Baen's Bar, A Successful Community, by Walt Boyes

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Baen's Bar, A Successful Community
by Walt Boyes

I want to share a case study with you.

This is about making a profit selling ebooks. That's right. Somebody is out there, breaking all the rules, and making a profit selling ebooks.

His name is Jim Baen, and he publishes science fiction and fantasy. I've been watching the great Baen Webscriptions experiment for two years now, and I can report that it is working, and according to Jim, it is making money.

Here is how it happened.

Like every other publisher, Baen set up a website. But several of his authors and fan friends convinced him to put a chat client on his site. Since he was interested, and since several of those authors (like Jerry Pournelle, former columnist for Byte Magazine, for instance) were very Internet savvy, he did. The chat client grew into an incredibly vibrant community called Baen's Bar. There, that's that "community" word again.

Baen's Bar is quite different from the websites of other publishers: Baen, his editors, and many of his authors actually frequent the chatrooms daily, host their own forums, and are quite open and friendly, and "just folks." Of course, if you are friends with an author, you run out and buy his or her books in hardback right away...and, oh my, Baen's hardback sales have increased tremendously. Baen's Bar has several thousand active members, and averages over 900 posts a day in all of its forums.

Baen got an interesting idea about two + years ago: He suggested to his authors that they should post "snippets" of works in progress, to get continuity checks, reality checks, historical and logical consistency checks, and, oh yeah, to whet appetites for the books when they finally came out.

Baen's community convinced him to start offering the books as ebooks by subscription. Hence, "Webscriptions." Starting the second month before publication, you can download the books in sections, and finally, 30 days before they hit the stores, you can download the entire month's releases in several different, totally unencrypted, ebook versions, for a total of $15.

That's right...Baen uses no encryption at all.

You get an average of 5 brand new books in RTF, palm, PocketPC and HTML versions, for $15.

It used to be $10. Two months ago, Baen's community convinced him that he wasn't charging enough for the books and asked him to raise the price $5 a month!!! They also convinced him to start allowing them to purchase individual books instead of the whole lot at $5 each.

Baen also decided to produce a Free Library, where you can download many very fine books by authors such as David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, and Eric Flint, absolutely for free, with no encryption. One of the first things that happened when Baen posted the first David Weber book in the Free Library, was that sales of the "dead tree backup" went up by 100%. People who had never read the book read it or parts of it online and then went out and bought it, and its successor volumes in the 10 volume series it is the first of.

Baen broke even on Webscriptions in the first year, and has made a small, but steady profit off the project ever since. He can show increased sales of all his books, that are directly related to Webscriptions sales.

In addition, since there are several thousand people who have already read the book when it hits the stores, he has an army of viral marketers who post reviews on Amazon, and hit the chain bookstores special ordering the hardbacks on the first day of availability. This has started to boost the number of Baen bestsellers.

One of the most interesting of Baen's uses of community is his counter to the fact that midlist authors are hard to push. Baen encourages his midlist authors to participate actively in the Bar community, and sales of Baen's midlist books have steadily increased, because people get to know them, see snippets of their work, and they buy books they probably never would have ot herwise.

Finally, the incidence of piracy of Baen ebooks is so small it is insignificant. A recent exchange on the usenet newsgroup Rec.Arts.SF.Written is illustrative. A poster asked for a pirate ebook copy of one of Baen's books. Immediately a half-dozen people posted back saying, "Go buy it at Webscriptions, you cheapskate!"

The lessons to be learned from Baen's example are several. First, there is no underestimating the power of community. Second, you have to spend the time, personally, to grow and brand your community. Third, openness about your business goals and your inner workings with your community leads to synergy. Fourth, give, and you shall get.

As an observer (and, admittedly, as a Baen's Barfly) I can only say that Jim hasn't made any obviously major mistakes with his online presence and his community and his ebook publishing business.

Walt Boyes is a Marketing Practice Consultant. He does Strategic marketing, sales and electronic business consulting for the small and medium-sized enterprise:

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