Recently, my colleague Sylvia Guinan asked me:

“I’ve been trying to work out your sharing philosophy. I share a lot too, but you work really hard on publishing professional books and then give them away. Is it some kind of karma philosophy where the more you share the more you get back, like a boomerang effect?”

It’s an interesting question.

Why to work weeks and months on something and then give it away for free once its done?

Why do I do this?

The short answer is: Because I can. And it’s fun!

I’d love to tell you that I have a brilliant method worked out from reading bestsellers like Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future Of A Radical Price and poring over endless case-studies which made me see that giving things away for free is economically viable, in the long run.

But that would be a lie. It’s far simpler than that.

1. Everyone Likes Free Stuff

A few days ago I wrote about Sargent House and how they allow people to listen to full albums of their musicians for free, no strings attached. It’s the opposite of the iTunes view of the universe where without a certain software, apple ID and credit card, you get nothing.

It’s amazing how people are willing to put up with all kinds of often unnecessary hurdles, complications and conditions, just because they tell themselves: “Well,this is how things have to be.” and whip out their credit card.

From a corporate perspective, this is great! The more people pay, the better. And as long as they do, why make it easier, cheaper or, not to mention, free?

There is a misconception that free is the opposite of value. But that’s wrong. Actually, the opposite of value is total obscurity: when noone is interested in a product or service (paid or free)! When something has value, it will receive attention (paid or free).

This can often mean that it’s more beneficial to give a great product away for free so that it can reach as many people as possible, instead of limiting it only to those willing (or able) to pay.

2. Publishing For People, Not The Market

Despite the boom of the so called start-up culture, many businesses nowadays still aren’t necessarily run for people, in the end, but for the profits these people bring. As I’ve said before, we have to remember hat this is a Western-centric culture.

Especially when dealing with digital products, global delivery couldn’t be easier! Whether someone from Sweden or Sri Lanka wants to read my book, they’re both just a click away, right?

Well… yes and no.

Due to financial infrastructures around the planet which are almost always beyond an individual’s direct influence, payment can be a big hurdle. Noone chooses to be born in a particular country with a particular GDP.  And it’s not just that some people can’t pay. In other cases, maybe people would like to pay but their country is blocked from using services such as PayPal, Moneybookers or even major credit cards.

Sometimes, you just want to be able to get ideas out quickly to a world-wide audience instead of saying: put a few rupees into an envelope and then in 6 weeks I’ll send you copy.

This digital divide is not just an issue between the developing and the so called “developed” world. Even in the West, while parts of the society are flying high on mobile Internet flat-rates and pay their Lattes with their iPhones, many others simply don’t.

3. Simplicity

Now, even if all the conditions are there: People have the technology, the money and the time to consume the product, often it’s just easier to make it free. Example: If I put out a book for a relatively low price it might be easier to just give it away. Less trouble for me. Less trouble for the people. I get more downloads and more feedback and people are happy for not having to jump through hoops. While some people use this to gamble financially (make people love you by giving them free stuff and they’ll pay) this cannot be done from a purely economic mindset.

4. Value Is Subjective

In order to give away stuff for free without ulterior motives (cash in on my generosity, later) one has to have a strong belief in whatever one puts out there, whether it is music or photography, etc. With belief I mean a sense that the power of the work goes beyond its physical (or digital) form. The value of a book, song or photo can never be fully reduced to the level of its manifestation (weight, length, material costs used, etc.). In other words, the price we give these things is completely arbitrary. Furthermore, they have no value in themselves but are always related to a particular context. Example: One person wouldn’t go to see a particular band even if he got paid for doing so while another one is willing to spend hundreds of dollars on that last ticket on eBay.

In other words: Whatever price I can set for a certain book, it will never be a good representation of its value. All it can be is relatively competitive compared to other similar products in the same space. But this doesn’t say anything about the book, itself.

Therefore, FREE is the most elegant way of saying: Name Your Price!

5. Charity

Philanthropy, to most of us, is a luxury. That is, if it involves donating huge amounts to charity organizations. We can’t just give everything away, unless we have enough! We need to live off something, right?

True. But only partly so.

If I gave away all my books for free, I’d be in trouble. I need to drink my coffee in the morning and eat my oatmeal to write articles like this and publish more stuff. This is basic sustenance.

But even if I charge for my work, this doesn’t mean that I can’t give away things for free.  It’s a form of charity. And, contrary to some people’s belief (often derived from religion) that giving charity should be a goal, I prefer the position that it’s a basic requirement, not an aspiration.

Here Are Some Of My Free Publications


img: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Βethan via flickr