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And Away We Go . . .

As some will undoubtedly note, it seems a bit odd to write a free blog, without getting paid, to promote a book  – Free Ride – that suggests the future of media should involve the opposite strategy. What the hell am I doing?

As I see the media business, it makes perfect sense.

Over the past decade and a half, the Web has evolved into a medium that’s ideal for sharing information but ill-suited for commerce. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that, as a system, it does not include any significant technical barriers to the spread of information. This is a great thing if you want to share information but a bad thing if you want to sell it. But as a way to promote something – a movie, a book, an upcoming hacker attack against a San Francisco public transportation agency – the Web is hard to beat. Hence, this blog. Please Tweet, link, and otherwise spread the word.

My book, as you’ll notice, is not available online for free – at least not legally. That’s because I don’t want to spread those words – at least not all of them – without getting paid. This is what the Web isn’t good for. So while my book is available for semi-closed platforms like the Kindle, I would be reluctant to sell it in an open format like PDF. Generally speaking, it’s hard to sell something that people can get for free at the same time and in the same quality.

So how can I justify charging so much for a digital edition of my book that’s practically free to copy and distribute online? (I don’t actually make these decisions – my publisher does – but I think our views are pretty similar.) It’s important to note that while the book costs almost nothing to distribute online, it was rather expensive to write in the first place. Aside from the editing and marketing done by my publisher, the main expense was my advance – the money I made for writing. Out of this, I paid a couple of researchers, a couple of translators, and a transcriber (partly because my deadline was so tight). I also spent money traveling to Washington DC, Los Angeles, London, Brussels, Copenhagen, and Düsseldorf. In order to get a sense of what a book really costs, you have to divide these fixed costs by the number of copies sold – before you know what that number will be.

That gets at a point many people don’t seem to understand about the media business, as well as a major theme in my book: Creating things almost always costs money. And  while the Internet has revolutionized distribution, it hasn’t affected the creative process nearly as much. Technology provides creative people great tools: Home-recording equipment, inexpensive video cameras, and in my case some incredibly useful research resources. But the falling price of those tools don’t tell the whole story: In order to create quality work, musicians need producers, directors need actors, and writers need editors. (We don’t like to admit it, but we do.) In most cases, their work affects the final product more than the tools used. A friend of mine has a great story about hearing a technology entrepreneur say that a computer could now hold Abbey Road Studios; his reaction was to wonder whether it also had room for George Martin, whose musical training helped bring the Beatles’ vision to life.

That doesn’t mean creators and companies can’t make money giving things away – some can and do. But I do think the ease of making money online by distributing free media has been greatly exaggerated. Over the next few months, I’ll explain why by expanding on some of the ideas in Free Ride. So, to revisit the question about what the hell I’m doing, you could look at this blog as my “Freemium” strategy. But I also want it to generate an interesting, informed conversation, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “And Away We Go . . .

  1. First! (OK, I’m really just testing.)

    Posted by roblevine1 | August 16, 2011, 6:15 pm
  2. Rob, where can I download your book on this website? I can’t seem to find the link. Thanks a bunch, Lar

    Posted by Lar | August 17, 2011, 3:36 pm
  3. Welcome to our shark- (troll?) infested waters. I look forward to reading this blog – and the book too! (Just ordered it today.)

    I should probably wish you luck, but I’ll wish you patience and serenity instead – my guess is that some of the commenters are gonna be a bit of a handful (once the Usual Suspects catch wind of this blog).

    Keep up the good fight!

    Posted by Faza (TCM) | August 17, 2011, 5:07 pm
  4. I’ve heard that you have a chapter about Amazon.com. I’m writing a science-fiction novel that I plan to self-publish on Amazon at a low price (probably $1.99). I do not have research costs (Wikipedia has been VERY helpful, as has another website called “Project Rho – Atomic Rockets”), but I will have costs for marketing, artwork, and (possibly) editing. I’m gambling that I will be able to recover these costs, but, frankly, I can afford to lose.

    Posted by mtm | August 17, 2011, 5:42 pm
    • I think how you do depends on what kind of marketing/artwork/editing you pay for. The less you pay, the less you risk, the less likely it is that you’ll do significant numbers. The more you pay, the more you risk, the more likely it is that the book will take off. That can be a big risk, though. One of the things publishers do well is amortize that risk across a set of books. That’s obviously not for everyone these days.

      Good luck – let me know how it goes.

      Posted by roblevine1 | August 18, 2011, 10:03 pm
  5. Thank you doing this. Even though your book is not yet available in the U.S. I paid the shipping to get it here and can’t wait for it to arrive.

    From what I read in your Guardian piece you have dug deeper than almost anyone out there. But human greed and ignorance is a hard thing to combat. It is nice to see another voice in the choir.

    Posted by the musicaldisconnect | August 19, 2011, 5:59 am
  6. So, having read your recent interview on TheRegister, and Chris Anderson’s ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price’ I am looking forward to reading your take on the whole Free Society, but I don’t think that you have honestly answered the question that you posed yourself in this article: “So how can I justify charging so much for a digital edition of my book that’s practically free to copy and distribute online?”

    As I write, I can buy the hardcover edition of your book, with all it’s related manufacturing and shipping costs, for £9.50 and the Kindle edition for £9.44. Are you suggesting that the cost of producing and shipping a hardcover book is 6 pence? It occurs to me that you are allowing your e-readers to subsidise Amazon’s hardware devices.

    Posted by Rob Andrews | August 23, 2011, 10:44 am
    • First, remember that I don’t set any prices – my publisher and stores do. In the case of Amazon, my publisher sets a wholesale price for the hardcover and paperback and in the US it sets a retail price for e-books. (I don’t know how this works in the UK; anyone?) So while Random UK set the Kindle price, Amazon decided to sell the hardcover for 9.50

      From the research I’ve done, it costs less than $5 (dollars) to print and distribute a hardcover, and that includes the cost of returns. So, by that logic, an e-book should cost $5 less than a hardcover. My real point is that the cost of distribution – in physical AND digital media – isn’t that high anyway. The fixed costs are more important – even moreso in other media.

      If you read the book, you’ll see there’s much more to this, since the point of pricing in the media business doesn’t have much to do with marginal costs; the point is to maximize revenue in order to amortize fixed costs, and the costs of projects which don’t find an audience. But that’s my quick answer.

      Posted by roblevine1 | August 23, 2011, 12:30 pm
  7. “That doesn’t mean creators and companies can’t make money giving things away – some can and do”

    And in the case of Google et al, they give away Other peoples’ stuff to make money…
    (or encourage it and rake in billions in advertising. TPB is a direct example)

    Posted by James_J | September 1, 2011, 8:28 pm

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