Why Free Isn’t Free – Or At Least, Not Really

Chris Anderson announced two days ago that his new book, Free, would be released free to the unwashed masses, beginning with an upload to the online document site Scribd. When I first linked to it two days ago the Scribd site worked fine and I was able to read it all the way through to page 23 on the site’s online reader. That experience is no longer possible. As of yesterday Free is no longer free for all: it is currently available in the US and to US citizens only; other people, like me, from countries outside the US will have to make-do with a most unwelcoming Free page from Scribd:

Free, by Chris Anderson, on Scribd

I don’t like this, of course, though I don’t think Anderson’s got any say in the matter: he blogged recently to confess that he’s limited by the way global book-rights work, and that there’s nothing he can do about it at the moment. Here’s a thought, though: why not publish the digital versions of Free under a Creative Commons license, distribute that through as many publisher-sanctioned channels as possible, and then reap the benefits this liberalization would bring to both him and his publisher? I cannot answer that question, nor can I profess to know the minds of the publishing people behind Hyperion … but it’s worked for several books published by (now defunct) The Friday Project, and I’m sure it can work for Free.

But … Why Publisher Sanctioned?

Notice that I suggested publisher sanctioned channels of distribution, and not JUST channels of distribution. This slight distinction brings us to the topic of today’s post, which is, namely: if you make something free, and you allow users access to downloaded copies of your work, should you encourage file sharing between users and prospective new readers? Should you mind, even if you’re not in this for the money?

The short answer to that is yes, you should; but the long answer is no, you shouldn’t. And I think it’s pretty obvious, what I’m going to tell you today, but the right answer to the above question also depends on why you’re writing and publishing on the Internet. Let’s begin with the basics: the first thing that springs to mind when we’re talking about file sharing is piracy, and recently Gavin Williams and John/RavenProject had a discussion on Novelr about whether sharing an already free file was considered piracy.

I didn’t have a good answer back then, but I do have one now – and the answer is yes. Let’s face it: why are things free on the Internet? Things are free on the Internet because people expect things to be free, and because they expect things to be free you get more eyeballs whenever you meet this expectation. This is a remarkably old economic truth, to be honest: people are attracted to free things regardless of whether you’re talking about baubles or condoms, and free things on the Internet are, quite frankly, irresistible. (I’ve lost track of the number of ebooks I’ve downloaded as a direct result of the writer making it a limited-time offer, so go figure).

But the thing about offering free products is that you’re not really expecting zero returns. Free downloads earn you human attention, and human attention is the real currency of the Internet. You may not consider it particularly valuable, nor may you consider it particularly helpful when the landlord comes knocking for the rent, but publishers and independent content producers would do well to sit up and take notice of this untapped resource – human attention usually leads to community, and community in turn leads to a captive audience … always a good thing to have on hand if and when you finally decide to monetize your online efforts.

If you’re a one-man show it would make sense to distribute things for free and remain ambivalent to torrenting/filesharing amongst your users. You will, after all, gain hopeful readers. But if you’re a publisher, or if you’re in this for the long-run – serious no shit I want to make money kinda long run – then controlling your free distribution matters as much as making your products free in the first place. File sharing builds no community. Stay away from it.

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Category: Making Money · Publishing