Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy by Chris Anderson for free on the promise to write about the book, because the Bscopes business model is one of those described in this book. Neither Chris nor his publisher dictated the content of our review.
Further dislaimer: As a living example, all of the links to the book on Amazon are affiliate links. So, if after reading my review you want to buy a copy of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, then please use one of our links to buy the book on Amazon. That way Bscopes will earn a little revenue while providing you this blog post for free.
In this book, Chris Anderson traces through the many meanings of the term “free” especially as they apply to the Internet. As a business book, it’s a nice read. I was able to work my way though it over the course of a few days in my (copious) spare time. It clocks in at around 275 pages and alternates between fascinating reading where you want to pour over every word, and repeated information where I felt like a could skip ahead to the next section.
One of the things this book does best is to serve almost as a history text book. It documents, describes and catalogs the different kids of free. A detailed analysis is provided on the 20th century model(s) of free that apply mostly to the world of atoms versus the 21st century model(s) of free that apply to the world of bits. It serves as a great compilation of the early days of free on the Internet right up through Web 2.0. This is invaluable in proving wrong those who say “it can’t be done” by showing how it already has been done. There is a wonderfully detailed section that reproduces many of the most common arguments against “free” that have already appeared and Chris refutes them point-by-point.
The book is a business and case studies text that documents how people have made money using “free”. In addition to a ton or references and citations, Chris’ book does a nice job of tying together information provided in other books that are related including Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational and Seth Godin‘s Unleashing the Ideavirus. For example, he uses Dan’s description of the difference between 1¢ and 0¢ to help explain the uniqueness of free. He also provides detailed information on multiple “case studies” that break down the specific pattern used by that example product or service to earn money using “free”.
Where the book seems to fall down is when it acts as an economics textbook. The analysis and estimates of various market sizes of free are so full of qualifiers, assumptions and weasel words as to render them nearly useless. This effort weakens an otherwise useful section on concepts such as reputation and attention. The shallow and incomplete nature of this part of the book takes away from the thorough style in the other sections. I think it might have worked better to simply describe the incomplete nature of what is known for certain in these areas and then move on.
Much of the book’s content has already been made available online for free. If you’ve been reading Chris’ blog over the past few years, then you’ll have seen the information as it evolved. Even now you can go back and scour those posts and put together the information yourself from the original pieces. Or, if you go to Chris’ blog you’ll find some recent posts describing all the ways you can get an electronic version of the book for free.
In true meta fashion, there are then three markets that this book appeals to and several ways that Chris attempts to monetize each one:
- His faithful blog readers: They’ve already consumed much of the content:
- So they have no need to buy the book unless they are willing to trade $ for their time and convenience.
- Or unless they view the book at a souvenir that they can keep and display
- Or as something they wish to lend or give to others
- New people who heard about the concept and who have the time to obtain the info:
- These people are also willing to trade time to save $. For example, college students.
- They can find an audio version as well as a written version for free on the Internet. So not much revenue, but he’ll gain exposure.
- New people who heard about the concept but lack the time to deal with obtaining all the info:
- These folks are willing to pay for the convenience of having it all in one place.
- They may also be willing to pay for having it in hard copy book form for reading away from the computer screen.
As a content creator, this experiment neatly summarizes the two trade-offs of this free pricing model: A bigger pie (audience), where 2/3 of the audience may obtain the content for free versus and contribute no revenue versus a smaller pie where all of the audience brings in revenue. The first case’s bigger pie is due to the word of mouth, attention and reputation gains that giving away the content for free brings. Plus, secondary revenue streams are increased as well. I’m sure that Chris will make a tidy sum through speaking engagements based on the book’s (and his) reputation.
Free: The Future of a Radical Price shows itself as an example of Chris’ adage that to compete against something that is free, you must offer something of greater value. In my opinion, this book does that. I’ll be spending much time over the next few months looking to this book for new ideas on how Bscopes can continue to make money (we still to pay our mortgages and deal with college costs) while we provide a useful product where much if it is free.