baen_logo Many new Kindle owners may not be aware that they are not entirely locked into the Amazon ecosystem. There are a number of places where public-domain books can be downloaded for free, such as Feedbooks and ManyBooks.

But there are also places where commercial e-books can be purchased. And while conflicting DRM may muddle the issue with purchases from places like Fictionwise (where “multiformat” books are Kindle-compatible but DRM-protected books are not), there are still places to buy e-books DRM-free.

One of these places in particular is one of my favorite publishing houses: Baen Books. Not only are Baen’s e-books free of restrictive Digital Rights Management, but they also beat (by several dollars) the Kindle’s infamous $9.99-per-book price point that is causing so much trouble with other publishing houses.

I will first go into a little of the history of Baen’s e-book endeavors and how and why they can offer these books without DRM and inexpensively. Then I will cover the process of syncing them to your Kindle.

(Note that this goes for owners of other e-book devices as well, such as Sony Readers or Nooks—Baen makes its books available in multiple DRM-free formats, and most readers can read at least one of them.)

An E-Book Pioneer

Baen has been in the e-book biz for a decade longer than most people have recognized there even was one. In late 1999, they offered their first “Webscription”: a bundle of four e-books released piecemeal over the course of three months.

Half of each book would be readable in the first month, the third quarter in the second month, then the complete book in the third month (at which time it could also be downloaded in multiple different formats).

These books were offered free of DRM because Jim Baen cordially disliked it. He also felt that his readers were trustworthy enough not to treat these e-books any differently than they would treat a print book—including the occasional loan to friends.

Free the Baen Library!

To demonstrate what Webscriptions had to offer, Baen posted the first book of David Weber’s popular Honor Harrington series as a free sample. In the months that followed, Weber noticed the print sales of his first few Harrington books had seen a jump that was quite unusual for books at that stage in their life cycle.

Baen writer Eric Flint saw an opportunity to poke at certain people who were insisting that e-books had to be locked down as tightly as possible to prevent financial ruin. Putting his money where his mouth was, he offered some of his own e-books for free as well—and convinced Jim Baen to let him make the same offer to anyone else who cared to try it.

This became the Baen Free Library, which currently offers several dozen titles for free download.

Giving It Away Even Faster

But Baen was not quite finished with its giveaways. When the Honor Harrington book War of Honor was published, the first printing came with a CD-ROM bound into a pocket in the back. The CD-ROM contained the complete Honor Harrington series to date, and a number of books from other Baen writers as well (including some that were not made available in the Free Library).

The CD came with blanket permission to copy, share, and upload its contents as long as long as it was for strictly noncommercial purposes—as did the dozen-plus more promotional CDs, bound into other books or handed out at trade shows, that followed. Consequently, people did so: the CD ISOs are available via BitTorrent, and are hosted on the Fifth Imperium website for downloading or browsing.

Strangely enough, it is nearly impossible to find any Baen titles circulating on peer-to-peer networks except for those CD-ROMs that have permission granted. It seems Jim Baen was justified in assuming that if you treat your customers like honest people (who don’t have to be “kept honest”), they will return the courtesy by being honest people.

For more information on Baen’s e-book philosophy, see Eric Flint’s “Prime Palaver” columns in the Baen Free Library, or his “Salvos Against Big Brother” columns in Jim Baen’s Universe.

Nobody Remembers You When You’re Successful

Baen’s Free Library and Webscription programs were covered by the New York Times in 2001. The piece recognized that Baen’s remarkable e-book practices were a financial success, both in their own right and in terms of sales increases for the paper books.

Webscriptions (www.webscription.net) makes a modest profit, and the give-away program, called Baen Free Library, is a volunteer effort with no overhead costs. But the two programs’ economic value to the company is incalculable. They have spurred sales of the company’s books, which are distributed through Viacom’s Simon & Schuster unit. Mr. Baen is particularly surprised that the electronic downloads have even stimulated sales of the company’s hardcover books.

It is a striking puzzle: the more e-texts Baen Books makes available cheaply or free, the more it has been able to sell the most expensive kind of printed book. ”We are drifting from being a paperback house to a hardcover one because of the Net,” Mr. Baen said.

But since then the media seems to have forgotten about them. Now, whenever papers breathlessly report Amazon giving away e-books for free, or commentators speculate whether ditching DRM would be bad for the e-book business, nobody seems to remember Baen has been doing these things already for over ten years.

Putting Baen on Your Kindle

As mentioned above, Baen books are available from the following three sources:

They may be downloaded in multiple open formats from each of these sources.

Because Baen sells e-books directly and cuts out any middlemen, Baen e-books will probably never be sold as Kindle titles through Amazon. However, it is simple to buy Baen e-books from Webscriptions or download them for free and copy those files onto your Kindle device manually.

Baen has its own instruction sheet for putting Baen e-books on your Kindle, but it boils down to simply downloading them in the Mobipocket format, then connecting your Kindle to your computer and dragging the Mobipocket files into its Documents folder.

Most e-book reading devices (Sony, Astak, etc.) offer a similar means of loading books onto them, or allow loading via Calibre. It just depends on which e-book format is preferred. (For example, Sony reads ePub; Astak can read Mobipocket but ePub generally works better.)

For those who do not wish to mess about with USB cables, Baen also offers an “Email book to my Kindle” link for each book in Webscriptions or the Free Library. Amazon will charge for this service at a rate of 15 cents per megabyte; however, most Baen e-books are well below 1 megabyte in size.