Photo by Beth Gwinn, Locus Online Given that Baen is frequently used as a counter-example whenever the matter of printing costs making up a small fraction a a hardcover’s total cost comes up, I thought it would be a good idea to hear from Baen about how it is able to keep its prices so low. Consequently, I arranged this e-mail interview with Toni Weisskopf, Baen’s publisher.

Weisskopf has many interesting things to say about Baen’s overall strategy, pricing, and the question of e-books “cannibalizing” printed books. The interview begins below the jump. (Links added by me.)

Many voices in the publishing industry are proclaiming that, since printing costs are only a couple of dollars out of a hardcover’s total price, selling e-books at a price point of $9.99 is "unsustainable." But Baen has been selling e-books for less than that for over ten years, even of books released in hardcover, and has become the counterexample that everybody holds up in response to other publishers’ claims about printing costs.

TW: Well, part of the “secret” there is that we don’t pay for expensive DRM (“digital rights management”) schemes. I’ve never understood why we should add to our costs with the sole outcome that it’s harder for readers to buy and read the books we want to sell. On the contrary, I want to make it as easy as possible for my readers to find, purchase and read my books. That goal influences every publishing decision I make from our marketing to what typefaces we use.

How is Baen able to sustain selling e-books at such low prices? Is it simply that Baen considers them mainly another form of promotion for the print books (as suggested here), and so does not assign the same share of manuscript production fixed costs (editing, typesetting, etc.) to e-books that other publishers do?

TW: Certainly when we started we viewed the ebooks as an experiment. In some ways mass market paperbacks are also a “form of promotion” for future hardcovers. Indeed, many pbs from the big publishers will run excerpts of the next hc from the author. The ebook just extends that idea. So yes, it’s a form of promotion. Is it also a source of income & profit? Absolutely.

Are you able to discuss the royalty rates Baen pays on e-books, in terms of percentage of "cover price"? How do they compare to print royalty figures?

TW: We pay approximately double hardcover royalties [in terms of percentage of cover price] for the ebooks.

Is it likely that inexpensive e-books will "cannibalize" print book sales—either now, or at some time in the future?

TW: I don’t think any sales “cannibalize” any other sales. Does a used book sale cannibalize a new book sale? Not at all. In general, people buy the nicest version of a book they can at the time. Can a used book sale or a library loan introduce my author, my series, my brand to a new reader, who may then be enthralled, entranced, ensorcelled into buying the next new hardcover in the series (and the eARC, and the final ebook, and maybe the pb too, so she can lend it out)—heck, yes. My goal is to make more readers for my brand. ANY sale has the potential to do that.

Specifically, I think ebooks will extend the market for books, not reduce it. But then what I am selling is good stories; I don’t care what medium I sell those stories in. If my readers tell me they want it chipped on stone, I will find some way to do that. If they want me to beam the story directly to a chip in the brain, I will do that.

Baen has pioneered a number of interesting techniques for using e-books promotionally: the free library, the webscription bundles, the pack-in CDs. Are any new promotional ideas on the horizon?

TW: We are printing codes in some hardcovers for free ebooks earlier in the same series. But for the time being, nothing radical planned. We’ll wait for the technology for flash drives to get even cheaper and flatter and who knows. Maybe we’ll be able to print drives directly into the books. You tell me! This is the sort of thing I rely on my cutting-edge techie Barflies to tell me about. Maybe your readers have suggestions for me? What would they like to see?

Some people have complained that Baen’s habit of treating e-books mainly as promotional material for selling printed books hurts the perception of e-books as having value in and of themselves, and encourages other publishers to misunderstand and perhaps misuse e-books in that way. (They might point to’s free e-book promotion which left a number of e-book readers more disgruntled than pleased as an example of this sort of misunderstanding.) Is this a likely scenario?

TW: I can’t control what other publishers do and how they experiment! It’s not like what we do is a secret formula. Though perhaps we should call it that and sell the secret slowly over the course of a year in seminars…. We can only do what we do. But there are plenty of people over at Tor who value ebooks and want to see it done right.

