Smells Like “Free”

Like you, I’m a sucker for those books which identify an emerging area of economics or sociology and boil it down to some zeitgeisty theory.

Most of us would like to say we can pinpoint the exact trends affecting society, business and bookshelves alike for the next three to six years. Somewhere within my own bookmarks, real and virtual, I think I’ve nailed it. It’s definitely about groups of people (Here Comes Everybody, Tribes, We Think) but also influential individuals (Outliers), perhaps with remarkable offerings (Purple Cow). Given the right timing and people (The Tipping Point) and marketed differently (What Would Google Do?, Free Prize Inside), you can at least hope for a minor hit in your niche (The Long Tail). Your instincts will be correct (Blink) or if not, the whole thing will be downright counter-intuitive (Freakonomics).

Together these guys are revolutionising barbecue conversation among a certain aspirational demographic who like the inside track.

And now! Chris Anderson’s Free is the latest new topical thing to dazzle the blogosphere with its rightness/wrongness.

Story so far: Anderson’s The Long Tail sold pretty well, became a successful talked-about blockbuster and thereby failed to remain in the long tail. By contrast, Free is more aptly pioneering a real live marketing experiment (only somewhat brave now, in these post-Radiohead times) where already you can download the entire audiobook for free. While infinite stocks last!

Or read it online for free, USA-only. Or, only in the United Kingdom (land of the free Prince album), you can stream the audiobook for free or get a free but abridged softback version which is printed on bog roll or something.

The whole plan is flawless except “freeconomics” as a buzzword sounds very much like “freakonomics“. That aside, a guy can only launch this perfect combination of title, contents, packaging and distribution once. Although I would like to get my paws on the supposedly upcoming Free – Super Deluxe Version, which could be some kind of expensive “premium” edition for the real fans with – I don’t know – WATERMARKING, GOLD LEAF, HOLOGRAMS, SPOT VARNISH, STROKEABLE EMBOSSING and HEAVY PAGES WITH A SMELL.

Take that, Radiohead.

My prediction is some hapless fool will mistakenly heed the title on the lavish display stand and attempt to carry it out of Borders without paying.

Truly though, every mug who blogs about it (me included), regardless of their verdict, gives it a boost in the positive feedback loop. It’s seen as a significant book and if you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t be mentioning it. If you haven’t absorbed its contents, you can. Download now!

Meanwhile, Anderson will be appearing at a prestigious future-of-content symposium near you so make sure you understand expressions like “freemium” and “feels like free” AND have your own personal view worked out. For the other seers appearing on the panel with him, that had better include custom-prepared awesome anecdotes and a high degree of variance with his take on it. It’s a macho world and you can’t just agree. Besides, you guys were picked for the panel because you’d already branded your own thoughts into an identifiable corner anyway.

Anil Dash adds to the loop by acknowledging the loop:

I haven’t had a chance to finish reading Free yet, but I am sure that both of these authors’ books absolutely do lean more towards anecdotal evidence than statistical proof. And honestly, it’s okay that these books don’t necessarily follow the tenets of hard science. In many cases, they’re arguing that a cultural trend is becoming true, or is about to become true, and the reality is that asserting that these trends are ascendent actually helps them come true. In short, these are books designed to create culture, presented in the guise of reporting on culture. I like that!

I too admire the moxie of anyone who presumes to serve me up some exciting trend as a nutritious bundle wrapped up in easily-digested futuristic pill form.

The career path of Andersonomics (have observation, name it, bring insights about – say – migrating birds and Brazilian musical movements, add liberal sprinkling of futurology, blog it, refine book, do speaking engagements, repeat) may seem easy. But if you’re considering it, you first need to consolidate your reputation in an established field.

Where else can we turn if not to our qualified experts? In general, nobody gets to be a disruptive writer speculating on “disruptive” things without a whole heap of life experience and hard graft. Actually, stop press – that’s wrong, some 15-year old kid just stepped up and did. So all bets are off.