Blog Post

If Information is Free, Why is Chris Anderson Publishing a Book?

If we really believe that Information Wants to Be Free, in Stewart Brand's famous phrase, then why are some of the visionaries of the Information Age rushing to old-fashioned commercial publishing to broadcast their ideas?  Could it be that they've figured out that "free information" means they can't make a good living publishing on the Internet so, not exactly practicing what they preach, they turn to commercial publishing to make a profit on their ideas about the Internet?


This question is raised powerfully by Nicole Ferraro blogging on Internet Evolution:  


Ferraro includes a survey of Internet Evolution readers, asking whether they really read books about the Internet or even care.  But then she asks about this oxymoron.  Why write a book about digital technology?   Here are some of her interesting thoughts, but I highly recommend her whole column, "Readers Say 'No' to Books About the Web."   The title should more accurately be, "Readers [of Internet Evolution] Say 'No' to Books About the Web."  But her points are thoughtprovoking and important as we try to figure out our digital future:


Nicole Ferraro writes:  "When we pitched this poll, one of our readers, mathemagician, weighed in with what he thought was a better idea than publishing a book: "For something that is as fluid as technology, something like a Wiki makes more sense. The author can control content and users/customers can submit changes."

Ah, a Wiki! Or even, a blog, yeah? Very Tech 2.0. These are easily distributable and totally relevant places to write about the Web. People who love the Web (Jarvis, Anderson -- two great examples) should surely be on board with this.

But, alas, a Wiki hardly offers an advance, and there are no royalties or book parties. Otherwise, wouldn't Chris Anderson have written his book Free on a Wiki, rather than selling it on paper for a Price?

Which brings us to a central point (finally, a point!). That is, it's somewhat ironic that the very industry (print) that is said to be dying at the hand of the Evil Internets is where digital natives are running when they need to make a profit.

These Web giants may champion the blogosphere, or how just about everything can be said in 140 characters or less, or how it's all going to be free forever. But the basic idea that they write books about the Web at all serves as more nagging evidence that the Web is not, in fact, where the money is.

Now if you'll excuse me... I think I just got an idea for my first book."


Thanks, Nicole!   And thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for posting the url for Nicole's post on Facebook.



I think the main reason that people publish printed books about the Internet is so that those who still consume information that way (ie: on paper) aren't left behind. Clearly there is a market for the growing ouvre of books on Internet culture (see Shirky, Weinberger, etc. etc.).

The book Free is, in fact, available for free in a variety of ways. On Anderson's site he links to the free audiobook, ebook, and more. Is the author to be blamed for the fact that thereis still a market for books? Maybe he's even helping it. ;-)


Thanks so much for this.  I'd love to get a real discussion going on this issue.  We have had a number on the HASTAC site and would love to work up another, maybe a forum sometime.   Who and how we pay is really an important issue in this transitional phase, especially for artists, writers, musicians who are not World Famous.

I think you're exactly right about the fact that Chris Anderson publishes books and also makes them available for free (and, since I publish books and also try to make them available free, I agree).  He must have negotiated that up front with his publisher and that is somehow folded in to his advance against future royalties.  It's no doubt part of his contracted terms with his publisher.  That's interesting to me.   There is always a hidden cost associated and the "information wants to be free" argument rarely highlights those hidden costs. 


For example, HASTAC was able to use a special fund to explore new modes of publishing to help subsidize the online publication of Chris Kelty's scholarly ethnography of the free software movement, TWO BITS.   But without that subsidy, Duke U P would not have been able to afford the dual publication (we also did a lot of supplementary publcity to the online community, as did Chris).  Interestingly, what we found (and Chris is tracking this and writing about it on his website) is that the overall book sales are about as would be expected for a book of this type.  And the free downloads relative to the purchased books are about 3:1 . . . not 1000:1 as we might have guessed at first.   That was a surprise. Here's Chris's post on the Savage Minds anthropology online blog journal:


I have written many many posts about "information wants to be free" about who pays for the free information.  Malcolm Gladwell's point, in a review I referenced in an earlier post on Anderson, is that someone pays authors.  Chris Anderson is paid by WIRED magazine.   If online publishing puts WIRED out of business, who pays Chris's salary then (or Malcolm Gladwell's were NEW YORKER to fold)?  The book business has a system for paying authors--advances, royalties.  Chris Anderson must have gotten a handseom advance for fast-tracking FREE into publication after the notable success of THE LONG TAIL, a book I admire and quote a lot.    But we don't yet have a system worked out for paying for the labor of authors on the Internet.  Anderson's solution is to turn to the free downloads of rock stars and say that they make back their money in performance.  But if you are a writer, writing takes enormous front-end time, before anything is published.  Going out and doing speaking engagements takes away from writing time . . . and writers rarely get paid like rock stars.  So where is the income to come from?   And he is writing only about the top tier of really famous, popular writers?  What about the range of writers who live modestly from their book incomes?


I don't have answers but I really want these questions to be part of the equation.  Maybe because I spent eight years in an entrepreneurial rather than conventionally academic job, I find myself wanting a sustainable business model for ventures, even the best-intentioned social ventures.   I don't think we've found that business model yet for the producers of content--artists, writers, musicians--that may be marginally remunerative in the analog system but non-remunerative in the digital at present.   What that new online business model might be?  No idea.  But discussions like that, that take into account all of the different facets of the issue, from production on to distribution and consumption, help to tease out the fuzziness obscured by terms like "prosumer." 


from Savage Minds

Two Bits at Six Months

by ckelty on January 24th, 2009

Last June I announced that I had published my book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. It was released both as a book by Duke University Press and as an open access publication via a website that I created and maintain. For scholars in my fields—-anthropology, history, science studies, media studies—-this is one of the first experiments, if not the first, of this kind. As such, I’ve been doing my best to keep some notes on the process, with a mind towards reporting on the results of going open access with a first book.