In the last couple of years, since the introduction of the Kindle, we have seen the first signs that the nascent e-book market is actually starting to take off. At the moment, e-books make up a fairly small percentage of the overall book market—less than 5%. What will happen when and if e-books become a significantly larger fraction of the market? Will Baen have to revise its e-book pricing structure?

TW: When the ebook market takes off, we’ll sell more books. A lot of these questions seem to be leading to: is Baen going to raise ebook prices? We don’t have any plans to now, but I won’t rule it out for the future. Part of being small and nimble is the ability to change quickly as circumstances change. It may well be that Baen books sold through third parties will be more expensive than those we sell directly—that’s the function of paying the middleman and the price you pay to extend your reach. But we don’t dictate prices to other retailers, and we won’t to them. I’m certainly willing to try different things. If somebody finds a way to do it better, we’ll adjust.

Recently, Baen "rescued" two e-book series, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller’s Liaden stories and P.C. Hodgell’s Chronicles of the Kencyrath, after their prior publishers Meisha Merlin (for print) and Embiid (for e-books) went under. What led to the decision to take these books on? Was Lee & Miller’s successful "Storyteller’s Bowl" experiment with Fledgling and Saltation a factor?

TW: We had an editor who was a big Liaden fan, and a freelance editor who had recommended Hodgell to me, so I was aware of those authors in a general way. Also, there was a lot of call for the books from our on-line forum, Baen’s Bar. The Barflies thought the Liaden series would make a good fit for our line. I take that sort of input very seriously. And before they ceased operating we’d been in negotiations with Meisha Merlin to distribute their ebooks, so we were already prepared to take on the Hodgell and Lee and Miller anyway. Hodgell was getting ready to write a new book in the Kencyrath series right about then. It seemed like all the forces of the universe were conspiring to give us the opportunity.

Regarding the success of the “story bowl” early publication of Fledgling andSaltation: yes, it was another proof of principle. We knew the authors had their own strong on-line community, there was already support and good word-of-mouth report on the books, and that wasn’t going to hurt our efforts, but supplement them. The obvious follow-on question is “why not do it again?” And the answer is that it takes a lot of effort on the authors’ part to make that model work, and these authors would rather spend that time writing the next book. Most authors do—but not all. You’ll see this model of publishing more, I think, in the future. BUT—it’s very hard to build an audience if you don’t have the reach of a mass market publisher. Not impossible, but hard. It takes a particular kind of personality to enjoy doing that in addition to enjoying writing fiction that a mass market will want to read—and have the professional skills to do both well.

These series were first reprinted as e-book-only omnibus titles before being re-issued as print omnibuses (although it seems the existing Liaden books were reprinted through Ace rather than Baen) with new sequels commissioned. Were the e-book sales of those titles a factor in the decision to commission new books?

TW: Heck yes! It was invaluable marketing research. And we made money for the authors and ourselves doing it. Win all around.

Toni concluded:

TW: I’m not saying that what we do will work for everyone else. They want to try it, that’s their lookout, and the beauty of a free market. But some contributing factors: because we are an independent publishing house (distributed by publishing giant Simon & Schuster), our overhead costs are probably lower than the big guys. Another factor is that our business model is that of the midlist publisher. Yes, we have several New York Times bestsellers a year. But we don’t expect those books to finance all the rest. All our books are expected to pull their weight, and we rely a great deal on our backlist, the long chain of earlier books in series and so on, to act as a profit center. Put another way, we are betting smaller, so our potential losses are smaller, but the upside is smaller, too. But it is a sustainable way of betting. At least so far!

I refer people to Eric Flint’s “Prime Palaver” at the Baen Free Library for an exhaustive discussion of the issues. In a nutshell, the problem of the midlist author or publisher is not piracy, but lack of exposure. If you like alternate history but don’t know about the 1632 series you can’t buy the books from Baen. So I want to spread the word by any means possible, I want to reach as many readers as possible. So we post extensive partial samples of books, we post partial samples of series (i.e. entire novels) at the Baen Free Library, we distribute CDs with tons of free books in selected hardcovers a couple times a year, we send out review copies to reviewers and booksellers. I hand out free books at conventions.

