Aussie sci-fi author David Freer on eBooks, DRM and Bass Strait internet


Darryl Adams is a government worker and internet tragic. A former IT worker, he still pines for the days of IBM keyboards that go CRUNCH and the glow of green screens. He can be found on on Twitter or on Facebook. Check out his site for more articles about e-book readers, retailers, formats and news (or will have when Darryl can be drawn away from reading Delimiter). The views expressed here do not reflect the views of his employer, the ATO.

He recently spoke with Dave Freer, a South African writer and ichthyologist, who in a recent quest to find a more remote place found himself moving to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. His first book was The Forlorn published in 1999 (Baen) and has released books with both Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey (the latest Much Fall of Blood (2010 Baen), being the fourth book in the Heirs to Alexandria alternative history books). His last solo book was Dragon’s Ring (2009 Baen).

Do you read e-books? If so, how? Any preferred device?

I read happily on screen with my normal PC and have for years. Never found it difficult — ergo not the best person to ask :-) As a Baen author I can access all the webscription books.

All of your books so far have been released by How do you feel about their e-book philosophy of no DRM and no format restrictions?

DRM and format restrictions = either pure stupity or a hidden agenda. To put it in ordinary retail terms — it’s supposed to be a measure to control ‘shoplifters’ who never buy anything from your shop, but steal just because they can and it’s mildly exciting for them. The value of the stock they take away is zero (because you still have it, and they would not buy it even if you succeeded in stopping them stealing).

Taken on those terms it of course makes perfect sense to make life difficult and unpleasant and expensive for your legitimate customers … and all you’ve achieved is to make it MORE exciting and fun for the shoplifters. You’ve gained not a penny and achieved absolutely nothing except to alienate your paying customers by treating them like thieves. That translates as … not terribly intelligent, in my opinion.

Of course if your agenda is actually to erode the normal purchase conditions (where a buyer buys an item, where after it is his forever, to use and dispose of at his discretion) and to lock the purchaser into a proprietary device/software with built in obsolescence — a fairly vile agenda IMO, then DRM makes logical sense. However, that’s probably too devious for anyone but a writer, and this is just badly thought through folly.

What’s more I object to getting the blame and taking the damage for something that does me no good, that I don’t want, but I have no say in. If you have one of my books, which you happen to love … with DRM and you want to move to a new device, or your reader dies — you are faced with a situation where YOUR library, which you paid me a very small amount for, and the publisher and retailer a great deal for, is locked away from you.

If you want it back, you have to search for an illegal locksmith and break into your own property (which is also deemed illegal). And, because my name is on the cover, you’ll think this was MY doing? DRM has no benefits for readers or writers, and it can be argued no honourable benefit for publishers or retailers either. Um. You might gather I really don’t like DRM. My readers are not thieves.

Five of your books are available for free at the Baen Free Library. Has this hampered or enhanced sales?

Enhanced. Eric Flint has run some figures on this, but basically the author’s enemy is obscurity not petty theft. Most of us decent humans actually like to reward writers (or artists or musos) who give us good entertainment. Of course this breaks down when it’s obvious to fans that actually they’re rewarding the middleman — as in the music recording industry.

But people really are willing to reward the creators, and The Forlorn — the second book in the Baen Free Library after Eric Flint’s Mother of Demons continues to sell paper copies — about a 100 a year — which is 10 times what it was selling before it went into the library, and for an 11 year old book by a not particularly well-known author, that’s no longer available anywhere except on order, amazing.

I’m willing to bet that if there was a donate button for each book with a sign saying the money would go directly to the author about 1:5 people would donate (I say this on the basis of having tried a story-teller’s bowl story, Save the Dragons which had about that ratio.) There are always freeloaders, but people are prepared to reward writers — especially if they see that as fair and a way to get the writer to write more.

As a newly minted Aussie, have you looked at the Australian book marketplace? Do you have any agreements with UK/SA/AUS publishers to release your books into Commonwealth markets, or does Baen have worldwide rights? And is this an issue?

I love being a new minted Aussie. Thank you :-) Baen have worldwide rights and really really need to start selling those rights. It is an issue as far as I am concerned, as it severely curtails my readership and income — both of which are really important to me. I write to be read, and I don’t do the living off the land bit for entirely idealistic reasons :-)

It’s one of the few areas I have some disagreement with my publisher. Let’s be fair here, it is also seems to be some petty payback to Baen by many of the other publishers — as Baen have done what they ought to have done, and that doesn’t make them look good. I’m sure readers don’t realise this, and of course writers don’t dictate publisher policy.

