Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three Heavy Hitters Battle Over Free

Three heavy hitters in the marketing community went at it this week. It began with Chris Anderson's book, Free. The second heavy hitter, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a review for The New Yorker titled Priced To Sell: Is free the future?. His review disagreed with much of what Chris Anderson said in his book. Gradwell's claim being that no matter how cheap individual units of something become, the infrastructure of producing the whole will be too large to truly make them free. On Tuesday, Seth Godin came to Anderson's defense with his post, Malcolm is Wrong.

So, who is right? Are Chris Anderson and Seth Godin correct that we will reach the point where information is so cheap that we might as well give it away? Have we reached the point? Or is Malcolm Gladwell correct that the cost of generating and delivering the information will prevent us from offering it for free?

What was it your mother told you? There is no free lunch. I definitely am going to have to side with Malcolm Gladwell on this one. All of that content that looks free on the Internet isn't really free. Someone is paying for it. People are putting in many hours generating it and they are doing so expecting something in return. Yes, it could be the case that a singer is putting this information out there so you will pay to attend a concert. But not everyone performs. There are people who do nothing but do research and provide information in an easy to understand. It cost them time and money to do this. Just because we have computers that can disseminate this information to millions does not mean that the the work these people do does not have value. We can be sure of one thing, if the people who are putting in the time to generate quality content are not compensated for their work, the quality content will disappear and we will have nothing but what is generated by the activists, who are glad to publish their work for free if it means more people can be won to their cause.

I highly recommend that you read Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker. It is lengthy, but he has stated things much more clearly than I and he makes some very good points.

Getting Your Readers' Attention: Relevance (2 of 5)

Novelists spend a lot of time writing. When treating it like a full-time job, it can take a month to write a novel. Sporadic writers may take a year or more. The whole time, the writer is wondering if it is a waste of time. We wonder if anyone will want to read what we have written. That leads us into the next question from Andy Stanley’s pod cast. We want other people to believe that what we have written is worthwhile.

Why do they need to know it?

We talked yesterday about the theme of our novels, or to use Andy Stanley’s term, the one thing. We don’t usually sell novels by telling people we’re going to teach them something, and yet, stories have a higher purpose than entertainment. Stories have always been the most efficient way to convey information that people will remember. Stories must be entertaining, or people won’t read them, but we must never forget their higher purpose and as such, we must write in such a way that people see what we are telling them as relevant.

If you know me, you know that I think The Shack is a bunch of theological hogwash. But it has its fans who talk about how it changed their lives and how it revealed God in a way they had never seen him. What we are hearing in their statements is that they see the theme of The Shack—which is pretty much that God loves us too much to get hung up over sin, doctrine or anything else that theologians this is important—as being relevant to their lives. For all of its problems, it addresses the question of Why do they need to know it? Readers believe need to know it because they are searching for an understanding of why God can call himself loving and yet allow bad things to happen in their lives.

We need to ask ourselves why people need to read a book with our theme and how we can persuade them that it is relevant. That goes back to the concept of a hook. We want our readers to realize up front that we have something they need (or want) to know and that if they stick with us that we will meet that need. That need could be something as innocuous as addressing how a person will respond if someone keeps asking the question, “do you like green eggs and ham?” Why do people need to know that? Because it’s an interesting question (for a child anyway). Because it reveals something about ourselves.

The important thing is that people will read our novels when they believe it is relevant to them. It may be that they have read our previous work and they want to read more. It may be that we address a topic that intrigues them. What ever it is, it is important to realize that the reason we think they need to know something isn’t as important as why they think they need to know something. If we can address that easily in the work and address that need, our readers will stick with us through the end.

Next time, we’ll talk about What do they need to do?