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Cheapskate

Submitted by Tom Peters on July 16, 2009 - 9:44am

I’m a cheapskate and proud of it.  If I can get something I want or need with little or no out-of-pocket expense, I can ignore the resulting flurry of ads and give sales callers a virtual karate chop with the best of them.  So, when I became aware that Chris Anderson has a new book out, published on July 7, called Free: The Future of a Radical Price, that was available for free (as in no direct out-of-pocket expense), I downloaded the free audiobook version and transferred it to my Creative Zen audio player in a heartbeat.  Then I headed off for ALA Annual Conference in Chicago.

 
 
If you want to own a traditional, printed hardback edition of Free, the price on Amazon as I type is $16.19 (But wait! Your purchase will be eligible for free Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25).  There is no Kindle edition available yet.

Anderson had previously written The Long Tail, a book that I, as a content provider, found stimulating.  In that book Anderson noted that, when lots of digital content is aggregated and made available, each item in the collection will receive some use.  
 
Free is basically a book about the past, present, and future of the notion and practice of giving stuff away for free.  During the 20th century, giving away physical products for free was usually done as a marketing technique.  One classic example involves giving away a razor in order to build a lasting relationship with little shavers, then making a lifetime of profits selling the blades at a substantial mark-up. 

Most libraries are perceived by users and the general public as being free in the sense that you can use most of the content and services offered by the library with no out-of-pocket expense.  Some libraries have even managed to work the word free into their names.  
 
Of course, libraries are not free.  My most recent property tax statement indicates that I pay approximately $80 per year to support the Mid-Continent Public Library.  I’m happy to pay that financial support for a good local public library system...even a cheapskate is willing to support good things.    
 
So, if libraries already are perceived as free, we’re good to go boldly into the 21st century, right?  We were into free before free became cool with the digerati.  Anderson’s book might be an interesting read, but not fundamentally unsettling to our profession, right? 
 
Well, not necessarily.  One of Anderson’s main points is that the cost of all digital information is trending toward zero.  So, the competition for delivering free digital content is going to heat up.  Free soon may cease to be a substantial product differentiator. 
 
During his presentation at the ALA unconference preconference on Friday, Jason Griffey mentioned Anderson’s new book and the idea that digital information may soon become free.  When I sheepishly inquired if high quality information and information services would continue to function as a service differentiator, Jason and several other unconference attendees responded with a quick, firm negative.  Good enough will be good enough for the vast majority of users of free digital information.  Suddenly I envisioned a Munchian scream coming from a long line of philosophers from Plato to Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who had thought long and well about the concept of quality.  If all this free digital information comes to pass as predicted, neither a low price nor high quality will hold much sway with users.   
 
I’m only about one-third through the book, but evidently one aspect of free that Anderson does not cover in depth is the notion of free as a public good.  Parks and public libraries are classic examples of public goods that initially were designed to accept all users with open arms without requiring any out-of-pocket expense.  Of course, that pure idea of a public good institution has become diluted over the years, as access and usage fees have crept into the way we experience national parks, highways, and libraries.  
 
I plan to give free copies of Free as Christmas gifts to all the vendors of library digital content I know.  I hope that they will read it and think about Anderson’s ideas.  If they actually act on Anderson’s ideas, that will be even better.  If they promptly re-gift my free gift without giving it a moment’s thought, that’s okay, too.  If they think I’m a cheapskate, no problem.  I am, and proud of it.  I try to avoid spending money, but I give good free stuff freely.

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