Weekly Web Watch: Will people buy what they can get for free? Authors bet on it

Steal this idea!

Steal this idea!

Steal this idea!

Those are the first words you see on the Web site for Internet marketing

guru Seth Godin’s new book, Unleashing the Idea Virus. And that’s

exactly what he wants you to do - kind of. Godin, author of the New York

Times business best seller Permission Marketing, is giving away his

latest work. Literally. You can just download it from the site


That’s because Godin believes that by giving the book away online, more

people will buy the bound version than otherwise would have. He’s

putting a good chunk of his future income where his mouth is. And Godin

is a big hitter. He headed Yahoo!’s direct marketing operation, and

Permission Marketing is one of the bibles of Internet marketing. Now, he

is engaging in viral marketing: letting loose an idea so compelling it

will travel like wildfire, like an epidemic - just by word of mouth. It

will make him a lot of money, and it will be a triumph of PR.

This all flies in the face of the PR that the record industry has been

putting out in support of its lawsuit against Napster and other

music-sharing Web sites. It also contradicts the movie industry, which

has just mounted a lawsuit against a Web site that offers software for

copying DVDs. A new study by Jupiter Communications also flies in the

face of the music industry. It says people who use file-sharing services

like Napster are 45% more likely to have increased their music buying

than people who don’t use them.

And this came in what must have been one of the most interesting weeks

this year for anybody who cares about digital content. Stephen King

announced that he too is putting his money where his mouth is, though

the risk for him is far less. He is making his latest book, The Plant,

available as a download from his site (www.stephenking.com) in

installments. He’s asking a dollar a chapter, which you are not forced

to pay. Everybody is on the honor system. The catch? If fewer than 75%

of the people pay, he will simply not make the subsequent chapters


King believes authors and musicians should be paid for the work they do.

But he also writes on his Web site that he thinks ’current technology is

rapidly turning the whole idea of copyright into a risky proposition -

not quite a joke, but something close to it.’ King’s is a different

approach from Godin’s, but an equally challenging one for an industry

that has not been in the habit of giving things away. Godin’s powerful

idea is to have the courage to say: ’It doesn’t matter that technology

is rendering copyright redundant. That same technology enables you to

reach more people, more powerfully than ever before and to make a lot

more money in the long run. Go on. Take. Steal! Share. Because

ultimately that means more people will know about me, will have tasted

my ideas and will spend more money with me than otherwise would have

been the case.’

If the whole of The Plant gets posted online, you’ll know that people

paid when they could have stolen. In fact, you won’t be able to avoid

hearing about it, given the attention he attracted when his novella

Riding the Bullet was sold in digital form. But it’s really Godin’s

venture that bears closer watching. If that succeeds, more than just the

book business will have to sit up and take notice.

Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution. He can be contacted at


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