The art and science of selling free

“Freeconomics” is the term coined by Chris Anderson (Wired editor, also coiner (or at least popularizer) of the related term “the long tail“) as a descriptor for the idea attached to all this; that there can be economic value in giving away a product or a service for free. It’s a philosophy that, while earning some rather valid criticisms, is most compelling and rapidly gaining credence in the industries that are already desperately competing with “free” in the form of piracy (or copyright infringement, choose whatever euphemism or loaded term you feel predisposed to), and just the general price competition that comes with the ongoing creation of ever new ways for consumers to split their entertainment dollar.

I paid NZ$6.57 for a new 2-CD album yesterday. Well, 2 CDs in length. Nothing more than bits in reality. It’s Ghosts, the latest album from Nine Inch Nails, whose core Trent Reznor has for a long time been bemoaning the attitude and business models of the music labels. He often said he’d prefer to just put out a high quality, DRM-free download of a new release and charge $5 for it. And as soon as he was free of his last recording contract obligation, he did just that with Ghosts. And it was a great customer experience. First, he made the first quarter (the album’s simply divided into four parts, Ghosts I,II,III and IV) available for free. It’s been kicking around my playlists for about a month now. And yesterday, reminded of it by NIN releasing a new single for free, I decided finally to hear how the rest of it goes. The only slight hesitation I had about it during the process was that it’s a large download (especially if you download the CD-quality .FLAC version), and it was a one-time download link. If the download was to fall over and die before it was actually done, where would I be left? And then I remembered the Pirate Bay, and was assuaged.

I also finished reading a free novel yesterday. As part of a lead-up to a new site launch, has been emailing out free sci-fi and fantasy novels once a week. I’ve been hoarding the PDFs carefully, even though I opened a couple and from a quick cursory scan knew I would never actually read them. Until yesterday, when I gave one called Spin by Robert Wilson a proper look, despite its rather generic and pulpy-looking cover (What is it with American sci-fi/fantasy publishers and annoying covers? Their British counterparts have a far better batting average in this area).

There’s a certain theory going on in publishing at the moment; that people will be willing to read part of a book in e-book/PDF form, and then pay to read it as real paper. Said Shawn Nicolls of Random House to Chris Anderson in explaining a free book offer they ran, “A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.”

Unfortunately my experience was a counter-example. I’m not being facetious, I honestly hope publishers can figure out good business models in this space.

I enjoyed Spin. I couldn’t figuratively put it down after the premise kicked in (one night, without warning, the stars and moon all disappear, and all the satellites around the world come crashing down). I found flicking through the PDF on a nice LCD in a darkened room to be a neat way to kill a few hours. The problem was what happened when I realised the the book had actually gripped me. I just sped up reading in an effort to get it done. I had no desire to stop, make a note to visit the bookstore in a few days, buy it, and then resume reading the dead tree version.

So I’m not going to buy it. The value proposition isn’t worth it anymore, and the sampler of the book’s sequel didn’t grab me.1 The average paperback novel in my collection gets read by me two or three times in its life. An average new SF paperback novel here costs about $252. The average album will get listened to hundreds of times probably over its life. If it takes me 15 hours to read through a $25 novel, and I read it twice (which won’t be happening with Spin), and I get 2 hours (double CD in Ghosts‘ case, remember) of value out of a $7 album that I listen to 30 times, then the novel works out at $0.83 an hour while the album is $0.11. Of course, you don’t actually do this sort of calculation when deciding how to spend your discretionary dollars. But if the psychological barrier between “free” and $5 is formidable (and it is), then it’s stupendous between $5 and $25. I’d love to be able to buy an ebook unencumbered by DRM for a couple of dollars knowing that it’s going direct to just the author and editor.

Because it wasn’t just the free sampler that NIN offered that got my purchase. It was the drastically affordable price point, and it was the knowledge that much more of the meagre price was going to the actual artist than would normally happen. Similarly, I had no hesitation buying Radiohead’s In Rainbows for $8 when they released it with their “pay what you want” option, also after breaking free of contractual obligations. If In Rainbows had released locally with the usual $30 sticker price I would’ve been a lot more hesitant and taken longer to buy, even though I’m a long time Radiohead fan. Being a postgrad student sparks that sort of thrift in you.

[1] Fantasy and Science Fiction being genres heavily dominated by sagas, trilogies, and stories that really should have finished long ago, the temptation is probably quite strong for publishers here to use introductory books as bait to hook readers into buying the successors. I can see the value. I don’t like the way that then risks turning into sequelitis, the pressure to convert standalone novels into ongoing storylines.

[2] I think that’s what I paid for Matter (I swear I’m going to review that one day), but that was a novel I’ve been waiting two years for from an author who I already owned eight books by. And it was an introductory special, but Borders aren’t really where you go for bargains.


One response to “The art and science of selling free

  1. Pingback: So Trent Reznor’s feeling generous « Paragraft

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