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Free by Chris Anderson

A review of Anderson's follow up to The Long Tail.
Nov | 11 | 2009


Nov | 11 | 2009

I try to stay on top of influential books these days, especially as summer gives way to fall and colder weather invariably limits my outdoor activities. My recent back injury only increased the amount of time I had to attack my reading list. Equipped with more time than I anticipated, I recently read Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. To cut to the chase, it is an exceptionally well-written, well-researched, and important book.

An Early Skepticism

I admit that I was a bit cynical going in, already believing that I understood the concept of Free quite well. I base this assertion on paying attention to the technology and business worlds over the past five years. Plus, everyone seems to be talking about this book and I had watched an interview with Anderson on C-SPAN a few weeks ago. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure that Free could sustain my interest for 250 pages.

I was wrong. Really wrong.

Anderson painstakingly details the evolution of Free (a concept that he capitalizes throughout the book). He delves where necessary into sometimes obscure–but nonetheless important–economic theories. (I’m glad that I remembered my college economics courses, not that that’s required to follow his concepts.) Rather than continue fill his text with dry economic analyses, however, Anderson moves quite easily into the social sciences, citing the works of scholars such as Herb Simon (no relation) and Abraham Maslow.

Lest you think that you’ll read a strictly academic book, Anderson’s real world examples simply jump off the page. The usual suspects are certainly accounted for: Google (more than once), Radiohead, the NY Times, and others provide proof that Free needs to be front and center these days for many companies’ business models.

A Scary Concept

Towards the end of the book, I realized that Free is as scary as it is important. With Gen Y growing up digital, to paraphrase Don Tapscott’s book of the same name, many people now take free goods and services as givens. This has huge implications for many areas of society and business, as Anderson demonstrates throughout the book. This leaves me wondering whether Free is sustainable in the long-term. At some point, companies and individual people (like me) have to make money.

Because of the book’s far-reaching ramifications, I would imagine that it’s required reading at many MBA programs and startup companies these days. If not, then it probably should be.

Like all of my favorite non-fiction books, this one makes you think. It acknowledges the evolution of an important concept and balances where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going. I can only hope that my own books do the same.

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