Australia — I’m still too new to offer a widely informed opinion, but as books here are more expensive (despite a larger reading audience) than South Africa something does not strike me as right. Here is my point of veiw — based I believe on John Campbell – books are competing for beer money as entertainment. If a book costs more than a couple of beers or a movie ticket… they’re not. This is where and why I feel e-books have such potential.

There are major savings in paper, distribution and above all returns (which reduce a publisher’s income by around 45 percent in the normal course of events). These savings should be split between readers (bringing the price down) and writers – as at the moment in excess of 90 percent of the cover price goes to the middlemen, and authors (whom we as readers want to reward) get very little. The average I believe is somewhere around 1/4 of minimum wage – to put the occasional cries of ‘greedy authors’ from readers faced with shocking prices in perspective. This means they can’t write as much as we’d like as they’re usually trying to do a day job. That’s not good for the readers, and what is not good for the reader is not good for the industry.

You are living in the Flinders Island in Bass Strait. Is that even part of Australia? (I Kid) How is access to internet in such a remote location? And how does it compare to the SA experience of notoriously bad net access?

Well, access via 3G here is really not too bad — expensive as I have to cope with Telstra, a company which should consider entering the South African market, and preferably sending some of its staff there on a permanent basis (no, I didn’t have a happy experience with them, now that you mention it). South Africa’s Telkom is cut from a similar mold and my access was appalling dail-up, copper wire — but I got a radio-link to another provider and that was at least more reliable.

As a sci-fi writer, what do you see is the future of books? Will your craft change in 10 years as technology evolves?

Well, Firstly from the writer’s point of view: I see e-books as seriously cutting into the existing publishing model in a number of ways. Some traditional publishers are going to try and stop it and will suffer serious losses (and hurt writers and readers in the process), others, and new startups, will evolve and run with the new technology and do very well. There is still a need for some of the services they can provide very well.

It’s just the era of an effective oligopoly on retail display space is over (which had become core to what publishers provided to authors, whereas originally they provided everything from editing, proof reading (the two essentials they can still provide), printing, marketing, distribution, access to retail space and accounting). Publishers who want to succeed will have to return to offering more to authors and readers and becoming — to consumers — known and trusted brands themselves. Baen have positioned themselves as a trustable brand, and books sell because they’re Baen books. How many other publishers can say that readers buy on their name, and not the names of their authors?

The way publishing does business will have to change – advances – a bane to them — will go. They’re a hangover from 17th century publishing where the lag between writing and final payment of royalties was of necessity very slow. That can now change, along with the need for large advances to cover years (three or more sometimes) of income that the author would have had to wait. Of course, to get rid of advances you’d need you need quick settlement and transparent records, both of which we don’t have now. Still, it’ll be less of a gamble for publishers, and thus better for all.

Then, from the readers point of veiw: I see books themselves changing a great deal. There will for a start be much less of a lag between books. Secondly, the length of books will change — that’s been driven by paper considerations and printing considerations — not on the length a book needs to be. A story is as long as it is: for some authors that’s natuarally about 250 thousand words (a thousand pages more or less)— for others of us (me) a lot shorter. There was a lot of pressure on authors with increasing book prices to write longer books (better value for money for readers that didn’t actually cost much to the rest of the supply chain). This wasn’t good for books or writers or readers. I foresee the return of the novella (a good quick read but with more substance than a short story) — and prices that relate directly to length.

I also see value-added books becoming common — where you can buy the bald e-version really cheap, but for some more money you get various layers of extras – possibly more material, signed paper copies etc. Pre-buying may be a possibility — your favourite author says ‘when I have 1000 pre-orders I’ll write it’ – you’d only pay on receipt, but it becomes very attractive for publishers who have reason to fear uncertainty.

And then I see bundling becoming a vogue too — ‘buy one get one free’ deals with well-known authors used to introduce less known/new authors. I see feedback and book forums becoming a very important part of writer’s lives. We may even see the return of the serial novel. And, as readers are going to be MUCH more a part of the selection process (a good thing IMO, without so much distortion from distribution, retail space and marketing clout, we’re probably going to see a very different and very much broader offering out there.

I would like to thank Dave for taking time out to answer these questions.