I have faith in my product: if you read it, you will like it and want more. And if you find you don’t like what I do, I’ve still not alienated a reader who’s been forced to pay for something they don’t like. Plenty of people who like Mercedes Lackey won’t go for Tom Kratman and I publish them both (which means, btw, that I do enjoy them both). This way the reader is more likely to try something new from Baen again—and if I don’t get you with one author or title, maybe I’ll get you on the next one.

The other side of the coin is that Jim Baen didn’t believe our readers are thieves and neither do I. I believe they will buy the book when they have the money. And I don’t believe our readers are ignorant. The understand TANSTAAFL. Our readers understand that we can’t continue to find great books and the authors continue to write them if we don’t get paid. So we don’t treat our readers badly by trying to micromanage the use of the ebooks, and we have been amply rewarded for that trust.

Thanks to Toni Weisskopf for participating in this interview!


  1. “My goal is to make more readers for my brand. ANY sale has the potential to do that.”

    Very wise words.

    Too bad you guys aren’t a mystery publisher. That’s really more my thing than sci-fi. There is an exercise video instructor (my other hobby) who is like this for me—I have met her, she is a lovely person and I very much like what she does and that sort of thing, but she just doesn’t *do* my thing…

  2. Nice interview, thanks.

    One other note here not mentioned: the big pub’s claim that printing costs are a small proportion of their costs. Baen probably pays the same printing costs as the big boys, but with offices outside Manhattan, fewer editors, and (I’m guessing) smaller expense accounts and lower overall pay, Baen’s proportionate costs of printing will be much higher — simply because total costs are lower.

    The moral of the story is: big pubs need to get out of Manhattan and cut expenses if they want to offer ebooks at prices we are willing to pay.

    — asotir

  3. The only disadvantage I see to the Baen approach is that it makes selling in the Kindle Store impractical. This is because Amazon requires the best price, so a $6 ebook from Baen would have to list for $6 on the Kindle.

    The reason I mention the Kindle Store is that it is the only ebook site with enough traffic to make it likely that sales are significantly hurt by not being there. Also, many Kindle owners buy exclusively from Amazon.

  4. @Alan Wallcraft: Baen does have a way to sell directly to Kindle owners: via email side-loading. You can buy the book via browser and they’ll email it straight to your kindle. It’ll incur a minor bandwidth fee but it’ll get there.

    The only real obstacle is the customer *knowing* about Baen. But then, if you’re into Science Fiction *and* ebooks you *will* know about Baen. It also helps that Baen print books are in Amazon’s system so, one way or another, Kindle SF readers will sooner or later find their way to Baen.

  5. A breath of fresh air, this interview.
    A publisher that is actively engaged with its authors and its customers and is actively looking for ways to serve the needs of both? What a movelty!
    A publisher that understands what business it is in, selling stories, and what it takes to build brand loyalty for themselves and their authors? Who knew!

    I knew they got it but such a lucid and concise summation of the facts… Color me mightily impressed.

    Three things stand out:

    Ms Weisskopf quoted ebook royalty rates at double the hardcover rate. Which, given the reported 50% price cuts on Hardcover retail prices brings them pretty much in line, rate-wise.

    The open acknowledgment that DRM adds cost to the product, something the BPHs gloss over in their self-serving ebook (fantasy) pricing breakdowns (much as they gloss over and hide their corporate overhead costs).

    The candid admission that they will do whatever it takes to adapt and survive whether it be explore new formats, media, or business models or, if need be, to raise prices. The latter in particular is a *good* sign in my eyes because I have wondered for a while, as I’m sure others have, just how long-term sustainable might be their current model of fair pricing and trusting their customers. (Its a harsh world out there.)

    Me, I hope the model takes them far, far into the future but I don’t want to see their model ever getting in the way of what I see as their main mission: delivering good stories to me. 😉

    They have stored up enough goodwill and brand equity with me that if they tell me they need to raise ebook prices to compete, I’m more likely to believe them than I would another publisher.

    Its a matter of trust and they have so far earned mine. Now if only other publishers would wise up.

