Giving It Away for Free

November 1, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 3 2 min read

Too often, as we look at the impact of new media on publishing, we are relgated to trading in hypotheticals. “If all the books in the world were searchable…” This week’s article in The New Yorker on digitizing books covers that ground (though the article’s writer Anthony Grafton is aiming mainly to deflate the hype surrounding the issue rather than to build it up).

coverWith this in mind, it was refreshing to see Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’ column in the Wall Street Journal about the real-life consequences of giving content away for free. I’m not sure if the column is visible to non-subscribers, so I’ll just go ahead and quote liberally.

His main topic is his new book, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, a large portion of which is culled from his very popular blog. In the process of putting the book together, however, he learned a lesson:

As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn’t get much traffic, so I didn’t think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder in the “how people think” category.

A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated. And boy, I heard about it.

Free is a powerful thing as it turns out. An earlier experiment with free content had also confounded his expectations:

A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, God’s Debris, on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, The Religion War slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.

Adams goes on to tie this into the music industry and Radiohead’s recent pricing experiment in particular.

So I’ve been watching with great interest as the band Radiohead pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That’s when the market value of music will approach zero.

But it’s not all dire. Adams’ interactions with his readers through blogging have been “unexpected and wonderful,” while putting Dilbert online for free years ago has yielded mixed though mostly positive results. It “gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the Dilbert comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds.”

As to the lessons to be learned from all this, Adams’ conclusion is as good as anybody’s, “Free is more complicated than you’d think.”

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Interesting comments by Adams. Free is, indeed, dangerous. in the freewheeling days of the era, I worked for several companies that gave away their content.

    When the economic realities caught up with them and they had to start charging to stay in businesses — their customers went nuts (even when asked to pay minimal amounts for products they were actively using).

    A lot of these companies simply went out of businesses. It is hard to charge for what was once free. Very slippery slope.

    As a blogger — who writes other things for money — it can be scary. What are artists going to do when everyone wants everything for free?

  2. Oh stop it! Robert Scoble WROTE his book online and it became a best seller. There are numerous stories of writing a book online – giving the content away for free – and then selling it to make a profit.

    If I want it for free… I need only go to the library (OMG! remember libraries?) or find a comfy chair at Barnes and Noble, and read away.

    If the reader perceives value, she will buy the book…even though she's read most of it online. Books are just more fun to take on trips with you.

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