Free, but not easy – the economics of abundance

piles of books Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired and the man behind the Long Tail hypothesis, takes a look at Scott "Dilbert" Adams as a case-study in the effects of giving away free content. In a nutshell: you can’t always expect a free e-book to promote sales of the hardcopy version, at least not if you’re already well-known, but the increased profile it brings should get you more income from other work.

This is an issue close to the hearts of many sf authors, which seems to be the one field of literature that is really running with the "free novels" ball. Cory Doctorow’s career certainly hasn’t been harmed by it … but then he started out by giving it away, and it’s still too early in the game to be entirely sure how effective a strategy it will be in the long run for writers with established careers. Will those established careers be undermined by the new turks and their freebies, or will the industry benefit as a whole from an influx of new readers?

One thing’s for sure, the economics of the writing business is changing fast. Witness the Hollywood writer’s strike … which Techdirt suggests may backfire quite badly. [Image by Jessie Barber]

3 thoughts on “Free, but not easy – the economics of abundance”

  1. I think the long tail will be good for writers… in the long run. Currently every media company is searching for a workable model. the problem is that the very definition of the long tail makes the media companies obselete: it’s kind of like horseshoe manufacturers being asked to adapt to the combustion engine.

    First with music, then TV, movies and lastly I imagine prose, media is becoming easier to comprise entirely digital existence. The amount of costs this cuts is huge – aside from web hosting and the initial production of the piece, there aren’t any. This means a writer, musician or filmmaker can potentially make a good living charging less from their product. The middlemen at the media companies know their lifestyle is doomed.

    I think eventually the system for payment will be somewhat like that in Cory Doctorow’s novel ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’. Everyone will be plugged into social network software that records what they are listening to, watching and reading, like does currently. People like showing what they’re into, having a large cross-media standard is no big step. the second part of the business model is in channeling micropayments to the highest chart-rated artists. For instance you pay $20 a month for the ability to download any music you like. The greatest proportion of your money is channeled to the artist you have the most play counts for.

    Surveys of music consumption have shown that people who download the most mp3s also buy the most music. The big point people are missing is that the public generally wants to compensate the artists they enjoy – just look at the huge amounts of people choosing to pay for the new Radiohead download despite being given the chance to get it for free. Although some would resist it, I think if people were given the chance to pay a reasonable monthly fee for any content they wanted, the majority would pay it. The internet lets us be more choosy with what we buy – sampling lots then paying for the ones we like most. Using a chart based payment model would do the same whilst still channeling some money to every artist.

  2. Baen Books uses a variation of the free book giveaway that’s worked wonders relieving me of my disposable income. They release the first book of a series as a free ebook. Reader gets hooked and buys the following books of the series.

    They also release the first few chapters of a new book online. If the book is good, reader gets hooked and spends more disposable income on the new book (in hardcover no less).

    Needless to say, I really hate those Baen Books guys…

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