Last week, Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, wrote a column (sub req'd) in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Giving Stuff Away on the Internet". It told a cautionary tale of his experiences in free distribution of his cartoons and books online (there's a good summary here). The key passage is this:
A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, "God's Debris," on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, "The Religion War" slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops
Given that I'm writing a book called FREE, exploring the many ways to make money by giving things away for free, you might imagine I'd have thoughts about this. But first let's hear from someone smarter than me, Tim O'Reilly:
We find that making a book freely available can help visibility and sales of a book on a little-known topic, but for a well-known topic or author, who benefits little from the additional exposure (like Scott Adams), it can have a slight cannibalization effect on print sales. So, as a beginning science fiction author, Cory Doctorow used "free" to build his career, while Stephen King found the results of his experiments with free to be disappointing.
I plan to make as many versions as possible of FREE, well, free, starting with the MP3 audiobook and possibly including a sponsored physical book. Is this going to backfire, given that I'm already on the well-known side of the equation?
Well, if all I wanted to do was sell books, it might (although I doubt it, given the usability benefits of the physical form of a serious book. After all, giving away a pdf version of his book on net policy and economics helped Yochai Benkler sell more hardcover books than he would have otherwise. 500+ pages is a lot to print out, to say nothing of reading on-screen).
But I don't just want to sell books. I also want to:
- Write better books. As Adams writes: "Over time, I noticed something unexpected and wonderful was happening with the blog. I had an army of volunteer editors, and they never slept. The readers were changing the course of my writing in real time. I would post my thoughts on a topic, and the masses told me what they thought of the day's offering without holding anything back....At some point I realized we were collectively writing a book, or at least the guts of one." Free content catalyzes conversations.
- Expand and promote an idea, which is not just something I believe in but will also benefit me and my magazine by association.
- Give speeches, customizing my analysis and research for specific companies and industries. The free book is simply marketing for that, which can be more lucrative than book royalties.
- And who knows what else? Free distribution will put the book, in one form or another, into the widest number of hands possible. I'm not quite sure how I'll monetize that reach, if I can at all. But the problem of making money indirectly from attention seems like a great problem to have.
Note that Scott Adam is not a critic of free--he's a free pioneer, putting his strip online at a time when others were charging for theirs, and he also reaps rich psychic rewards: "After 18 years of writing Dilbert comics, I was itching to slip the leash and just once write 'turd' without getting an email from my editor." Adams may not need more money, but we all need more freedom to do what we want to do.
Unlike simply selling what we make, free requires creative thinking about how to make money around what we make. That is, as Adams says, "complicated". Which is why I think there's a book in it.