people like, and that makes money. I'm delighted to be doing this pilot program; I think Jim has been clueful on this issue for a long time, while almost everyone else in publishing has been staggering around on stage hitting one another over the head with inflated pig bladders.
And so it has come about that Tor is going to be publishing a number of its SF and fantasy books through Baen's Webscriptions—and they will be, like Baen's own works, both unencrypted and reasonably-priced. The list includes works by up-and-coming writers John Scalzi and Charlie Stross, and SF vet Vernor Vinge's works including his newer Rainbows End and his classic A Fire Upon the Deep.

The news has many Webscription old-timers on Baen's Bar excited, Scalzi and Stross are both quite positive about it in their weblogs, and so are other blogs that have picked up on the story.

And you can list me among those excited webscribers. While I enjoy Baen's books, they do tend to be predominantly military and political SF and fantasy, and that is not everyone's cup of tea. But Tor, on the other hand, has a much greater breadth of titles, and even more popular writers; it's not as "nichy" as Baen, and it publishes about 300 new titles per year to Baen's 50. This means that it is possible that a much broader readership will suddenly discover just how much fun it is to read unencrypted, inexpensive ebooks—and a much larger publisher will learn first-hand how profitable it can be to sell them.

Will more publishers sign on eventually? Will this only be the first step toward Baen's world domination of the electronic publishing industry? Only time will tell. It should be noted, however, that this move did not come about in a vacuum; Jim Baen worked with Tor founder Tom Doherty at Ace Books in the 1970s, and then founded Tor's science fiction line himself before moving on to start Baen Books. Also, some Baen writers, such as David Drake, write for both publishers. (This is also not the first time a Tor book has been released electronically by Baen; David Drake received permission to put some of his Tor-published Lord of the Isles series on the freebie CD-ROM bound into the first printing of Lt. Leary, Commanding.) Still, it is a hopeful sign that such a big publisher as Tor has come around to the same point of view as Baen—that leaving off annoying DRM and pricing ebooks reasonably is not just friendlier to customers but more profitable as well. With Tor on board, it might not be so easy to dismiss Webscriptions as an experiment by a niche publisher.

Meanwhile, I'm going to be looking forward to the chance to have, at long last, an unencrypted, device-portable version of A Fire Upon the Deep—the first ebook I ever bought (and also the first one I bought twice). And it will be exciting to read Scalzi and Stross, two writers whom BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow has been pushing for some time.

Perhaps it is too soon to be optimistic, but hopefully a bright, DRM-less ebook future, where ebooks can be freely read on any hand-held device of the user's choice, has just come a little bit closer to reality.