Herewith, therefore, are two reports generated by Google Analytics, which is hands-down the most un-evil thing Google has ever done (General Report | Traffic Source Report). These reports are chock full of information, beautifully organized and fascinating to explore. Unfortunately, they are also pretty hard to interpret. I’m posting them now, because I think they show a few things pretty clearly, such as the initial spike of interest, the fact that 4 times as many of my readers use Firefox as do Internet explorer, the role of small communities in creating attention (savage minds, hastac, and a handful of close friends account for a significant portion of the traffic to the site).
My book is in kind of a strange space. On the one hand, it is a conventional academic book, a first book by an assistant professor (now tenured, thank you very much Duke University Press); it is accessible, but not popular; it has a large potential audience beyond academics because of its subject matter; and it is beautifully designed and people tell me it is well written. So much for the pro column. In the con column: it is long, it contains complicated theory in the first chapter, including Habermas, which is fatal to any reader even in small amounts; it doesn’t have any sound-bitable arguments and people tell me it is poorly written.

In short, it’s a pretty standard academic book, and therefore a good candidate for this experiment. People always ask what I had to do to convince Duke to let me release the book. On the one hand the subject matter made it easy: I couldn’t respect myself, or Duke, if a book about Free Software were not freely available. On the other hand, I think they were really eager to experiment, to see what would happen. I created the website, so they didn’t have to; and they agreed to use a CC (By-NC-SA) license and to give me the pdf and a very clean HTML copy (thank you Achorn) for distribution. The designer, Cherie Westmorland, used an open source font and the Boston Public Library let me use the cover image. All told, things worked out swimmingly, and the whole process has been, well, entirely normal. Duke is making as little or as much money on the book as they do on others of its ilk, and yet I am getting much more from it being open access than I might otherwise.

So what have I learned so far? A few things:

1) The Internet is dead. Well maybe it’s not that bad, but the era when simply putting something online guaranteed orders of magnitude more readers/viewers/listeners than normal is long gone. To put a finer point on it, let’s say the ‘Age of Boing Boing’ is dead. Sorry University Presses, you missed it. The place is just so saturated with everything and everybody that it now feels more like normal life and less like some special place. This amounts to saying that things have returned to normal levels of hard work. To get a book to sell, one has to invest a lot of work in marketing it, promoting it and distributing it—-but all these things now include new forms of marketing promoting and distribution online. Just putting a book online means nothing unless one is going to work hard to bring attention to it (a fact Rex has noted repeatedly as well). How do I know this: because the Google reports tell the story. All the spikes in traffic correlate precisely with mentions in major and minor media outlets, ranging from Savage Minds to the New Yorker. Placing links in widely read places (print or online) increases traffic. Full Stop. But more than that, I know this because the ratio of print sales to downloads downloads to print sales has been 3 to 1 (Thanks, Cathy for the correction) . Not 1000 to 1 or even 100 to 1, but 3 to 1. That’s kind of amazing. It means that neither my outsized expectations of hordes of geeks downloading the book, nor Duke’s fears of massive numbers of lost sales have come true.

2) I have tenure. Putting my book online did not ruin my career. Having Duke publish it, as opposed to, say, some online vanity press, contributed to my tenure case, but simply having it available for free is not career suicide. Quite the opposite, I would say. I have more requests now for talks, reviews, contributed papers, conferences, interviews and projects than I can accept, and probably more than half of them come from people I don’t know from Adam, which means people who have found the book in public rather than through connections with my peers and friends. Lots of people are assigning the book in class, or bits of it, which I can only assume is facilitated by the ease of access. Duke, of course, might not like to hear this since it means people are assigning the book without ordering copies for class, but I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I would like those people to assign the whole book and for Duke to be remunerated as a result; on the other hand, I know what creating a syllabus is like, and how great it is when something can be added just by inserting a link, as opposed to dealing with bookstores and administrative systems for ordering the book—a book students may or may not buy anyways.

3) I’ve had a pretty excellent amount of media attention. There are books it might be compared to that have done better: Jonathan Zittrain’s book came out at the same time, and he was on the Colbert Report, as was Clay Shirky. But as much as I love Colbert, that’s exactly the opposite of the kind of attention I would want. I have no “message” which I want a hundred million people to hear; I have a scholarly book which I wish Zittrain and Shirky would read, not Colbert and his audience. Nonetheless, I have had mentions in The New Yorker Blog, The Times Higher Education Supplement, Technology Review, Inside Higher Ed, and others. I’ve had conversations with people from Korea, Argentina, Brazil, and India about the book. I’ve had excellent response from European scholars interested in the book. In short, I can’t complain. According to Duke, the amount of marketing that went into my book was more intensive than most, and this may no doubt accounts for some of that attention. Frankly, it’s more than enough. I’m not quite sure what I would do with more, but I do know that with a bit more marketing, the dynamics of attention might conceivably change much more dramatically than just ten years ago. For some books that university presses publish, this fact is worth mulling over.