What Chris Anderson’s “Free” Means for Fiction Writers

Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, is a concise and articulate packaging of ideas that will be prosaic to anyone who’s paid attention to the economics of the web. Which means that, for most folks out there, it’s an excellent and insightful read. While not as exciting as his earlier work, The Long Tail, the book does offer interesting food for thought for fiction writers looking to use the web to reach an audience and, hopefully, earn a little money.

Before exploring how Free applies to fiction writing, though, I should mention that Anderson has been nice enough to practice his own message and so is giving the book away for free in a variety of formats. I listened to the audiobook version, which was of excellent quality.

The key idea in Anderson’s book is that the technology of the Internet drives the marginal cost of content to zero. Each print copy of my novel The Hole will, when the book is published, cost a dollar or two to produce. Paper is physical stuff and physical stuff has to be paid for. But each web based copy costs me effectively nothing. While I pay twenty dollars a month for web hosting, having you click through to the novel’s online serial edition doesn’t drive up that cost. Each new reader of the online edition, in other words, is free to me. So, while I can’t afford to give away free copies of The Hole in print to anyone who might want one, I can afford to give it away without charge in an electronic format. The trick — and the topic of much of Anderson’s book — is how to make money doing so.

A handful of business models exist. I can go the traditional web publisher route and place advertisements alongside the novel’s text. But that doesn’t produce much income because the traffic to even a hugely successful writer’s home page is tiny compared to the New York Times or ESPN. I probably won’t earn even a livable wage with banner ads.

I could adopt a “freemium” model, where a limited version of the service is given away for free in the hopes of attracting some users to a paid, premium version. This is the method most authors who’ve given away their works use. Cory Doctorow, for instance, posts Creative Commons licensed electronic editions of all his novels for free download on his website. Readers are free to consume them without charge — but have to pay for a bound copy in a bookstore or from Amazon.com. Chris Anderson does exactly the same with Free itself. And this is the method I’ve used for The Hole. Throughout the composition of the first draft, I serialized the chapters and let the world access them for free through my website. The revised edition, however, will be a paid product, both in print and ebook. This “freemium” model had the added benefit of landing me a publishing contract. My publisher, Permuted Press, found The Hole through my webpage and offered to publish it partly because of the readers it had attracted.

The benefit of free is that it allows for a large audience. People don’t have to give up anything except their time to use the product — in this case, to read the author’s book — so they’re more willing to give it a chance. The key is turning that larger audience into cash. Besides the two methods outlined above, another possibility is granting early access to paid readers. Subscribe and you can get the book in electronic format months before it hits stores. The trouble here is that it reverses one of the key equations in the free ecosystem. Namely, having a large audience of non-paying readers creates buzz, which attracts more readers, some of whom may pay. By limiting the initial audience to paid subscribers, the author forgoes that early buzz.

Or an author might front load the freemium model by using a bounty system. I could post a one paragraph overview of a book idea I have, along with a free first chapter. Readers could pledge to buy the print edition when the book is published and, if a certain threshold of pledges is met, I get to work writing and serializing (for free) the results. The trouble here is that it demands a sizable base of fans before any hope of meeting even a modest threshold can exist.

What’s important for fiction writers is not the specific business model each uses. What’s important is understanding what free does to publishing. Chris Anderson’s book provides a great starting point for the conversation. It’s up to the market and the ingenuity of individual writers to take it from there.