Summer reading: Will Free be a bestseller or a long tailer?


Free (the
book’s name,
not its price)

The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell has a review (preview?) of his fellow Conde Naster, Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson‘s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Like Anderson’s previous blockbuster book, The Long Tail, the new book started out as a Wired magazine cover story — so the ideas he puts forth in it have had lots of time for debate and pre-first guessing (or whatever you call sped-up second-guessing) in the blogosphere and elsewhere.* Also, as the original article was written before the economic meltdown, it will be interesting to see how a gut-wrenching recession may have altered the reaction the book will receive in the marketplace when it is officially released next Tuesday, July 7.

The publisher has reportedly already printed 80,000 copies of the book, so there’s a lot of cash riding on a book called free that costs $26.99 retail ($17.81 on Amazon).

In any discussion of the “power” of free (its marketing power was known long before the advent of the internet), there seems always to be a lot of rehashing of brands and products that have included “free” in their business models over the years: Think Gillette — give the razor away free, make money on the blades. Or think of almost anything one provides “free” that results in an indirect benefit rather than a direct benefit. My current favorite personal debate along these lines has to do with paid vs. free wifi. While all hotels and airports understand the value of providing the comfort of free air conditioning and restrooms to their passengers and guests, why do some hotels and airports not extend such logic to free wifi access to the internet while others do? Obviously, the answer has to do with the understanding by those airports who provide free wifi that the return on that “free” comfort/service is far greater than the licensing fee revenue they receive from selling internet access. Here’s one: One will arrive early at an airport with free wifi knowing they can be productive while waiting. More time that means more money spent in the shops and restaurants in the airport. Conversely, if one travels a lot and encounters paid wifi in airports and hotels, the value of purchasing a wireless 3G modem from a cell-phone carrier becomes easily apparent. (The current favorite public debate over this topic is free vs. paid content from newspapers — a topic Gladwell focuses on.)

What benefit do I get out of posting this item for free — or of doing anything on this blog that gives away ideas or suggestions I run across that may help someone — even a competitor — do something they may charge others for.

Well, hmmm. Let’s think.

Once I got an e-mail from Chris Anderson asking if it would be okay if he gave my name to a publishing group who wanted him to speak about how “the long tail” might affect magazine and journal publishing. As it was a publishing group and he’d read several posts I’d written regarding the book (or maybe the article), he knew I was at least somewhere in the ballpark of correct in explaining the concept to a group of publishers. More important to Anderson, I think he was probably making a few thousand dollars per speech at the time (vs. the “you can’t afford it if you have to ask” levels he makes now) and he knew I’d probably speak to the group for something closer to their budget, say, several one dollars for airfare and a room at a Hampton Inn.

Of course, I spoke. And for that group, I decided to do it for free for the opportunity to one day post (I’m using up that opportunity right now) that I can speak when you can’t afford Chris Anderson. Fortunately, at the meeting, someone heard me who had a specific nugget of information that has turned into a very worthwhile return on my investment of giving something away for free.

The whole notion of “free” is whirling around the media business these days — especially whirling around newspapering executives who want to equate “the business model” of leveraged rolled-up national newspaper chains with some notion of “journalism” or “free press.”

The argument by the rolled-up leveraged media executive is this: Giving away something for “free” always means that something that’s “paid for” will get killed.

I on the other hand, believe this: Free always kills things that are charged for, except when it doesn’t.

It’s sort of like the last line in Gladwell’s review of Anderson’s book:

“The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”

As for whether or not the book will be a big hit? I predict it will, but the money it makes will pale in comparison to the appearance fees Anderson will continue to receive.

*On another front, the book Free has already stirred some controversy over free content included in it without citation. That’s called plagarism when someone I don’t know does it. However, when it’s someone I respect and trust and whose magazine and blog I’ve read for years, I give them the benefit of the doubt when they explain what happened, admit the screwup and take time to explain — not trying to get excused, but to explain — the screwup in great detail.

Update: Anderson responds to Gladwell’s focus on “the future of journalism” debate. Great quote in the post: “My business card says ‘Editor in Chief’ but if one of my children follows in my footsteps, I suspect their business card will say ‘Community Manager.’ Both can be good careers.