Check out Dave’s personal blog and the Freer family adventures on Flinders Island . Also check out the Mad Genius blog where Dave posts about writing (and often e-books) every Monday. Dave’s full Baen catalog can be found here.

Image credit: Baen


  1. Mr. Freer’s views generally echo my own. I’ve been writing computer how-to books — yes, not very interesting, but it does pay the bills — for close to 20 years now and have seen my various publishers stumble over ebook publishing with a main goal of preventing piracy. The result is as Mr. Freer says: frustrated readers dealing with the nightmarish frustrations of Adobe DRM complain to ME about their problems. And still, “cracked” copies of my work appear on pirate sites, put there by people who have no desire to buy or read my work. Result: honest buyers/readers are getting seriously annoyed and having a bad experience while the thieves go about their business unaffected.

    I have been trying hard to convince my primary publisher to ditch the DRM and come up with a more affordable and flexible ebook format. The rise of the Kindle and Apple’s iPad has shaken some sense into them, but is it enough? I don’t think so. At least not yet. They still haven’t seen how ebooks can improve their bottom line

    As an ebook consumer, my main concern is price. I absolutely refuse to pay more for an ebook than a traditionally printed version of the same work. Yet a look at is filled with examples of Kindle books costing more than paperback or even hardcover copies. Why is that? The cost of ebook publishing is much lower than print publishing — once the author, editors, and other production folks are paid, there are no additional costs for paper, printing, storage, and shipping. Returns are not an issue. Distribution costs are minimal once a delivery system is set up. So why are they charging a premium for something that costs less?

    As an author, I’d rather sell 20,000 copies of a work at a lower price than 10,000 copies at a higher price. Doing the math with my royalty rates results in nearly the same income — possibly even more, depending on the sales price. But with twice as many readers of a work, there’s twice as many people who might look for my NEXT work. That helps me stay clear of the obscurity that can destroy a writer’s ability to make a living as a writer.

    More writers need to speak out about this. I’ve blogged about it several times, but unless we ALL speak up and make our voices heard, the few of us who do say something will be unheard, like so many tiny buzzing insects in our publishers’ ears.

    Thanks for this.

    • +1, this seems to be a common experience among authors at the moment. Publishers appear unwilling to shift from their current business model, and retailers are charging a premium for access to eBooks because of their ‘new’ nature, despite the fact that they actually cost less to produce.

      In my view, it is going to be a new generation of authors who will do much of their own publishing and distribution online, who will challenge the current publisher monopoly.

      Hopefully I will be one of them one day ;)

  2. I am beginning to see this happen. Since my blog has been live I found that everyone hates the publishers except the publishers.

    However, if Amazon and Apple take the market over, it is not much of a win for the authors.

    The other option is for a plethora of small press e-book retailers, and I see that starting too.

    However, publishers can still offer a service, if they where not so eager to hold onto a dying business model.

    I have no idea where this is going

  3. David Freer is spot on: DRM does nothing to stop ‘shoplifters’, and annoys the living hell out of legitimate customers.

    The Baen Books approach is interesting, taking a sampling strategy. I downloaded one of the free books from a Baen author, and enjoyed it enough that halfway through the book I downloaded the second freebie, and happily paid full-price purchased the third in the series. Plus I fully intend to buy the rest as I work my way through them.

    It’s a sample of one, but it shows the model can work.

  4. This is where I came in, I found this site searching about after the release of the Kobo and thought naively I’d get an e-reader for myself for an upcoming birthday. After everythingl I read and looked at I decided that the publishing industry could survive a while longer without me adding anything to their bottom line. Way too damn complicated and restrictive. Not to mention the prices of e-books and the little gadgets to read them on, $500 for a little pad whatsit, come on, I can buy a laptop for that… so I’m out till things improve for me the book reader/buyer.

    I wish more published authors would speak up like this, perhaps especially a few somewhat famous ones, maybe a forum on that ABC book show or something. Seriously people (publishing types) get yourselves together and sort it before technology rolls you.

    I love the idea, I want to do it, but no way right now and that means most likely another year or so and that’s possibly a $1,000.00 or more they do not get through the till. I do not have the space any more for bookshelves full, Lifeline got them. Right now even if I wanted to I can’t give Lifeline an e-book.

    Grrrr Frustrated and cranky and I very much suspect I am FAR from alone.


  5. If everyone hates them, then we should hope it is going towards dead publishers.

    Particularly the overcharge us rump-of-the-Northern-Hemisphere-parent variety.

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