Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades e-Books: The (Semi) Official Announcement, Plus a Long Writing Screed

I’m getting tons of e-mail asking me about this so let me tell you what I know:

1. Yes, Tor will be putting out official electronic book versions of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades.

2. The release dates for the e-Book versions of OMW and TGB are “very soon now (probably in March)” and “some time after very soon now,” respectively.

3. No DRM, because DRM on e-books is a silly thing.

4. Release dates, formats and etc are not set in stone yet (say that three times to yourself, or as many times as you need to believe it), so please curb your enthusiasm to managable levels for now.

Here’s the somewhat fuller story. As many of you who read science fiction already know, for some time now Baen Books has been publishing many of its titles as e-books as well — and in a nicely non-annoying Digital Rights Management-free style that says to readers, “hey, we trust you.” Perhaps as a result, Baen is one of the few real-world publishers whose e-book division isn’t a massive tidal flow of suck, either in terms of finances or in reader aggravation. Baen offers books both through a paid service called “WebScriptions,” and a free service (primarily of backlist books) called the Baen Free Library.

Tor Books, which is the publisher OMW and TGB are at, has apparently decided that the way Baen is doing business in the e-books sphere makes more and better sense than any other model, because the two of them are joining forces to offer an e-book initiative for Tor titles. People who know more than me in this matter asked me to stress to you all that there are still fine points to nail down — not to mention the actual issues of preparing the books for electronic presentation — so please please please please please be prepared to show some measure of patience during this, the construction period. Seriously, folks, cut them some slack while they set this up.

Having said that, I know that Old Man’s War will be part of the very first slate of e-books offered by Tor, so when this Tor/Baen initiative gets switched on, OMW will be there, all winsome and electronic, begging for you to take it home and cuddle with it, using the electronic reader of your choice. TGB does not have a set release date but it will eventually show up. My assumption is that it will be in concert with the paperback release, but I’m not exactly sure how Tor is going to do it, and you know what? I’m not going to tell them how to do that part of their business. I know they want to make money, and I know they’ve been good at making me money, and for now, that works for me.

To answer questions I know I can answer:

Will this be like Baen’s “WebScriptions” plan? Don’t know. That particular line of details is hazy to me. All I know is my books will be available; whether a la carte or part of a larger subscription plan, I’m not sure.

Will there be a “Tor Free Library” like the “Baen Free Library”? Again, I don’t know. And if there is it’s deeply unlikely OMW or TGB would be in it, since they’re not quite “backlist” enough. I need to have a few more books before I can actually be thought to have a backlist.

What formats will your books (and others) be in? My understanding is that they will be available in Palm, Microsoft Reader and HTML formats as well as in other formats, too. Whatever you want to read on, you should be able to find a version that will work for you.

No DRM? Really? Really really. Why? Allow me to quote Tor’s Patrick Nielsen Hayden on this one:

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.

This is a very fine point to make: Tor’s not doing this because it’s a golly-neat idea, they’re doing it because it makes money — or at the very least, makes money for Baen, a book publisher who happens to be in the same line of business as Tor. Look, I know this much about Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor: the man knows the book business rather precisely like a jaguar knows his bend of the Amazon — he knows every rock and cranny and food source and has an instinct about how to sell books that just plain weirds out other folks. I don’t see him giving a greenlight to something that’s going to mess with his livelihood, or the livelihood of his staff and writers. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor’s senior editor, is likewise unspeakably smart and also knows his business. The two of them make money — and more importantly for me, have helped me make money. If they think this is worth doing, I’m going to listen to them because selling my work is their business — literally (a word that works on many levels here).

Now, it is axiomatic that the interests of a publisher and the interests of the writer do not always coincide. But this is where my own not small experience with the online world comes into play. More than most writers, I’d say, I am aware of the value of electronic editions of my work, both as a tool for reader acquisition and as a profit center. I know I’ve made money selling DRM-less editions of my books online (as shareware, even); I know electronic versions of my books have promoted sales of my physical books. And anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huggy-squeezy socialist hippie when comes to making money, which (among other reasons) is why I tend to make more money than most other writers at my level of fame (read: mostly obscure). My feeling on the matter is that these particular e-books are likely to be a good financial deal for me.

But aren’t I worried about (arrrrrr!) piracy? Someone could just take one of my DRM-less novels and share it online! With everyone! (Arrrrrr!)

Well, see. The problem with digital rights management for literature is that there’s a huge analog hole in the security called “books.” Over at Baen’s Bar, the online bulliten board run by the Baen folks, one of the members there describes how he’s made an unofficial personal e-book version of Old Man’s War with “a hardcover copy, an Epson scanner, FineReader 6.0, and some eyeball sweat.” You know what’s keeping him from uploading that copy to one of the online file-sharing services? Aside from his own personal sense of morality, not a damn thing. More to the point, anyone with a internet-enabled computer, a scanner, OCR software and a library card can do exactly the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong: If you’re stupid enough to upload a book of mine and leave a trail of crumbs I can follow back to you, I’ll be quite pleased to sue your ass (or more accurately, will be quite happy to have Tor sue your ass, because its corporate parent Holtzbrinck has got a whole flock of lawyers assembled just for that very purpose). My information does not want to be free; it wants to pay my mortgage. But slapping DRM onto an e-book doesn’t do a damn thing other than annoy people who buy the book online — i.e., one’s actual customers.

