Diffusing Baen

A few days ago I attended a demonstration and discussion of a new kind of eBook.  Now when most of us talk about eBooks we mean digital only texts; texts as downloadable files to be read on electronic media, the literary equivalent of the MP3 (ignoring the endless and tiresome format nightmare).  However Proboscis, a fascinating and rather wonderful "artist led studio" specialising in digital media, have a different idea. Their Diffusion Generator keeps the idea of a download, but then switches into a print on demand product that allows you to print from any home printer and then fold into a pamphlet. Designed principally as a self publishing tool Proboscis have been running trials of the product on a number of projects, looking at how it might work in the context of anything from helping African schools to acting as a creative tool for writers.  It could really work for small organisations; there is clearly huge potential for interesting, and useful, experiments. The key factor here is that the Diffusion Generator lets anyone create and design the eBooks, giving poetry societies and classes alike a publishing tool. Critical to the idea was retaining that physical sense of bookishness- hence the ingenious folding mechanism, and design capabilities,  that elevates the product above a simple print out.  While the commerical import of the Diffusion eBooks may be limited, it does to a certain extent democratize some of the publishing process and could be enormously helpful in a variety of contexts.  Its also an intriguing instance of a bifurcation in publishing, whereby the mainstream channels are dominated by an ever shrinking number of mega conglomerates on the one hand, whilst the potential for (diffused) publishing is hugely expanded by the growth of self publishing tools from blogs to Lulu to the Diffusion Generator itself. Tor UK author Charlie Stross was also in town.  As well as being one of the world's pre-eminent SFF authors Stross is a renowned expert on digital issues and has been eloquent and influential in his denunciation of eBook DRM, going so far as to offer his novel Accelerando for free online under a Creative Commons licence, where it was downloaded over 20k times in the first weekend of being posted, followed by some big sales figures for the book itself.  Stross argues against DRM from a user perspective: DRM makes it hard, very hard, to read the stuff that you have paid for.  Stross is also an advocate Baen.com. Baen Books, a SFF specialist publisher in the US, is probably one of the only trade publishers in the world to make serious money from its digital products.  Baen dispenses with some of the standard models of trade publishing, for example selling monthly bundles of four new novels for $15. This "webscription" system, pioneered by Baen,  seems to be a sucess.  They will happily give books away if they believe that is the right thing- say a series is well advanced Baen might give away the first novel as a way of bringing in new readers.  Another Baen idea is selling original, unedited manuscripts for download at a very decent price indeed- it indulges fans keen to get under the skin of a book or writer and simultaneously opens up a new revenue stream.  In short Baen are doing everything other publishers are talking about but holding back from- slicing and dicing content, bundling content, not bothering with prohibitive DRM, giving things away for free or pricing their digital products in a range people seem to find acceptable, opening spaces for their customers to say what they want and keeping an open, electronic channel for new authors. There is a lot to be learnt.