    Mind you, some do reasonably well by their customers; DRM-aside, Harlequin seems to get it, too. Others are trying, even if they are decades behind…

    Who knows, maybe the scorched-earth war can be avoided…

  6. When I had no money, I read from the library and friends. As I got more money, I bought from used book stores. When I had enough money, I would buy new. As I ran out of space, I would buy new and when finished, give it to friends to add to their bookcase.

    I find that when I have money, I stop watching the pennies and buy what I like. Baen has impressed me over the years and really built my trust in them with their attitude about how to run their business. I don’t take advantage of all the things Baen offers but I feel very good that they are available for me if I want to. I find I will smile when a book I want to buy has the Baen logo on it. I will probably keep buying Baen books without a second thought (assuming they are books I like) unless there is some huge change in the way they do things.

    I never thought I would have brand loyalty to a publisher but Baen has earned it. This is the result of having free books available.

    And I am soooo happy Lee and Miller are with Baen now. I love their work so much I do everything I can to support them including buying multiple copies and exposing friends to them. And I found my first book of theirs in a used book store. Just goes to show.

  7. “The open acknowledgment that DRM adds cost to the product, something the BPHs gloss over in their self-serving ebook (fantasy) pricing breakdowns (much as they gloss over and hide their corporate overhead costs)”

    So one of the interesting questions is: How expensive is DRM for ebooks?

    = Chasm

  8. Thank you, Chris Meadows and Toni Weisskopf, for this insightful and interesting interview.

    I credit Baen Books with converting me to ebook reading. In the hardcover edition of At All Costs (2005) they include a CD with pretty much all of David Weber’s previous novels, not just the ones in the Honor Harrington series. An irresistible bargain and, as I read novel after novel, on my computer and PDA, I found that I didn’t miss having a physical book in my hand. Once I got a dedicated e-ink ebook reader (Cybook Gen3) two years ago the conversion was complete. I haven’t bought a single physical book since then. Thank you, Baen.

    The other side of the coin is that Jim Baen didn’t believe our readers are thieves and neither do I. …

    Because of that respect given to me, and the fact that DRM-free purchases can be re-downloaded in perpetuity as I change my reading device, I go to first when looking for something new to read. My only regret is that Baen’s forte is military SF and alternate history, not my favorite sub-genres (aside from an odd addiction to Honor Harrington). I wish there were more SF and Fantasy offerings outside that focus.

  9. I’ve found in my own experience that because of the trust Baen gives to it’s readers that I will go and buy the books when I have the money. They’re very good at getting me hooked to a series with their free samples or even whole free books and after I start I often end up collecting them when I have the money.

    I find that if I’m in a library or a bookstore the first thing I’ll look for is books with the baen publishing symbol on the spine. And the authors themselves seem to like to interact with their readers. John Ringo is one that I have contact with quite often and some of the others are just as interactive.

    Toni doesn’t mind when they snippet portions of their books that are still in progress and I have to say that the process of snippeting has definitely wrung some e-ARC sales from me.

    I hope they continue to reward the trust us readers have developed in them.

  10. @Ted R: I’ve found a fair amount of variety in the Baen Webscriptions and while it is true their highest-visibility authors are known for their work in the combat sf/space opera or alternate history sub-genres, they offer plenty of quality stories beyond those areas.

    (For example, they’re carrying several of Robert A. Heinlein’s legendary juveniles, as well as one of the al time great SF romps; THE WITCHES OF KARRES, the classic COLD EQUATIONS in a Tom Godwin anthology; Keith Laumer’s droll RETIEF and Imperium, even some clasic pulps.)

    You might want to check out Rik Spoor’s BOUNDARY, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga (MOUNTAINS OF MOURNING is in the Baen Free Library) especally the MEMORY/MILES IN LOVE 4-novel arc (I reread A CIVIL CAMPAIGN reguarly just for the humor: its an SF Comedy of Manners like Jane Austen might be writing if she lived today. ;-))

    Or check out some of their high fantasy and urban fantasy offerings.

