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Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Free is More Complicated Than You'd Think"

Scott Adams seems puzzled that those who helped to make the bread might want a piece of it when it's done:

Giving Stuff Away on the Internet, by Scott Adams, Commentary, WSJ: I spend about a third of my workday blogging. Thanks to the miracle of online advertising, that increases my income by 1%. I balance that by hoping no one asks me why I do it. ... I figured I needed a rationalization... My rationalization for blogging was especially hard to concoct. I was giving away my product for free and hoping something good came of it. ...

Over time, I noticed something unexpected and wonderful was happening with the blog. I had an army of volunteer editors, and they never slept. The readers were changing the course of my writing in real time. I would post my thoughts on a topic, and the masses told me what they thought ... without holding anything back. Often they'd correct my grammar or facts and I'd fix it in minutes. They were in turns brutal and encouraging. They wanted more posts on some topics and less of others. It was like the old marketing saying, "Your customers tell you what business you're in."

At some point I realized we were collectively writing a book, or at least the guts of one. I compiled the most popular (mostly the funniest) posts and pitched it to a publisher. I got a six-figure advance, and picked a title indirectly suggested by my legion of accidental collaborators: "Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey-Brain!"

As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn't get much traffic, so I didn't think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder in the "how people think" category.

A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it. It was as if I had broken into their homes and ripped the books off their shelves. They felt violated. And boy, I heard about it. ... In the end, the bad feeling I caused by not giving away my material for free forever will have a negative impact on book sales.

I've had mixed results with giving away content on the Internet. I was the first syndicated cartoonist to offer a comic on the Internet without charge (www.dilbert.com). That gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the "Dilbert" comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds.

A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, "God's Debris," on the Internet for free... My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops. ... Free is more complicated than you'd think.

"I realized we were collectively writing a book." The word collectively might explain, in part, why some people objected to his removing the material from his site and taking all the (six-figure) gains for himself. Perhaps his "legion of accidental collaborators" feels a degree of ownership in the book - they participated in its creation - and they object to his taking their work for himself without having told them in advance that would happen. Leaving the material up on his site would have lowered the payment he received from the publisher, but perhaps that is the price of the collaboration.

    Posted by on Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Weblogs | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (70)


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