Don't buy Chris Anderson's new book

This weekend, I read Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future Of A Radical Price – a book about how there’s a whole economy based on free stuff on the Internet. It might be summarized thus:

“People don’t like paying for things”

If this is a revelation, you can get it on Amazon for $26.99 or if, like me, you don’t like paying for things, you can read it online here or download an abridged audiobook here. I wish I hadn’t paid for it. I might have read it on the Internet, except that:

  1. I was on a plane with nothing better to do and…
  2. …there are more interesting things you can do if you have an Internet connection.

Simply put, it’s an opportunistic book that takes an obvious statement, sprinkles it with popular science, adds a large dash of popular economic theory, and then repeats itself until the word-count is satisfied.

Highlights include:

  • claiming that free stuff is a revolutionary new idea whilst repeatedly relying on the clichéd example of Gillette’s free razors to explain how it works
  • the repeated assertion that “very cheap” is the same as “free” for a business, while explaining at great length how the two things mean something completely different to customers. There’s a powerful truth here, but his presentation of the issue is a fudge*
  • citing much-hyped startups as examples of successful businesses built on free stuff, even though these companies can’t find a way to make money faster than they spend it precisely because “very cheap” looks a lot like “very expensive” when you multiply it by a few billion.

Nowhere in there is the admission that the book is, in part, an attempt to explain why the business you built on the predictions of his last book didn’t work. Whatever you do, don’t try to combine to two.

Malcolm Gladwell didn’t like it either.

* “Free” x “Long Tail” = $$ but “Very Cheap” x “Long Tail” = Minus $$$$$$$


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