The only possible way to make to make DRM work for e-books at all is to stop selling physical books, and even then it’s doomed to failure. You can lock down the text, you can even lock down the computer (so, say, you can’t take a screenshot of the page while the DRM-protected text is online). But you can’t lock down people’s eyeballs. Or their fingers. You know what’s stopping a pirate (arrrrr!) from typing up an entire book? Nothing. And maybe you’re thinking that most people wouldn’t bother, but you have to remember: In the digital age all it takes is one person, and there are enough people out there who would do it just to make the point that they can. In short, DRM for e-books is pointless and stupid and it’s just as well Tor is shut of it.

Will people share the e-text? Probably. Will it cut into my sales? Don’t know about that. For one reason, although book publishers don’t talk much about it, sale volumes on books is low relative to the sales volume of other entertainment media. If a writer sells 50,000 copies of a novel from a major publisher, she gets to call herself a “best-seller;” if a musician sells 50,000 copies of an album from a major record label, she gets to call herself “released from her contract.” The major problem for authors is not piracy but obscurity, as I and so many others have noted again and again and again and yet again after that. I’m doing pretty well as far as readers go, especially as a newer-ish novelist, but I wouldn’t mind having more readers, and people sharing the book is one way to do that. Please, folks, won’t you let your friends borrow a copy of my book? I thank you for your evangelism.

For another reason that follows logically from the first, if I may be allowed an ego moment, I believe I write well enough that my writing creates fans — that is to say, people for whom I am a favorite writer, and who wish to see me succeed and who understand (quite rightly, as it happens) that their going out to the bookstore and picking up the book makes a material difference in my life, and therefore want to show their appreciation in that way. This isn’t just based on an inflated sense of ego, mind you; back when I was still calling Agent to the Stars “shareware,” I said the suggested contribution was $1. But when people sent in money, they sent in rather more than that; my average net (even throwing out the guy who sent in $200, because he was clearly an outlier) was something like $3.70, and over the course of its shareware run it made $4,000. Which ain’t bad for a shareware novel from no one back when the site was getting between 500 and 2,000 visits a day. I’m mildly curious to see what would happen if I offered a “shareware” work today. Maybe I’ll do that at some point.

However, my point now is that I’m a writer, and a major part of my business as a writer is creating a community of readers who are invested in my success. My books are part of that (as long as they’re worth reading, that is); this site is part of that. When someone shares a work of mine, that’s an opportunity for me to invite someone new into that community. Some people will join in, some people won’t, but on balance I believe based on my personal experience that there will be enough of these people to make a career, as long as I keep up my end of the bargain and bang out words worth reading.

There are likewise a number of writers who believe that e-books could spell doom for us all — that one person will buy a book and a thousand people will share it and we’ll all starve. Of course they have a perfect right to believe this, but while leaving aside any questions of literary competence (which often has nothing to do with book sales, alas), I’ve noticed many of these writers aren’t actually selling books in the here and now. Does this matter? Sure it does. The opinion of someone selling cars today is more informed than that of someone who stopped selling cars when the Chevey Citation was on the production line; the opinion of someone selling computers today is more informed than someone whose experience with computers ended with the Apple ][. Publishing changes slowly but it certainly does change; it’s not the same market it was even five years ago, and certainly not the same market as it was a decade back (it is, I am assured, utterly unrecognizable from what it was twenty years ago).

I am selling books in the here and now; so is my editor and so is my publisher. We all like to make money. We are saying e-books could indeed make us money, and not just a little, but enough to matter. We’re also saying that we have enough faith in the books we make — and in the people who read them — that people will continue to buy them, regardless of the media in which they exist, and even without locking them down with some pointless security scheme. We could be wrong about this, but I doubt we will be.


Octavia Butler

Steven Barnes has a blog entry reporting that SF writer Octavia Butler has died. I don’t know anything else about it at the moment than that, but I thought I would pass the information along. When/if there is other verification of this news, I’ll note it.

Update, 4pm: Blogger Edward Champion writes that he called the King County, WA coroner’s office, which confirmed Ms. Butler’s death. Still waiting for an official news story, but I rather deeply doubt either Barnes or Champion is incorrect at this point.



As I mentioned earlier in the week, I was interviewed by Glenn and Helen Reynolds for their podcast series. The podcast is now up, and you can get the relevant links to it through this Instapundit entry (or this Dr. Helen entry, if you prefer). Also on the podcast is Tim Minear, the producer of Firefly and Angel and other SFnal delights. So all around it’s a pretty nifty listen, although after hearing myself blabber on I’ve made a note to myself not to use the word “basically” so damn much. It’s always something.

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