The shift towards the digital harkens a drastic change in how people consume media; the music industry, for example, has struggled to maintain control over its intellectual property in a world where audio files can be easily ripped, copied, burned, uploaded to YouTube or, God forbid, hosted on a P2P torrenting website. It's a tough pill for them to swallow, having grown fat and complacent during the explosive and extremely brief rule of the Compact Disc, yet they managed to adapt by using digital distribution services like iTunes and Amazon to still manage to put a price on audio files, most jacked-up with some sort of DRM to prevent illegal uploads to the Internet. Yet services like Grooveshark challenge the paid-model by allowing users to stream nearly any song imaginable instantly, for free, and to save/share personalized playlists in a social setting that is sponsored by numerous advertisers.
Grooveshark is just one service that is challenging traditional models of publishing/distributing content. Texts, like audio, are quite easily copied infinitely and made available for free-- some publishers, like O'Reilly, manage to profit by participating in what is being called a "gift economy," wherein consumers are given products for free in the hope that the producer is ultimately benefited. Traditional marketers would cringe, but it turns out the publishing industry is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of this new gift economy. According to Paul Gillin, "In order to succeed in social media, you need to think of yourself as a publisher." He goes on to identify a few of the secrets of publishing, the first two of which I think the O'Reilly text particularly benefits from:
1. Identify an audience that has a compelling and ongoing need for information and money to spend.
2. Develop a distinctive voice and authority about one or more topics that are of compelling interest to that group.
Obviously what follows is essentially:
It is indeed a mysterious beast, this gift/digital economy, but the availability of so much information to so many networked consumers does beg for a different approach to marketing. By distributing their book Publishing with iBooks Author for free, O'Reilly is doing more than generating awareness of their brand, they are identifying an audience that has a compelling need for information-- the users of iBooks author must indeed have some money to spend if they are rocking a Mac with Mountain Lion, and it would be safe to assume that, if they require assistance with one piece of software, they will require assistance with others. By presenting a professionally edited and well-arranged, informative book for free, O'Reilly establishes itself as an authority which readers will recognize in the future when they are seeking information. Certain influential individuals, like professors, may adopt them as in-class textbooks-- at that point, O'Reilly is poised to make a ton of money by asserting its position as a respected publication within an established niche and claiming a large contract.
It is also possible that the reason this book, relating to the creation of iBooks, is free is because Apple paid the author a fat wad of money to make it so and then to send it out to as many likely users as possible. This could be a long-term strategy that isn't really about promoting one particular textbook brand at all, but for encouraging as many authors as possible to utilize iBooks author and publish content in the iBooks Store. I wouldn't put it past 'em, and frankly, it's a good idea with an entire industry potentially at stake.