Been a while since I’ve written here; my brain has been eaten largely either by work or by City of Heroes. Time to correct that a little.

I like reading. I like it a whole lot; in fact, I won a reading contest when I was in elementary school—kindergarten, to be precise, for reading a bit over 100 (I forget if it as 104 or 106) complete books in a month. Granted, many of them were Little Golden, but that’s still a remarkable number for a kindergartner to burn through that fast. (I really should have won the next year, too, but I suppose now that I knew that I could I wasn’t seriously interested in competing again.)

Anyway, I’ve continued reading voraciously to this day, and developed a particular liking for science fiction. And along the way, I’ve come to find that ebooks are a particularly convenient way for me to enjoy it. I don’t have any problem reading off of a good high-contrast PDA screen, and thanks to how tiny bits and bytes are I can carry a veritable library in my pocket. I’m not going to get into the advocacy argument of ebooks versus print books; they both have their place and I don’t prefer one to the other except in situations where one or the other is more convenient.

That being said, it’s fortunate for me that one of the better science fiction and fantasy publishers today is also one of the most sensible in terms of its stance on ebooks. I am, of course, talking about Baen Books. Before Baen came out with its ebook programs, I was of course acquainted with it; they’ve been publishing a lot of good SF & fantasy (mostly military or political, but some other stuff too) for some time now. When they moved into the e-publishing world, they did it in a big way. In fact, there are three major ebook initiatives that Baen has done: Webscriptions, the Free Library, and the bound-in CDROMs.

Webscriptions was the first; a few years back, Baen decided that they would make monthly ebook versions of the new books they published each month available as a downloadable bundle. (What’s more, they would make part of it available early, months before the book even hit the shelves.) The first few months were $10 each, then they moved up to $15, which is still a very reasonable price for 4 to 6 new ebooks per month. What’s more, the books are available in a variety of formats (including HTML, RTF, and Mobipocket), with no DRM whatsoever, and purchased titles can be downloaded and re-downloaded in perpetuity without having to re-pay.

In order to serve as a demonstration for Webscriptions, Baen and author David Weber put the first book in Weber’s Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, on the website as a free download. A funny thing happened: suddenly the print edition of On Basilisk Station became Baen’s best-selling book ever. Out of this came the idea for the Baen Free Library: authors who cared to do so could make one or more of their Baen works available for free download—and many did; there are now over two dozen books in the Free Library that can be downloaded at no charge. Several essays on the subject, how well it’s worked, and related matters have been posted to the site as well.

But Baen wasn’t content to stop there; starting in David Weber’s recent Honor Harrington novel War of Honor, Baen has been putting out CDROMs bound into selected first-printing hardcovers. These CDROMs contain literally dozens of ebooks, including many that have never been included in the Baen Free Library, and other goodies; some of them also contain mp3 audiobooks. And perhaps the best thing is, the disks come with explicit permission to copy and share (but not sell). As a result, the disks have been copied, passed around, hosted on-line, shared on peer-to-peer networks, and even made available via BitTorrent, where literally thousands of copies have been downloaded.

Why is Baen so free with its books at a time when the content industry is calling for more and harsher DRM? Perhaps the biggest reason is that Jim Baen feels that most people these days prefer tree-books to ebooks for pleasure reading—but when given the chance to read a book in electronic format, they may read enough of it to decide they like it enough to purchase the actual physical product. So, the more he gives away, the more he will sell. More information can be found in the “Prime Palaver” essays in the Baen Free Library.

And it does seem to be working; not only has Baen not had any sudden collapse of revenue from its free ebook programs (and given how communicative the Baen folks are with readers and fans via the Baen Bar, we would certainly hear about it if they did), they seem to be publishing more than ever. The Palaver essays include some proof that Baen authors have seen not only their Baen titles start selling better after putting free stuff up but their works from non-Baen publishers have gotten a boost as well.

And for those people who, like me, do enjoy ebooks for pleasure reading, it’s a godsend. Not only are these books free (or cheap, in the case of Webscriptions), they’re exactly the kind of book I like to read—and they don’t take up bookshelf space in my already-overcrowded apartment. Plus, I can legitimately copy them (those which are on the CDROMs, anyway) and give them to other people—including David Weber’s entire Honor Harrington series.

Anyway, I strongly urge folks who’re interested in science fiction and fantasy to give the Baen stuff a look. Visit the library, check out Webscriptions, browse or download the free CD content…it’s all good stuff.