Tag Archives: James Ledbetter

Nothing Beats a Good Controversy — Chris Anderson, The Long Tail, and the Allure of “Free”

The Long Tail is a great concept in our ever expanding, internet connected world.  In this book (originally an article), Chris Anderson explained clearly that the market is now almost unending.  Exhibit A was Amazon.  The vast majority of what they sell (in books) is available at Border’s or Barnes&Noble.  But, much can be made from the 20% or so that is not stocked in such physical bookstores.  This “Long Tail” is the market available from the rest of the world who find you in other ways, especially the internet.  (You can purchase my synopsis, audio + handout, of The Long Tail here).

His long awaited new book comes out in July: Free: The Future of a Radical Price.  Here’s the summary from Amazon:  “in Free, he makes the compelling case that in many instances businesses can profit more from giving things away than they can by charging for them. Far more than a promotional gimmick, Free is a business strategy that may well be essential to a company’s survival.”  You can read the Wired article, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business that launched his concept here.

The idea is simple enough.  Give something away free, give a lot away free, and they will come back for more, and they will willingly pay for the more.

It makes sense.  And I know that what we give away can spark interest, generate followership, and maybe produce a long-term relationship with a customer.  But even before the book hits, the criticism has started.  And the first question is blunt and to the point:  if free is such a good idea, and if Chris Anderson is the editor of Wired, why doesn’t he give Wired away free?  James Ledbetter provides this criticism in his Slate/The Big Money article:  Free to Be Ignored.

Ledbetter is doubtful that the business model works.  And he’s got a lot of reason to be so doubtful.  We are reading nearly daily that the newspaper as we know it is in great jeopardy.  The rumblings have begin that the Kindle, and unknown future such devices, might put “printed books” out of business.  And if we think that alarm is too early, let’s remember that we have only had the internet 15 years — and it took just over a dozen years for people to realize that the free content of news was ultimately a threat to the news gathering business.  (To put it simply, if news is free, who will pay the reporters to gather the stories and dig into the corners and crevices of our society — in other words, to practice journalism?)  On-line music sites have greatly crushed the profits from what used to be called record sales.  All of this proves that free works in one way — people like to get stuff free.  But free may not bring in enough money on the back end.

(And, by the way, Wired does give much of its content away.  I read Free for free on-line).

I write this with few answers— just questions.  I really don’t know what will happen.  I’m a firm believer in “free.”  I have spoken for free, I have sent handouts to people for free, as have many who do what I do.  But I can’t give it all away for free.

So where is free going?  We all watch and wait.

(By the way, I’m certain that either Karl or I will present a synopsis of Free pretty soon after its publication – and yes, we will pay actual money for a hard copy of the book Free.  Probably from Amazon.com).