Macmillan CEO John Sargent: He’s Correct!

Macmillan CEO John Sargent participated in an NYU Media Talk event moderated by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson.

Anderson is infamous for his book titled, FREE: The Future of a Radical Price (a title he backtracks on in the event and wishes he’d called “Freemium” instead).

Publishers Weekly did a post about this event: At NYU Event, Macmillan CEO Says “Free” Content Will Be Challenge for Books.

Proving one should never count on the press to report properly, they left out a crucial quote that I haven’t seen anywhere else — and if it was mentioned at all, it wasn’t given the damned prominence it deserves. That’s what I’m going to rectify here.

Sargent was characterized as a boneheaded reactionary at the time. I saw the tweets about it back then. This also proves one should never count on people on Twitter to get the story straight, either.

Sargent gave a real-life example of how free can kill a business and then also gave a hypothetical example of how free can kill publishing in the future.

There is no arguing with the real-life example he gave. Here it is.

He speaks about it in the video Part 3: Free AND Paid Content [link to page; video cannot be embedded here — well, not legally]. This is what he said at about 13 minutes in:

We’ve seen some interesting stuff. Cory Doctorow, when he puts his books out for free, drives his sales of his books. We can prove that, you know? You put out the new book for free, you see sales of the new book go up. Absolutely. Put the same book out for free, sales of the book go up.

Oh, that sounds so magical, right? That’s what everybody on the Net chattering about publishing says is The Future, right?

Well, here’s the bit people have conveniently ignored which came right after that:

We had a car guide, Edmund’s Car Guide. That was a distributed line we had at one point.

Edmund’s decided to put a little content up on the web. We said, “Great, it’ll drive the sales.”

He said, “I’m gonna put it all up.” We said, “Don’t do it. You won’t sell books.” He said, “I’m gonna prove you wrong.” He put one-hundred per cent of his content up for free.

First year, sales of the book went up.

Second year, they went up again.

Third year, they dropped by fifty per cent.

Fourth year, we didn’t sell another book. You don’t find them on a bookstore shelf anymore.

So there is that danger of the experimental stage of, “I give it away free and look! — my sales go up.”

There’s gonna come a point in time where I give it away for free and my sales don’t go up and then there’s gonna be a point in time when I give it away for free and I ain’t selling shit anymore.

Boldfaced emphasis in original speech inflection.

Now here comes the part a bit earlier than that, where he gives the hypothetical and why I’m doing this post today:

We — a lot us — publish the first one of the author’s series, or the second one or the third one — we give it away free, to promote the new book. “Read this: You’re gonna get hooked on it and you’re gonna go buy the new book — it’s fantastic.”

If we all do that on, let’s call it our five top authors on the list, very shortly there is going to be, for anyone who wants it, available five years of great thriller reading available at the [garbled] from top-of-the-line New York Times best-sellers, for absolutely free.

They’re not gonna ever have to buy one because there’s an almost infinite supply. Because the publisher next to you is gonna put out another one free and another one out free.

Why do I bring that up?

Because this is Read An eBook Week.

And, as I showed in yesterday’s post, I downloaded one hundred and fifteen eBooks that previously had price tags on them, for free.

I didn’t even count the books that were offered for free, period.

How many years of reading would that represent for the average American? Perhaps a lifetime’s worth. All for free.

So Sargent has a very valid point there about print publishers giving away their content for free. At some point, new books will have a negative valuebecause the attention that was once accorded to them has shifted to another place. That place might be Smashwords, with its flood of free.

But free can be combated. I’ve gone over this again and again:

The Eleven Axioms of 21st Century Book Publishing

Apple’s iSlate Gives Book Publishers False Hope

And especially here, with all of its backlinks:

How Book Publishing Will Lose: eBooks Vs. Smart Digital Books

Free can be beaten. But not with the crap weapon print publishing is using right now: ePub.

And not without techies at the top of publishing’s corporate leadership to thwart the goals of Google.

Sargent isn’t correct about everything, but he nailed it here.

He saw the real possible future, not the rainbows and unicorns one being promoted by Chris Anderson.

But what will Sargent do now?

4 responses to “Macmillan CEO John Sargent: He’s Correct!

  1. 100 doughnuts made out of wood rarely taste as good as one doughnut made with flour, sugar, and eggs. Giving away one book whets appetites; giving away a bunch turns them into wax fruit.

  2. Pingback: Things Publishers Fear: #4 ~ Price | Bookbee

  3. I’ve been puzzling about this since way back in the CDRom days. Freemium is such a seductive argument, but in the end it always comes down to how the creator is going to eat.

    Already, the real book system makes it hard for authors. Far too many people have their fingers in the pot and the author is left to see what’s left at the end. I’ve had books sold by The Book People, where I got 0.05% royalty in the end! They give away (sorry, “sell”) my work at such low prices that readers come to expect a low price everywhere else and feel they are being ripped off if they pay full price.

    Unless they buy it from me and I sign it for them – then they are very happy and sometimes feel they should pay more for the signature too. This is the going on tour and merchandising route that musicians have gone down. I guess it’s the way storytellers have always worked too. Maybe the publishing system we have come to know has just been an oddity and we will all have to go back to selling ourselves or finding a patron?

  4. Pingback: Self-Publishing Review | Blog | On Piracy and Freebooks