One of Chris Anderson‘s great coined phrases is that “information wants to be free.”  

It’s very true. And it’s not just consumers of information driving down its price. As information creators and distributors, we share important info with friends and colleagues almost incessantly, and we do it not to fill our pockets but to be of help to others and build our “reputational capital.” 

Bloggers and hardcore online content creators of all types show just how far we will go to give away information in exchange for other intangibles.

It’s no wonder, then, that as newspapers, magazines, movies, music, etc. have all gone digital, where the variable cost of distribution is essentially zero and where competitors offering “free” abound, the price of information has continued to drop. Publishers can no longer hide behind the cost of physical distribution, they can scarcely differentiate on quality of content, and their relatively limited access to insider information is readily apparent via a simple Google search.

It’s tempting to think that media executives were tacitly recognizing this by going free when they went online several years ago. And yet these same executives are not shy about sharing their regrets. They believe that “free” was not inevitable, but rather that they led people to undervalue their product by giving into the fad of “free.”

And it’s in this context that you have to understand the Macmillan-Amazon row. Books are one of the final bastions of physical information. They have successfully resisted digital distribution for years. As a result, you’ll still pay $5-$10 for a book by a dead author that has been public domain for over a century. 

However, the success of the Kindle and anticipated success of the iPad and other readers threaten to add eBooks to the list of information subject to the pressures of free.

Macmillan, learning from its peers in the newspaper and magazine industries, made a preemptive move to assert its belief in the intrinsic value of its products, regardless of whether they occupy a physical form, before consumers could fully make their value judgments known. 

If you ask me, in the long term they are fighting a losing battle. I don’t believe that good books will or should be “free.” But I believe that consumers will ultimately be the judges of the value of paper-less books that compete for mindshare with the amazing amounts of good, free information out there. Like newspapers, books and book publishers, too, will ultimately have to reinvent themselves to stay in business. 

Rather than defending its turf and outdated business model, Macmillan would be better served to start creating the future of books.

Posted via email from Human Ventures