Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Review: Free by Chris Anderson

I've been following all the hoopla about Chris Anderson's new book with much interest. I picked up a copy of Free: The Future of a Radical Price for free, appropriately enough, at a Book Expo panel where he spoke. And I have to say, I'm glad I didn't have to pay full price for the book, as $26.99 seemed pretty steep: it was a quick read, at 274 pages including the index and lots of sidebars.
But I did find it interesting. Anderson explores the way we've come to expect to get many things for free, and how businesses are using free stuff to make more money from other products or services. Much of this is not new or earth-shattering: give away a free razor to make people buy expensive replacement blades, give away a free newspaper to sell more expensive advertising, etc. The part of this that really has people riled up is relates to the latter-- free content, particularly journalism.
Personal finance blogs are a great example of this-- there are hundreds of us now, all spewing out various sorts of advice and stories and information that you would previously have had to buy a newspaper or magazine or book to obtain. (Or at least your local library would have had to buy it.) Of course, much of the content we spew out is inspired by or derived from content that traditional journalists and authors were paid to write. But if consumers are trained to expect all this for free, is it really a sustainable model? Only time will tell...
Some other things from the book that struck me:

  • The free classified ad website Craigslist is estimated to have taken $30 billion out of the stock market valuation of America's newspaper companies in the 13 years since it was founded.
  • An online game called RuneScape has about the same number of subscribers and annual revenue as the Wall Street Journal's paid online service. As Anderson puts it, "it appears that people would rather pay to cast pretend spells than to read Pulitzer Prize-winning news."
  • Chapter 12 gets into an interesting discussion of Maslow's "pyramid of needs," and how a monetary economy can be supplanted by an "attention economy" and a "reputation economy."
  • Brazil's government is trying to switch all their computer systems to free open-source software. According to the director of this initiative, "every license for Office plus Windows in Brazil-- a country in which 22 million people are starving-- means we have to export sixty sacks of soybeans."
Despite any controversies about passages lifted from Wikipedia, I did find the book thought provoking and worth a read.

You can also read some of the other reviews and criticism of the book at the links below:
Malcolm Gladwell review
Seth Godin response
PW article
Chronicle of Higher Education


Gord said...

The "free" thing I fell for some years ago was the Lexmark printers. Then the cartridges got me ..........

That made me rather cynical for a while. So when I came up with a product that was valuable, I decided to give it away. Surprise, I guess everyone else had learned to be cynical too so they wouldn't take the free product.

So now I sell it cheap on my website and people are ok with that. Strange.

Anonymous said...

What is the premise of this blog post, you do not give much depth on the book or how you feel towards the topic. Maybe I was blinded by how you commented that you are glad you didn't purchase the book for $26.99 but felt it was worth the read. Seems you're in the same boat as thinking you deserve things for free as well.

Madame X said...

Anon 9:34, there's a big difference between thinking something is overpriced/being happy to pay less and thinking you "deserve" something for free.

I would say that neither the author nor I have a strong opinion to express in the book or about it. Anderson is basically saying "this is happening, like it or not, and here are some ways you can try to make it work for you." The long term effects of the trend towards "free" are anyone's guess-- I'm sure some good will come of it but in other ways it could be a disaster, who knows...