Monday, August 03, 2009

Free As In The Book By Chris Anderson

A few weeks ago I read Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

If you don't like reading long reviews/discussions then let's cut to the chase on whether or not I liked it:

Before I even finished reading the book I started seeking out Anderson's The Long Tail. (A book that, over the years, I have discussed multiple times with dozens upon dozens of people and yet haven't actually read yet)

There, you got the gist of the rest of this post. If you wish to stop reading, you got your "Reader's Digest" version -- you can stop now.

I also think that it wouldn't be right to attempt to write a straight-out review of the book -- I'm sure enough straight-out reviews of it will be posted all over. I thought, instead, that I'd talk about the book and offer interesting tidbits taken from the pleasure I got while reading it as well as after.

In terms of readability, the best way I can illustrate that is by looking at how Anderson opens the book. He does so with a reference to Monty Python. (Talk about biasing me in favour of the book) -- but it's not just for fun and to capture your interest -- it nicely illustrates the point he will continually make throughout the book, that free is a reality that goes beyond a mere marketing gimmick.

In 2008, the surviving members of Monty Python created a channel on YouTube in response to the huge extent of digital piracy. Here's some quoted text from their YouTube statement (which Anderson also quotes in full in his book):

"For 3 years now you YouTubers have been ripping us off . . . [snip] . . . Now the tables have turned. It's time for us to take matters into our own hands. . . No more of those crap quality videos you've been posting. We're giving you the real thing . . . And what's even more, we're letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there!"
Typical Monty Python -- silly and brilliant at the same time. It seems counter-intuitive, like the Roman solider in their movie Life of Brian getting Brian to write "Romani ite domum" or "Romans, go home" in Latin 100 times on the fortress walls for using incorrect grammar in his original graffitti. ("Now don't do it again!")

But it worked. Marvelously.

Anderson shows how, at virtually no cost to them (YouTube does offer the bandwidth for free after all) the Monty Python folks turned digital piracy around and generated increased revenues in their brand. And they did it by using free. This is just one of the many fine examples he uses in the book to illustrate how it can be done.

I was about three-quarters of the way through the book (I'd read most of it while flying from Toronto to San Francisco for a book industry business trip) when I was sitting in a room with dozens of campus bookstore directors and managers as well as a handful of VP's from a couple of book and publishing companies in the US.

What I found absolutely fascinating was how many times the people speaking brought up Anderson's concepts brought forth in his book The Long Tail -- and yet in almost the same breath they dismissed the very idea of FREE being something that is viable.

Let me double back to repeat that in case you missed the point.

In 2004 Anderson wrote an article that morphed into a book illustrating the concept of The Long Tail (which basically describes a niche strategy of businesses such as, that sell a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities)

A graph from Chris Anderson's blog illustrating the Long Tail

Sure, statisticians have been studying the concept for over half a century, but Anderson brought the points home in a way that we could see it working within modern business models. And right now, people toss out the phrase "the long tail" as if it were always a given. I found it fascinating that the same people casually tossing this phrase and concept out as if it were a given were also, in virtually the same breath, dismissing Anderson's new book Free.

Some of them seem to have actually read it, and appreciated where Anderson was going with his new book. But most of them didn't seem to grasp the basic concepts that I'm sure we'll be casually tossing out in business meetings in another five years.

Similar to what he did in The Long Tail, Anderson brought together concepts that have been around for a century or more, and again, applies the concepts to our modern and rapidly changing world in an easily digestible package that business folks can absorb and apply.

One of the things I thought he did an excellent job of was illustrating the misunderstanding involved when the word FREE is used. He spends a decent amount of time defining FREE and then continually circling back to ensure four basic concepts of FREE are explored:

Free 1: Direct Cross-Subsidies
Any product that entices you to pay for something else
Free 2: The Three-Party Market
A third party pays to participate in a market created by a free exchange between parties one and two
Free 3: Freemium
Anything that's matched with a premium paid version
Free 4: Nonmonetary Markets
Anything people chose to give away with no expectation of payment

I'm not going to go into details here -- why should I? Anderson wrote an excellent book that dives into each of these models and explores them in wonderful detail. Seek out the book and you can explore them, with Anderson, in detail.

