What You Pay For

Review of Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson

The New York Times Book Review , July 09, 2009

Fifteen years ago — before Google or Wikipedia or blogging or Craigs­list or podcasts or YouTube — the technology investor and pundit Esther Dyson wrote  an article analyzing the business of “creative content” in a future where the Internet made distribution essentially free. “Creators will have to fight to attract attention and get paid,” she predicted. Enforcing copyrights won’t be enough, because creators “will operate in an increasingly competitive marketplace where much of the intellectual property is distributed free and suppliers explode in number. . . . The problem for owners of content is that they will be competing with free or almost-free content.”

That future is today, and it is the subject of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired and the author of The Long Tail. Despite its subtitle, the book is less about the future than the present and recent past, which Anderson surveys in a cheerful, can-do voice. “People are making lots of money charging nothing,” he writes. “Not nothing for everything, but nothing for enough that we have essentially created an economy as big as a good-sized country around the price of $0.00.”

Driving the trend are the steeply declining prices of three essential technologies: computing power, digital storage and transmission capacity. Reproducing and delivering digital content — words, music, software, pictures, video — has now fulfilled the prophecy once made about electricity. It has become too cheap to meter. “Whatever it costs YouTube to stream a video today will cost half as much in a year,” Anderson writes. “The trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero. No wonder the prices online all go the same way.”

More precisely, the marginal cost of digital products, or the cost of delivering one additional copy, is approaching zero. The fixed cost of producing the first copy, however, may be as high as ever. All those servers and transmission lines, as cheap as they may be per gigabyte, require large initial investments. The articles still have to be written, the songs recorded, the movies made. The crucial business question, then, is how you cover those fixed costs. As many an airline bankruptcy demonstrates, it can be extremely hard to survive in a business with high fixed costs, low marginal costs and relatively easy entry. As long as serving one new customer costs next to nothing, the competition to attract as many customers as possible will drive prices toward zero. And zero doesn’t pay the bills.

The answer, Anderson argues, lies in cross-subsidies: “shifting money around from product to product, person to person, between now and later, or into non­monetary markets and back out again.” Most obviously, online advertisers can subsidize content by paying for eyeballs or, in some cases, for detailed information on potential consumers. Less familiar is the “freemium” strategy, in which a site like Flickr offers one package of services free but charges for an ad-free package with more features, allowing a small fraction of users to subsidize the rest.

Often, however, the cross-subsidy is a way to sell one product by giving away another. Monty Python created a YouTube channel with their most popular skits in hopes of enticing fans to buy their DVDs. Their shows and movies soon hit Amazon’s best-seller list, with increased sales of 23,000 percent. “Free worked, and worked brilliantly,” Anderson writes.

This technique is as old as the supermarket loss leader or TVs in sports bars. Unlike cartons of milk or six-packs of soda, however, once digital content exists, it costs nothing to hand out to a near-infinite number of customers — no limit of one per household. The Internet, meanwhile, is one huge sports bar, with Google selling most of the beer by collecting infinitesimal amounts (via advertising) across billions and billions of searches and page views. Obscured by the breezy tone of “Free” is a sobering message. “Everybody can use a Free business model,” Anderson admits, “but all too typically only the No. 1 company can get really rich with it.”

Unlike tangible commodities like T-shirts or plastics, most digital content doesn’t generate much new demand as its price falls toward zero. Even with no admission fee, videos, blog posts and online games soak up users’ time, and time has a hard limit. So as the supply of cheap content expands, it can’t simply fill ever-growing closets (or garbage dumps). Instead, the competition for time and attention becomes ever fiercer, and the market ever more fragmented. Any given producer will find profits elusive, especially since it’s so easy for amateurs to enter the market.

Faced with collapsing business models, today’s journalists-in-denial rail against Anderson’s message. Free contentcannot be the future, they say, because content is valuable. Fixed costs must be covered. We have bills to pay. The problem, they argue, is that we’re giving our work away.

As Anderson himself says, “I’ve got a lot of kids and college isn’t getting any cheaper.” His own strategy, one outlined by Dyson way back when, is to charge little or nothing for his writing and use it to generate lucrative speaking gigs. “You can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free,” he writes (not noting that the free offer expires shortly after the printed book’s publication), “but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.”

The book is certainly good advertising. “Free” is a successful business speech between two covers, pleasant, upbeat and full of anecdotes and bullet points. It doesn’t bother with footnotes, something that got Anderson in trouble when Waldo Jaquith of The Virginia Quarterly Review caught him lifting passages from Wikipedia and other sources. ( Anderson has apologized for the “screw-up.”) It’s stimulating but not uncomfortably challenging. “You can make money from Free,” Anderson assures readers. “People will pay to save time. People will pay to lower risk. People will pay for things they love. . . . Free opens doors, reaching new consumers. It doesn’t mean you can’t charge some of them.” (Hire him and he’ll tell you how, sort of.)

But what about the competition? What about the time-saving, risk-lowering, beloved alternatives somebody else is offering free? Opponents of the free-content argument too often reject the idea that free content is the future simply because they don’t want it to be true. Even Anderson himself equivocates, flinching at the implications of almost limitless competition.

After all, the last thing a business author wants to suggest is that we’re entering a new age of amateurism. But there are hints throughout the book that the future of this radical price is to be found in the past, when satisfying work was what one did on the income provided by less satisfying toil, or by investments, patronage or marriage. “Doing things we like without pay often makes us happier than the work we do for a salary,” Anderson writes, adding, “No wonder the Web exploded, driven by volunteer labor — it made people happy to be creative, to contribute, to have an impact and to be recognized as expert in something.”

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said, and that attitude has had a good two-­century run. But the Web is full of blockheads, whether they’re rate-busting amateurs or professionals trawling for speaking gigs. All this free stuff raises the real standard of living, by making it ever easier for people to find entertainment, information and communication that pleases them.

Business strategy, however, seeks not only to create but to capture value. Free is about a phenomenon in which almost all the new value goes to consumers, not producers. It is false to assume that no price means no value. But it is equally false to argue that value implies profitability.