Free wants to be be free (and paid)


Free! on iTunes.

I’ll hand this to Chris Anderson and his publishers (Hyperion in the U.S., Random House in the UK). They aren’t just talking the talk about his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. (As the book is being rolled out in different ways in different countries, not everything I’m writing here is applicable everywhere.)

They — and I say they because I’m assuming the pricing strategy of this book had to be a group effort — have simultaneously launched a book that has absolutely no discount when purchased from (Amazon retail price: $26.99, although, some Amazon “merchants” are offering discounts off of retail), however, as I write this, the un-discounted, paid version of the book is the #1 selling business book on Amazon.

At the same time, the book is available for free at a wide array of places and formats, including as a free audiobook download on iTunes. The book was already available for free as an e-book through Scribd, Google Books and other sources. (According to Chris, the book will be is available in now for free also from Amazon’s Kindle Store** and other eBook formats later this week). In the UK, there’s even an advertiser-sponsored* free paperback version of the book.

One of the most interesting pricing strategies is on where the unabridged version is free and the abridged version costs $7.49. Say what? Why is an abridged version more valuable than a full-length version? According to an “author’s note” on the abridged version, “Get the point in half the time! In this abridged edition, the author handpicked the most important and engaging chapters and points, cutting three hours from the length without losing key concepts. Time is money!”

Many years ago, publisher Tim O’Reilly, in writing about the topic of “piracy,” wrote this much-quoted observation: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” To paraphrase Tim, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than giving away something for free.”

Except for a few exceptions, I’d be willing to say that most business book writers make more from appearance and consulting fees that result from the book, than from the book itself. Again, I can think of exceptions to that even as I write it. Chris explains in his book that that is his business model.

This book has been greeted with mixed critical response and a little bit of controversy, but the fact that it is being written about and is available in so many paid and free versions will drown out anything negative that is written about the book. In the end, people are talking about it (the opposite of obscurity) and when you’re in the third meeting in a week where someone quotes a book (as I have been in the past week), you make a note to order it on Amazon when you get back to the office — and pay full retail for the convenience.

*A couple of years ago, I blogged about advertising-supported books, including a late 1980s project called the Larger Agenda Series from Whittle Communications.

**Thanks for the headsup to RexBlog’s go-to expert on all things Kindle, Aaron Pressman.