I'm sure that despite Anderson's efforts to find real world examples of these various strategies have worked (and also not worked) in the past and in present business practicies, some readers of the book will continue to scoff. All I can say is: scoff away, gentlemen. It's your loss.

Within my own experiences as a bookseller, I have seen FREE work wonderfully. Giving away free audio and ebook versions of a book boosting hard copy sales within the trade/general books area. And also free pdf versions of textbooks when combined with a REASONABLY PRICED hard copy version of the book -- keep in mind that this model only works when the hard copy is a reasonable price -- the reasonable price has, so far been a result of collaboration with the publisher or author to produce a cost-efficient POD version on the Espresso Book Machine right in my bookstore. When done properly, hard copy sales of the "free" textbook just fly off the shelves and we can barely keep up with the printing, despite the in house "on demand" technology we're employing. (The result, higher sales and more revenues for the bookstore, the publisher and the author)

One final point to make (because I'm getting the feeling this blog post is going on way too long and I should wrap it up), is that I ended up getting a free signed copy of Anderson's new book mailed to me from a blogger/author friend in the U.S. and someone whom I became a fan of BECAUSE he gave his first novel away entirely free via podcasting.

I HAD been planning on purchasing Anderson's book. But I got it for free.

Some of you might be thinking: SUCKER! in terms of me getting a free copy of the book. Anderson just lost a sale of the hardcover. Sure -- I suppose that's true.

But what is one of the first things I opened this post with? Before I even finished Free: The Future of a Radical Price, I went out to purchase The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. So Anderson ended up earning royalties off of me. That's "direct" income.

But beyond that "direct income" -- before Free hit the New York Times and Globe & Mail Bestsellers lists last week, I had already placed the Canadian Bookseller Association "Staff Pick" sticker onto copies of the book in my bookstore. This allows the book to have more attention paid to it. Similarly, I've been talking with lots of people about the book.

I have since also posted short review blurbs on three different book websites before writing this blog post, and am likely to also post reviewish type blurbs in many other spots. Why? Not because I feel I owe Anderson anything for allowing me to get a free copy -- but because I got a lot out of reading the book, and as a book nerd, whenever I get a lot out of a book, I'm eager to share my enthusiasm for that book with anyone who will listen.

Will any of these things affect the sales of Anderson's book? They might. As a bookseller, I like hand-selling books I believe in and have enjoyed, and have at least a minor impact in that way. As a blogger, I'm just one of millions out there contributing content that others absorb -- do I have a following of millions of people? No. But there are people read my blog (both here on this site as well as the Facebook friends who see this blog via an auto-feed into that realm) -- and some of them might be influenced to check out Anderson's book -- so there might be an impact there too.

But these tiny little flickers of light I'm casting out, combined with other tiny little flickers of light out there, not from the big name booksellers or bloggers, but from us little folks, do stand a chance of casting a brilliant spotlight. And even if they don't, if I am able to influence just one person in my immediate social circles to take another look at Anderson's new book, then that alone makes a difference worth noting.

I've rambled on enough here -- suffice it to say that Anderson's book has provided much food for thought, much content for ongoing discussion. It's a book that I recommend. Not to everyone, of course (I won't suggest my five year old son read it, for example, nor my mom, who prefers to enjoy a Harlequin-style escape in the book she prefers -- that's the joy of recommending books -- it's not a blanket experience, but rather a selective one -- matching the right book to the right reader at the right time). But I would certainly recommend this book to business folks, booksellers, publishers and those interested in exploring more about this radical price.

And finally, since I can't think of a better way to end this rambling post, I recently stumbled upon (okay, I didn't stumble upon it -- it came to me via either a RSS feed of a blog I subscribe to, or via a Twitter person I'm following -- likely BOTH) a talk Anderson gave as part of the Authors@Google series. I found it a good way to revisit the book and it's concepts.


Paula B. said...


I will be having a discussion of the book on The Writing Show in the next couple of months. I haven't recorded it yet, but I can tell you that this time I get to give *my* opinion. The short story is this: I hated the book. I hated this book more than any other book I've featured on the show. Ever. Stay tuned for the reasons.

Mark Leslie said...

I'm quite curious to hear your reasons for hating the book, Paula, and, as always, look forward to listening to your awesome podcast.