Is Free the Future?: A Review of The Curve by Nicholas Lovell

PT Book Review continues its regular column in which we review, explicate, and excerpt books that we think will resonate with people in the business of publishing and media.


Implementing what we know as “the freemium model” scares a lot of businesses, and understandably so. It’s not necessarily a groundbreaking idea; consumers are used to free trials of online services, a few issues of a magazine, or a song off of an album. Yet in Nicholas Lovell’s new book, The Curve (US Hardcover, Portfolio Penguin, October 2013), he suggests that free is not only an inevitability, but it’s actually in businesses’ best interests to start giving away some of their products for free.

Lovell’s solution to the inevitability of free is to give away products to build an audience, and then offer a variety of products to give supporters different ways of converting to customers. As Lovell demonstrates through multiple examples, a large amount of revenue can be built from only a few high-paying customers, making sales less about number of units and more about the monetary value that consumers place on products they love.

Each level of consumer exists somewhere on Lovell’s Curve, and they are not at a fixed point. The goal is the move them from freeloader to superfan. Listen to Lovell explain the whole process in the video below.

A prime example of the Curve is Lovell’s detailing of Pocket Frogs, a gaming phone app. The app itself is free, but there is the potential to spend money within the app. Approximately only 4% of users ever spent money in the app in the game’s first year, but their revenue was estimated at about $3 million. Pocket Frogs users have the option to spend $.99, $4.99, or $29.99 on packages within the game. Forty-two percent of those who spent money in the app bought the $4.99 package, which accounted for almost half of the revenue made from the game. Only 8% of those who spend money in the app bought the $29.99 package, and yet, that accounted for 49% of the revenue for that app in a year.

So how can the Curve be applied to publishing? The clearest publishing-related advice Lovell gives is for fledgling writers, as he writes from the well-informed perspective of having self-published a book. He frequently cites the success of Amanda Hocking, a self-publishing success, who then got a traditional book deal. The Curve, in a way, is actually based off of her successes. So unsurprisingly, Lovell says going digital and self-publishing is the way to go for new authors. He sees curation as a barrier to entry, and self-publishing as an easy way for authors to gain fans through low price points. Authors then learn about those fans through direct marketing data, and are able to use that fan base to get noticed by a publisher. Self-publishing also allows authors to move away from what Lovell describes as the “tyranny of the physical,” as consumers no longer only respond to a product that they can hold in their hands. But once a self-published author gets picked up by a publisher, this is where creating unique opportunities for fans to spend their money comes in. And as we saw from Pocket Frogs, it only takes a small percentage of superfans to create a lot of revenue.

To utilize the Curve for fiction titles, he suggests offering collector’s editions, annual get-togethers, tours and events surrounding a specific release. For non-fiction titles, Lovell suggests video courses and seminars in conjunction with the book. Lovell even tests this theory with the release of The Curve with Penguin UK:

  1.  He engaged the “freeloaders” by releasing a 9,000 word ebook as a component piece to The Curve, entitled 10 Ways to Make Money in a FREE World for free.
  2. Lovell attracted those in the middle ground with The Curve, priced at 16.99 GBP (list price for USD is 27.95).
  3. Most importantly, he snagged the biggest “superfans” with once in a lifetime, expensive opportunities with Lovell himself, ranging from lunch priced at 300 GBP to a masterclass, priced at 10,000 GBP. How successful these tactics were remain to be seen.

According to Lovell, publishers utilizing the Curve shouldn’t worry about demand for books, and should concern themselves with creating high consumer demand for expensive, limited edition items. He argues that because of wide pricing disparities, (today on Amazon’s top 20 bestselling books, prices vary from $4.49 to $24.00) sales volume is not a useful way for publishers to measure demand.

But how can publishers identify and reach out to existing fans and superfans? That question is remains unanswered. Since the bulk of a publisher’s sales come from retail outlets, pinpointing and then converting a casual retail buyer into a superfan would require a process not outlined in The Curve. Self-published authors have the benefit of direct online marketing through email lists and other tactics, measures that publishers could not feasibly do with each book release.

In many ways, The Curve does not necessarily tell us things we do not already know: that publishers should offer options at different price points to help sell titles. What Lovell does offer is a new perspective of analytics: rather than just counting units sold and being afraid of people getting things for free that they may not have paid for anyway, we can concentrate on the loyal fans, the ones who will not only pay for content but may pay a lot. As publishers put more and more onus on authors to create their own personal brand recognition, the Curve may be a way that publishers can capitalize on the audience their authors bring in. Time will tell whether or not that will be enough to profit on a title-to-title basis.