    As good as Baen is at getting the word out, the breadth of their catalog (genre-wise) still goes under-reported. Take a closer look; you might be surprised at what you find.

    Have fun! (I did.)

  11. I bought the first webscription back in the day. That’s how I discovered many of my favorite writers (Flint, Ringo, Moon). Jim raised prices when the patrons of the bar told him he should (from $10 to $15 for a webscription order). When I have the money, I blindly buy all webscriptions. Common, $15 for 4+ books? That’s better than paperback prices.
    One thought on DRM, the guys that pirate books would never buy them anyway, and DRM schemes are broken with impunity. Waste of money and time.

  12. Felix Torres: Yep, I’m aware of the existing variety outside military SF and alternate history. Problem is I’ve gone through most of them either many years ago (e.g. Heinlein) or more recently up to the very latest (Saltation, Sorceress of Karres eARCs). I want more. Call me greedy.

  13. Baen does fantastic work, I buy their earcs, then I end up buying the hardback anyway. While I don’t mind reading on computer, I like the physical book as much if not more.

    The prices are good, the response and connection to their customers at Baen’s Bar is phenomenal… while I tend to be a lurker rather than a poster, I do get a lot of information from the website.

    I always recommend Baen to my friends.

  14. I’m currently waiting eagerly for the new book by Lee and Miller “Mouse and Dragon” to come out in EArc. So I can buy it and devour it. I also have already bought the Webscription month with that book in it, and I’ll be buying it when it comes out as a physical book. So Baen, Lee & Miller are all getting money 3 times this year from me for one book.

    I blame it all on their model of selling books. And hey I can kick back and read it early on my IPod touch.

  15. Chasm asked: “How expensive is DRM for ebooks?”

    I only know an answer for Adobe Digital Editions, where it costs $5000 for the Content Server 4 software, $1500 per year for access to Adobe’s digital signing server, and then $0.22 for every ebook sold.

    So if you sold 200,000 ebooks in your first year, you’d have spent just over $0.25 per book on the DRM.

    Of course, if you only sold 10,000, that would be $0.87 per ebook.

    Even $0.25 would be quite a large percentage of a $6 purchase price (just over 4%). And consider a webscription month – 6+ ebooks for $15. To add ADE would cost Baen $1.50, or 10%!

  16. i found the baen website through a Mercedes Lackey novel by typing a search for the publishers something i have done often. And i find as i have sony ereader i buy ebooks from baen then when i find the physical book i buy that as well. Through them i have found authors you cant find too easily in the UK. I wish others would follow their lead. their way of working gets people from other countries to buy as well.
    ps got to have the real book as well ereaders dont like the bath.

    • I’ll never be able to figure out why people continue to think “ereaders don’t like the bath”. They like the bath more than paper books do. You can put an e-reader in a water-tight ziplock baggie and still be able to turn the pages while you read with no harm; you can’t turn pages in a paper book without getting water spots on them.

  17. And from the author POV, I’m quite happy with Baen’s Webscription sales. Most of my fans who buy them do it for traveling, and still buy a paper copy. And if not, I make enough royalties off the e-copy to compensate. No loss of income.

    Baen also puts novels up in the Baen Free Library, including one of mine. I get at least one new reader a week from that exposure.

  18. the only reason I don’t have an e-reader is the DRM stuff – but when I can get my desktop to co-operate I will still consider a baen download, because I know it will run! – doesn’t stop me buying the “real” version in hardback, though.

    And please keep posting the “free” advance chapters – it helps me to know when to pre-order from my local bookstore and when I am content to wait for the delivery.

    BTW – will there be a 3rd liaden unibus? I saw “Dragon Tide” was only bundled with another book which I already had, and I know there is at least one chapbook since then.

  19. Like Mike above, I’m also a Baen author. Personally I love the e-books and the E-Arcs. Like he said, we still get paid solid royalties for them, and fans often buy hard copies as well. Toni encourages snippiting and openly communicating with our audience.

    Plus, Toni is a pleasure to work for.

    And Ted, if you’re looking for something not mil-SF from Baen e-books, I’ve got some contemporary fantasy over there… I’m just saying… 😉

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