The Culture of Free, and The Power of Less

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

A few people on other websites have commented on the irony of me selling a book (The Power of Less) about working and doing and living with less, saying something along the lines of:

“Yes, I’m going to live with less … starting with not buying books!”

I can see the humor and irony in that — in fact, it’s something I’ve debated internally from the start, from when I first decided to write a book. And it’s something I want to talk about now, because as some of you know, I have strong (and sometimes controversial) feelings about whether things should be free. And how to live frugally.

So how do I reconcile selling a book with my philosophy of wanting things to be free, and advocating living frugally? Let’s explore.

The Culture of Free

I’m a proponent of free software, of free information (such as Wikipedia, vs. proprietary info such as a traditional proprietary encyclopedia), of the Culture of Free.

I won’t go too deeply into this philosophy, other than to make a few brief points.

First an important point: we must distinguish between “free” as in you don’t have to pay for it, and “free” as in you are free to distribute and use the information. An ebook (such as Zen To Done) can be free to distribute and copy and re-use (see my Uncopyright) but I can still sell it. When I talk about information being free, I’m refering to freedom of distribution and re-use in any way you like.

I believe that with digital technology the way it is, it is impossible or at least highly impractical to stop the spread of information — whether it be books, movies, music, blogs, photographs, or what have you — the way that this information distribution has been controlled and policed in the past. It will get more and more impractical as things become more and more digital (i.e. as we move from DVDs to downloading movies a la iTunes and other online services).

I believe that people actually benefit from information being free (again, not free as in costs nothing). More people have access to information than ever before, in all of human history. We are more informed, more able to make good decisions. We have more informed discussions. We are better able to evaluate the actions of our government, of corporations, of anything in society, with more access to information.

I believe that art, in all its forms, and creative people of all types, benefit tremendously from free information. When a writer (for example) is able to take the work of another writer and use it and modify it and build upon it in his own work, the artist benefits and so does the world. When an artist can take the photographs of another person and use them to create something new and brilliant, that’s a beautiful thing. Everyone wins.

Why Authors, Musicians, Photographers, and All Artists Win With Free

I believe that artists (of all types) can make a living even if they give away their info, or release it into the public domain. Consider the musicians of old: they made a living playing from town to town, because people liked their music, even though mega-record deals didn’t exist. Sure, maybe they weren’t multi-millionaires, but is it really right for a musician to become super rich simply because people are restricted in their freedoms? That seems like you’re profiting from the shackles of others.

Corporations might suffer, especially the media giants who have been making billions off proprietary media, but artists will still be able to make a living.

Consider the author, someone who has traditionally made only a percentage of the actual sales of his book, because if he didn’t agree to giving the publisher a big cut he’d never get published or distributed. Today, publication and distribution is possible without a big publisher, although publicity is still difficult without reliance on media industry and without a big publisher.

But imagine a world where the author publishes and releases his book into the public domain. He allows the book to be distributed free, digitally, and if it’s a great book, people will get excited about it and share it on their blog, email it to friends, link to it from Twitter and Facebook and MySpace. Good books will spread, while bad ones won’t. That’s the model of the future — unlike the current model, where the publisher is the decider of what gets published and what is successful, and what’s not.

So how does the author make money? Several ways:

  1. He can charge for the digital book on his site. Sure, you could get it for free elsewhere, but there will always be people who pay for it, if only to show thanks for the great book. This is what I do with Zen To Done, and it works.
  2. He can sell a hard copy of the book. Many people will always want to read a book in paper form, so they’ll buy it, even if they could get it for free digitally. Many people will want to give the book as a gift, and who wants to email a gift to someone? They’ll buy the paper version and wrap it and give it as a gift.
  3. He can sell services. If the book does well and spreads, people will want more from the author. They might want him to help them implement ideas from the book. They might want him to do speaking engagements, or seminars, or teleconferences. They might hire him as a consultant. You can make a lot of money doing these things, and if you release a great book, there will be demand.

An author can make a real name for himself if a book does well. His website (such as Zen Habits!) will see a big increase in traffic from a successful book. He can then sell ads on the website and make money. His future books will be in greater demand. He’ll have a reputation as an expert and be in demand for radio and TV shows. Maybe he’ll even get a radio or TV show for himself, or some other cool job, just from the reputation of the book.

You can see what I mean: free distributing of a book might not make you a lot of money directly, but can lead to money in the future. This is true not only of authors but of all artists.

And what’s more: money is not the only definition of success. If you don’t make a lot of money, but thousands or even millions of people learn from your book and lead better, happier lives … is that not worth the time it takes to write and promote a book? I would say that’s more important than making money, although making a living obviously is important.

OK, Cool … So What About Your Book?

And so this leads to the question: why am I selling The Power of Less? How does this reconcile with my philosophy? Great question. Several points:

  1. I decided to go with a traditional publisher only because they have a much better distribution channel, especially when it comes to physical bookstores, which at this point are still pretty popular (that might change in the future). Why? Because I wanted to reach people who don’t read blogs, people who read paper books. There are millions of these people, and without a hard copy of my book, they’d never be exposed to my ideas. I’m hoping the book will help them.
  2. I’m also doing it as an experiment. I’ve never been a published author (except in the digital sense) and I want to see how it works out, and what the advantages might be. It’s also a thrill, I must confess, to have a hard copy of my book in my hands, and see it in bookstores. :)
  3. I still want to freely distribute the information. First, many of the ideas in the book are here on Zen Habits (I go deeper into them in the book), but spread out throughout the site. So the information is already free, if you don’t mind sorting through hundreds of articles to find it. Second, I’m distributing much of the information in other ways, through my free ebook, in audio podcasts, in excerpts, etc. Third, I want to distribute the entire book freely, in the future. More on this below.

What About Frugality? Why Should I Buy the Book If You Recommend Being Frugal?

An excellent question. I often talk about frugality, and living with less, and getting away from the consumer culture. So why buy a book, then?

First, you don’t have to buy it. You can borrow it from a library, from a friend. Or you can buy it used. Or you can not buy it or read it at all.

Second, I don’t actually advocate never buying anything, especially books. Buying some things can actually help. If you spend $15 on something and it makes a huge difference in your life, then isn’t it worth it?

Third, in regards to clutter, I don’t think you should keep buying lots of things and clutter up your life … but if you just had a few good things that really meant a lot, that’s a good thing. I hope that my book can be that for some of you. For others, read it and pass it along.

I hope my book will help people, will make a difference in their lives. People buy a lot of self-help books, and many of them don’t really change anything. I believe The Power of Less will change things, if you put them into action. And the book is designed to be put into action easily.

My Desire to Make The Power of Less Free

I haven’t actually talked to my publisher about this (although I plan to soon), so this will probably freak them out … but I would love to release The Power of Less for free, in the public domain. Someday, maybe in the near future (like later this year, or next year).

It would still be for sale as a paper book, and I could even sell it at a discounted rate here on Zen Habits. But it would be released into the public domain (in my dream scenario), meaning people could spread it around after they buy it, and re-use it.

I don’t know if this can or will be done, but I think it would be cool.

I believe that it would actually increase the sales of the book … because as I said before, if a book is good people will spread it widely … and the wider it spreads, the more physical copies will be sold, if my theory holds true.

I don’t know if this is true. I believe it to be so. Only time will tell what model of distribution will work for information, but I believe things have to change, and inevitably will. Let’s hope free wins out.

To read more about The Power of Less, check out the website … or order it now:


If you liked this article, please share it on or StumbleUpon. I’d appreciate it. :)