Why I gave my book away for free

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 9:40 AM

My new book, FREE: The Future of a Radical Price, is about a counterintuitive notion: that you can make money by giving things away. Actually, it’s pretty surprising that is still controversial, given that it’s the foundation of the long-standing broadcast media model (radio and television are “free to air”, supported by advertising) to say nothing of the billions in profit made every year by my hosts here at Google. But Free is perhaps the most misunderstood four-letter word beginning with “F” in the English language, which is why I wrote a book about it. The debate the book has sparked is evidence of how polarizing and disruptive the concept still is.

Needless to say, a book called “FREE” should be free. Not necessarily free as in speech, but free as in beer: not libre, but gratis. It would be hypercritical, to say nothing of cowardly, to argue that you can make money by giving things away and not practice what I preach with my own book. But as readers of this blog know, the publishing industry does not yet operate on open source grounds, with authors making all the calls. So how and where to make the book free was a negotiation to be had with my publisher (Hyperion, a division of Disney) and retail partners, so that everyone felt they had the potential to benefit if the experiment was a success.

The basic business model of free books is “Freemium”, the combination of free and paid premium versions of a product. Meanwhile, the basic thesis of FREE is that since the marginal cost of bits is close to zero, smart companies should "round down" and use free as a form of marketing to reach the largest possible audience with free samples, ideally upselling potential customers on something else. In this case, it seemed clear that the “premium” form of the book is the physical book, in its atoms form.

As the editor of a dead-tree magazine, I’m often asked whether print is itself dead. It may be for newsprint, but some paper still adds value in an Internet age. What we do with the packaging of photography, design and long-form journalism in the paper version of Wired is still impossible to recreate in HTML, and I feel even more strongly about the physical charms of a hardcover book. As much as I love the convenience of the Kindle, it’s hard to beat the battery life, page resolution, portability, skimability, giftability and sheer shiny beauty of a well-made hardcover, as the bookshelves throughout our home testify. A physical book is an artifact, not just information. My very digital kids feel the same way: they may never read a printed newspaper, but they love physical books as much as I did when I was their age.

After studying what other authors had done with free digital books, my publisher and I decided to make FREE free in as many formats as possible to encourage sampling without competing too much with the premium hardcover. It's free on Google Books, Scribd, the Amazon Kindle (and Kindle iPhone app) and Shortcovers (these are time limited, from one week to one month). The full unabridged audiobook is free at iTunes, Audible.com and as downloadable MP3s at Wired.com (no time limits). Even the physical book will be free, in paperback form in the UK, thanks to deal by which Adobe brands and sponsors the book and BrandRepublic distributes it on request.

The aim of all this is to lower the barrier to entry to sampling the book. Our bet is that Free will expose the book to the largest possible audience, with the hope of converting a fraction of them to paying customers. Obviously, much depends on that sample being a positive experience (judge for yourself) and us being right that many people still value hardcover books as we do. But so far, the evidence seems to be positive. As I write this, a week after publication, about 100,000 people have read the digital book for free on Google Books and Scribd. And, this afternoon, I got word that the book would enter the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller list at #12 in its first week. Maybe, just maybe, Free worked!

Update from the Google Books team: After a one-month trial, Free is now in limited preview on Google Books. We will continue to partner with publishers and authors to explore new opportunities for promoting books on Google for free.


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