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Digital books: Free is a very good price

July 7, 2009 |  1:30 pm

Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson Credit: Hyperion Books.

Musicians want to be heard. Actors need to be watched. Writers like to be read. And what better way to get an audience than to make these works free? But artists also need to eat. How to reconcile?

Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail" and Wired magazine's editor in chief, says the two are not mutually exclusive. He's also putting his money where his mouth is. The 47-year-old Berkeley writer is giving away his latest book, titled "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" and published by Hyperion Books.

More precisely, he's letting people read the entire book free till Aug. 10 on Scribd, a site that lets authors set their own price for digital copies of their works. The book's title aside, the giveaway is not as radical as it seems. In fact, it's perfectly rational, Anderson said in an interview.

"The book is about making money from free," he said. "I felt it was important to walk the talk."

For one thing, his book is free for only a month, after which readers will have to buy it (the hardback version retails for $17.99 on Amazon.com). Secondly, it can't be downloaded on Scribd; readers have to read the free version online. This fits with the "freemium" model -- give away the basic version to build your initial audience, then sell them premium features, such as the ability to download the book or having a physical copy.

A host of well known online services follow this model, including ...

... Club Penguin, Free Realms and Flickr. And, in his book, Anderson describes an effort by Monty Python's Flying Circus to do the same by launching a free YouTube channel with free videos of their comedy acts. At the end of a video they created to explain their decision, members of the troupe ask their fans to go out and buy the DVD versions of their movies. The stunt worked; within three months of launching the free YouTube channel, Monty Python videos became the No. 2-selling DVDs on Amazon.com, with sales soaring 23,000% in that time frame.

"If we believe that the physical book is the premium version, because it looks good on the shelf or it makes a nice gift, then we should not fear free," Anderson said in the interview. "It exposes people to the book. It should be used for marketing. And I hope that some fraction of them would convert to buyers."

How many buyers? Anderson confesses that he doesn't know the answer. As of 1 p.m. today, less than 24 hours after it was released online, his book has been viewed for free by more than 22,800 readers on Scribd. 

"We're in uncharted territory," he said. "And my publisher has taken a leap into the dark and unknown with me. We're betting it's going to pay off."

But wait, there's more. Anderson created two audio versions of his book, a three-hour abridged recording and a full-length, six-hour version. One of them is free. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Anderson would give away the shorter version. Wrong.

"The six-hour one is free," he said. "If I can give you 90% of the book in half the time, I’m giving you back three hours of your life. Time is money."

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

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