“Information wants to be free.” So goes the famous saying attributed to Stewart Brand about digital products and services. And perhaps it’s true in a lot of cases. Wikipedia was revolutionary, and it’s become a great resource for basic data on all sorts of topics. I use it myself all the time—not for serious editorial work or formal writing, mind you, but certainly for casual questions that come to mind. And consider government data: there is no question that such data should by and large (if not always) be free.
By “free,” I mean (in this context) “free of charge.” As opposed to “free to share,” for example.
The Textbook Industry
In my industry (academic textbooks and related materials), there has been a wave of interest in so-called Open textbooks. Both private companies and educational institutions have created free textbooks. Students, naturally, tend to love the idea. And why not? They’ve dealt with punishingly expensive textbooks for years now, with prices going ever higher and publishers searching for creative ways to keep the used textbook market at bay.
However, consider me a skeptic on free textbooks. Trust me on this: quality educational materials are neither cheap nor easy to create. And with the future sure to be increasingly digital, educational materials will have to be kept up to date. Again, not cheap. Not easy. The groups funding the “free” materials are going to have to earn their money back sooner or later. Then what happens to “free”?
Business Owners: The Case for the Middle Way
Rather than rush from one extreme (“hideously expensive”) to another (“free”), it seems to me a better case can be made for the middle way: modestly priced, but not free. Naturally I would think that, since that’s the path I’ve chosen for our Milestone Documents service. But I think this approach is a good one for any number of companies in any number of digital industries, not just textbooks. Consider the advantages:
- The company can earn money. Isn’t that ultimately the goal (if not a requirement) of a for-profit company?
- The company has a stream of revenue that it can use to continually improve the product/service.
- If the price is reasonable, customers (in our case, students) can still save lots of money, or at least see your product as a great value.
If your company is operating in a mass-market industry, or one where the scale is such that your venture can ultimately be funded by advertising, then perhaps free is the right approach for you. For everyone else, I’d urge caution. Charging money for a good product/service is not unethical. Even better: charging a modest fee for a great product/service is eminently sensible. That’s our goal with Milestone Documents, and it’s one that I think can apply to many digital businesses.