Books & Business, with a Side of Pie

For me, a dedicated and driven shopper, the word Free doesn’t bring the same shiver of anticipation that Sample Sale does, as Free seems to denote something with no value. But, as I’ve recently learned from Chris Anderson, the implication of Free in the digital, non-tangible realm (purses, shoes, dresses, and such are not included) has a completely different meaning.

Anderson, the well-known editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, author of The Long Tail and most recently, Free: The Future of a Radical Price has come to the forefront of discussions on new business models. I recently attended a discussion moderated by Anderson, with contributing panelists Gary Hoenig of ESPN Publishing, Alan Murray of The Wall Street Journal, and John Sargent of Macmillan Publishing, who all spoke on “Free and Paid Content: Business Models that Work.”

I first admired Anderson when he came to speak to my class at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute on “Digital Directions and the Future of Media” back in June. Since then, he has demonstrated that free content may in fact pay off, by having offered his entire new book for download via Amazon at no cost, while still debuting at #12 on The New York Times Bestseller list.

An obviously experienced and charismatic speaker, Anderson tested the other panelists and challenged their existing business models. He was able to bring to life his digital model of giving away 90% of content to sell 10%, by sharing the story of his kids interacting with Club Penguin – which is free up to a certain point, and once that level of interaction is achieved the consumer is asked to pay. Hoenig shared the strategy behind his similar offer of a $1 yearly subscription to ESPN, hoping that, once consumers are accustomed to having access to the exclusive content, they won’t balk at the raised subscription at the end of what is essentially a trial period.

I question the panel’s name being “Business Models that Work,” considering the panel was more of a discussion of possibilities and potential than offering any solutions. Sargent seemed to get the brunt of negative debate, as he questioned whether books can move to the digital realm and still have a paid-for content product. He stated his worry that within six months to two years, piracy and file sharing will have attacked the book world and more front list content will be available through online channels.

What I think people—whether it be consumers or those determined to change the book industry to follow the arc of technology—tend to forget is that writing is an art form. The same way one wouldn’t expect a painting by Monet or Picasso to be free, I can’t understand the balking some are doing at the cost associated with reading a good book.

Just this afternoon I was disappointed to discover Rough Country, John Sandford’s latest title, was pulling one-star reviews on Amazon—not because consumers read the book and hated the plot, character, etc., but because the cost of the Kindle edition was closer to $15 vs. the expected $9.99 price point.

The thought of giving an artist less credit because a distributor raised the price, based on the medium they chose, seems both selfish and ignorant. Though it may seem to be an unattainably glamorous job to many of us, for authors, writing is their career, and I don’t think anyone should be expected to go to work without receiving compensation.

After reading this, you may be hungry, so let’s throw in the food analogy mentioned by Bob Miller, President & Publisher of Harper Studio and well-known for his new business model: the pie is shrinking. As Anderson pointed out, there is a significantly higher number of books published each year than are considered commercially successful (estimated at roughly 25%), so instead of many books taking smaller slices, the industry may have to be more careful about who is printed vs. being passed over.

You’ve earned that piece of pie. Along with that pie, why don’t you enjoy reading The Help, currently the longest-running fiction title on the NYT Bestseller List, which as debut fiction, may never have had the opportunity for success had its publishers been too worried about the divvying up of pie.

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