via The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus:
In his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson uses Richard A. Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as a poster child for how giving away information online can bring personal gain. But Mr. Muller says Mr. Anderson doesn’t have his story straight — and that his personal experience does not support the book’s argument.
Mr. Anderson is the editor in chief of Wired magazine, and his book (available free online) has been getting buzz in recent weeks for its argument that businesses can use free information to spark sales of related products and services.
In a pull-out box in the book, Mr. Anderson tells the story of how Berkeley put lectures on YouTube from Mr. Muller’s course “Physics for Future Presidents” that drew more than 200,000 views and turned the professor into “a Web celeb of sorts.” That part is undisputed. But Mr. Anderson then suggests that the celebrity status from the videos led Mr. Muller to secure a book deal, and led to greater interest in the resulting book. As Mr. Anderson concludes, “it’s easy to see just how good Free has been to Professor Muller.”
But in an e-mail interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Muller said the YouTube videos of his lectures did nothing to help him get a contract for Physics for Future Presidents (W.W. Norton).
“That is wishful thinking from someone who is trying to conclude that Webcasts lead to money,” said Mr. Muller. “But correlation is not causation. What Anderson says may be ‘easy to see,’ but it just ain’t so. He is letting his hoped-for conclusion drive his analysis of events.”
Mr. Muller said that the book deal came about when a Norton editor whom he had worked with on previous books (the professor had already published eight) visited his office and asked him if he had any ideas for a new one. “I don’t think [the editor] was even familiar with my online lectures,” he said.
“Norton wasn’t really interested in my online popularity,” Mr. Muller continued. “Best guess: they know that people who buy and read books are a very small population, and probably not the same as those who watch Webcasts of lectures.”
Mr. Anderson’s book argues that the Internet makes information so easy to distribute (and to pirate) that the best business response is to make it free and find some ancillary service to sell instead. “If software is free, sell support,” he writes. “If phone calls are free, sell distant labor and talent that can be reached by those free calls (the Indian outsourcing model in a nutshell).”
Mr. Muller doesn’t buy it, though, and says he has evidence that those video hits are not pumping up his book sales.
“I have been personally contacted by about 1,000 people who saw my Webcasts,” said the professor. “When the book came out, I arranged to e-mail all of them (using Norton’s account) to let them know that a book was now available. I then watched the sales very carefully. (I actually have a computer that downloads the ranking every hour from Google.) Although I had seen huge jumps in my sales when I was interviewed on NPR (3 times) or had a book review in The Boston Globe, and a few other things, the massive e-mailing to my Web fans produced no discernible increase in sales. My conclusion: Web viewers don’t buy many hardcover books.”
Mr. Anderson stands by his work, and his use of Mr. Muller as an example. “To suggest that all Web viewers don’t buy books seems premature,” said Mr. Anderson in an interview with The Chronicle. He argued that the professor’s exposure on YouTube most likely helped the sales of his book, even if indirectly. For instance, the popularity of the videos may have made reviewers more interested in writing about the book.
“If he believes there’s no correlation, that’s interesting,” said Mr. Anderson. “We have done the same type of experiments and we conclude otherwise.”
“Every product is different and every person is different,” he added. “You’ve got to find your own way to monetize celebrity.” —Jeffrey R. Young