Here’s the latest in my occasional lament: so many books, so little time. I simply blog about books that sound important, that I wish I had time to read… Will this move up in my “must read” list? Time will tell.
First, here’s what Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, Wired) says about this one: “An explosive history that makes it clear how the information business became what it is today. Important reading.”
The book is The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu (Knopf — November 2, 2010). I read about it in the article The Master Switch by Tim Wu — a Masterful Guide to Our Internet World by Art Brodsky, Communications Director, Public Knowledge on The Huffington Post. Here’s an excerpt:
Wu’s eminently readable book is a history of the telephone network, the movie industry and broadcasting, all of them leading up to the history of today’s combination of all of them — the Internet. Those industries had innovative, entrepreneurial beginnings, promising great things for society. There is a rocky growth and development period as the technology becomes better, may encroach on other businesses and finally reaches critical mass. Into the chaos comes a “great mogul” to impose order — to control the Master Switch to information and technology: “Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains.” As Wu notes, the federal government is usually recruited to help out the mogul and his plans to gain control over the technology and product.
Wu’s cycle has a backside also, in which another disruptive technology, or a public-spirited government, breaks up the mogul-driven business model, and the Cycle starts anew.
Wu has done his homework. The stories of the industries Wu tracks are fascinating. In today’s corporate-driven movie business, we forget that there was a generation of outcasts who started movie studios, invented new technologies, took over theaters and made the industry their own, at least until other forces broke it up and new models took over. One industry leader could dictate that the time was not right for full-length movies, until a rebel arose to show longer films, and that rebel became part of the industry firmament. One of the early movie moguls was one Wilhelm Fuchs, a Jewish immigrant who later changed his name to Fox. Yes, that Fox.
The article ends with this closing quote from the book:
Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.
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).