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.