Chris Anderson wants to give his next book to you for free. No, the Wired magazine editor-in-chief and author of The Long Tail hasn’t lost his mind, nor is he trying to go broke. It probably doesn’t even have anything to do with the fact that he’s a trained physicist and a descendant of one of the founders of the American anarchist movement. With his keen eye for trends in the Internet-driven world and the tech savvy that earned Wired its first National Magazine Award under his tenure, Anderson believes giving away his book will actually help him sell more books.
Some might think being named one of Time magazine’s top 100 people shaping the world in 2007 has unhinged the man, but Anderson is accustomed to being seen as a maverick who forges his own path. While he publishes a magazine (print and online versions) and writes books, he isn’t steeped in a media world, but rather one of science and technology, and he has good friends at leading tech companies. Though the stylishly bald but youthful-looking Anderson claims to have spent the requisite chunk of his twenties working hard at being a slacker, there’s little evidence of aimlessness in him today.
After earning a physics degree from George Washington University, he performed research at Los Alamos National Laboratory and worked for Nature, Science and The Economist before coming to Wired in 2001.
Anderson’s strategy for giving away his new book (and for marketing products in general), aptly titled Free, is in many ways a testimony to the staying power of the printed book.
Anderson says he and his publisher plan to make Free (to be published in 2009 by Hyperion) available in every way possible, beginning with e-book and audio versions, and “further than that”—though he won’t say what, exactly, further will look like.
“I believe that the physical book is the superior product,” he says. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do this. I make a physical magazine, after all; we understand what paper can do that pixels can’t. Physical books will remain the superior way to read longer, immersive takes on a subject.”
Free, as one might guess from its title, is a narrative-length reflection on how giving away free samples of a product, or the product itself in an alternative format, actually encourages sales of the product.
In the 2008 Wired article about “freeconomics,” as Anderson dubbed the concept, he wrote:
“You know this freaky land of free as the Web. A decade and a half into the great online experiment, the last debates over free versus pay online are ending …
“The rise of ‘freeconomics’ is being driven by the underlying technologies that power the Web … Which is to say, the trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero.”
The idea behind the article began—as Anderson’s ideas often do—as a series of speeches, because he’s an in-demand public speaker in the science and technology communities. It then evolved into a feature article for his magazine before slowly being expanded via public posts on his blog into a book-length narrative. This follows what he calls a near-cloning of the writing process for his first book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. He calls the unusual method of writing a book in public “stress testing” his ideas.
“I don’t come from the book or media world; I’m trained as a computational physicist,” Anderson says. “We in the software world wrote our code in public. That’s what beta testing is all about. Doing things in public is the norm. I took the habits that were most conventional, just like getting peer reviews in science, and applied it to my books.”
For anyone who doubts the selling power of the free strategy, Anderson points to TV’s queen of giveaways, Oprah Winfrey. On “The Oprah Winfrey Show” earlier this year, Spiegel & Grau allowed the media maven to offer Suze Orman’s book Women & Money as a free downloadable file on her website. More than 1 million copies were downloaded and the printed book landed at No. 2 on Amazon.com the next day.
“Digital forms are samplers of the book, ways to propagate ideas,” Anderson says. They’re also ways to get readers interested in an author’s backlist. He cites HarperCollins’ recent plan to give away electronic versions of books by popular authors such as Paulo Coelho and Neil Gaiman.
As for the fear that free books will further lead to the downfall of independent bookstores or paper books, Anderson isn’t concerned. He points to Amazon’s success. When they came on the market, plenty of people feared that bookstores would soon go out of business. While they were certainly affected, many still persist.
“Amazon represents competition, and superior competition in one dimension—availability of titles—but not in terms of immediacy or browse-ability. Yes, if your local bookstore doesn’t have the book you want, you might come back to Amazon. It’s an opportunity for local bookstores to ask, ‘where is my value?’ Different bookstores answer that differently. For some, browse-ability is enough; some offer readings and a place for the community; others call themselves a ‘third place’ or specialize.”
Understanding why and how the Internet has changed consumer habits is at the core of Anderson’s first effort, The Long Tail.
Anderson launched his authorial persona with the book, which addresses a selling phenomenon based on the idea that our culture and economy, long focused on “hits”—the next blockbuster song, recording artist, movie, book and so on—is now leaning more toward niche specialization. “We’re all different and it’s finally possible for our markets to address that,” he says.
Anderson writes on his blog, “As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there’s now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.”
Though niches exist in almost any commodity—he cites specialized organic chocolate or the bounty of the fashion world as examples—they are most obvious and most prolific on the Internet, which has clearly driven the niche phenomenon.
One example of this type of success in the book world shows just how powerful the Internet can be.
In The Long Tail, Anderson tells the story of author Joe Simpson, a British mountain climber who published a book called Touching the Void, an account of his near-death experience in the Peruvian Andes. The book was well-reviewed, but like many books, its sales were less than modest. This was also 1988, pre-Internet.
Ten years later, Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which is also about a mountain-climbing tragedy, was published to much more significant success. Booksellers co-promoted both books due to their similarity, hence “niche.” By mid-2004, Touching the Void was outselling Into Thin Air more than two to one.
Anderson’s answer for why?
“When Into Thin Air first came out, a few readers wrote reviews on Amazon.com that pointed out the similarities with the then lesser-known Touching the Void, which they praised effusively.”
Word of mouth, but more notably, Amazon’s feature that suggests similar books a reader might enjoy, gave a decade-old book a burst of selling power it wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Beyond magazines, books and speaking engagements, Anderson still finds time to develop new start-up companies. A lot of his ideas are born out of his personal interests or needs, and that includes his needs as an author. “I learned about the book industry and saw the crushing reality of a book tour,” he says. “Sitting behind a folding table behind a stack of books with a smattering of interested people is the craziest way to use an author’s time.”
Anderson, along with co-founders Kevin Smokler and Adam Goldstein, created BookTour, a Web service that links authors—published by traditional and self-published means—with audiences, again, free of charge.
The site allows authors to create pages that showcase their books, their biographies and any events they have scheduled. It then allows readers to view the site’s database of events by locale or by individual author. Ultimately, Anderson hopes readers will begin to invite far-flung authors to speak or read.
“There are millions of people out there traveling on their own dime, and there’s also a huge demand for speakers,” he says. “The capacity of a free speaker’s bureau connecting with authors seemed like a huge opportunity.”
No matter his commitment to the varieties of technology, the rise of blogging and other electronic forms of reading other than books, Anderson still subscribes to the paper and ink form.
“I’m a huge believer in the traditional book,” he says. “Everything else just helps cement the form of physical books.”