Monday, March 02, 2009

Taking a page from Radiohead.

I have been telling my clients (as well as prospective clients) that is was only a matter of time before a major publisher tried to do with a book what Radiohead did a few years ago with their record In Rainbows. It was a simple experiment: Radiohead, super duper indie rockers, allowed you to pay whatever you as the consumer felt their music was worth. If you wanted to pay 20 bucks, cool...if you prefered to drop a dime on them-literally, ahem-that was cool too. Once you paid-or didn't, cheap bastard, Brian-they sent you a unique link which allowed you to download the album. As an incentive they were also selling a special edition of the record for a set price (much like the standard retail arrangement you experience in a store like Newbury Comics.) Was it a success, you axe me? Hell, yeah...smashing as they say in the UK:
A year after the album’s release, the band’s publicist announced that “In Rainbows” has sold 3 million copies, including downloads from, and sales of digital albums from other retailers, CDs and a box set. The sales from the band’s Web site alone exceeded the total sales for the band’s previous album, “Hail to the Thief,” released by largely conventional means through a major label in 2003. At the time, the album was available legally in essentially only one format: a compact disc...When physical copies of the album were finally made available three months after the digital release, “In Rainbows” debuted atop both the U.S. and U.K. pop charts. (This follow up on the Radiohead experiment here was done by Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot. All thanks to him for doing the research.)
Um, ok...that would be considered a success in music sales. What about the publisher trying it in the book world? The Guardian in England is reporting that Faber & Faber will allow customers to pay what they would like to obtain a copy of Ben Wilson's new book, What Price Liberty? Now, I hope this works. I love me some "pay what you think something is worth" but I am worried that this might not work well enough to convince others to try it.
Wilson's examination of the value and meaning of liberty will be available to download on 27 April, six weeks before it is published on paper at £14.99 (about $21.00), with readers given the freedom to set their own price, or even download it for free.
Have you ever heard of Ben Wilson? Right. Me neither. Now that doesn't mean anything...he could be an extremely important writer and/or well published in the UK and world. Buuuuut...he doesn't exactly have the profile of Radiohead. Radiohead was able to attract a considerable amount of attention from non-fans as well as rabid fans because of the novelty the sale and the forward thinking marketing strategy of "pay what you think it's worth. It's up to you." This is a fact that even Mr. Wilson understands:
It's a strategy Wilson, whose two previous books were published conventionally by Faber as hardbacks, admits is "a gamble". When he first heard about the "frightening idea of giving the book away", his reaction was surprise. "I've published before," he explains, "and you have that excitement of a book in physical form, so that's what you expect". But after a while "it clicked together so well with what I wanted to do with the book – the campaigning edge – that it made a lot of sense."
I really, really want this to work but I think they might have needed an author with a more famous name. Sad, but true. Radiohead worked because they are freakin' Radiohead. Everyone who cares about modern rock 'n' roll knows who they are (even if one doesn't like them). Yes, Mr. Wilson was named by Waterstone's as "one of 25 authors for the new century." Let's hope. I will be purchasing a copy of his book because I want this experiment to succeed. If it doesn't I worry that the same old model of publishing that has dominated the business for decades will continue while feeling empowered that what works for music doesn't have a chance of working in books. The problem with the old model is that is we end up with two million dollar advances for books by Kathy Griffin.

Still, I am excited...I think this might be how books survive. "We also think we'll learn a lot about the thirst for books in digital form," said Faber marketing executive Silvia Novak. For his part, Mr. Wilson seems to have his head screwed on correctly. He knows that "ideas are always judged in the same way, whether someone's paid £14.99 or a penny." "Any way you can get those ideas out there, the better." Agreed.

Oh, and for the record, I paid Radiohead 12.99 for In Rainbows.

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