Natural Experiment Opportunities From Gift of' ‘Factfulness’ to New Graduates

Dear Bill.

June 7, 2018

Dear Bill,

Good on you for your gift of a digital book to every college graduate. Your gift of Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think is the right book, to the right people, at the right time.

Our graduates need to shake off the habit of future pessimism that they may have unwittingly absorbed in their time as students. Factfulness was also one of my favorite books of 2018. An inspired choice.

Have you considered what other good things might be possible from your offer to give this e-book to every 2018 graduate who asks?

I’m not sure if you set out to create the conditions for a natural experiment on digital reading - but that is what you have done. There are any number of research questions that your gift might help to answer.

The first and most obvious question is about demand.  This year there will be 1.0 million associate’s, 1.9 million bachelor’s, 790,000 master’s, and 183,000 doctor’s degrees granted. So if every single graduate took you up on your gift you would be buying something under 4 million e-books.

It would be good to know how much a barrier cost is for e-book acquisition.

My hypothesis is that your gift of free e-books to every graduate who requests one will have the effect of driving up sales of the book. I think that as a result of your gift that we will see more sales of e-book, audiobook, and paper sales of Factfulness. That your offer of a free e-book will not cannibalize sales, but rather drive interest and awareness.

This remains only a hypothesis.  We should test it.

If it ends up being true that giving away e-books drives revenues above projections then we might see more e-book give aways in the future. We might even see Amazon and other booksellers step-up their interactions with campuses and students.

My understanding of your e-book gift is that it is not tied to a specific technology. That you are giving the book .epub format, one that works natively on most e-book readers but that needs to be converted for the Kindle.

Here my hypothesis is that in going with the open .epub standard that you’ve traded impact for equity. That in staying away from the propriety Kindle format that you are actually decreasing the number of books that will be read.

The best way to test this hypothesis would be if Jeff Bezos steps up and gives away a (different) Kindle book to graduates.

There are all sorts of good reasons not to further the Amazon digital book monopoly with this sort of gift. My ask is that we bring those reasons out in the open. That we use your gift as an opportunity to talk about - and maybe measure - the potentially damaging impact of Amazon’s overwhelming domination of the digital book ecosystem.

Of course, it would be wonderful to know more about the graduates who take you up on the offer. Here again you traded data for openness. The registration process to get the book is an incredibly low bar. Simply give your e-mail and your school.

I totally get why you declined to capture any data from the recipients of your gift. By not asking for any data, your gift is truly a gift. No strings attached. No reciprocity required. That is great.

But maybe you might be convinced to run some other zero cost digital book experiments where you do ask for some data. Where it is understood that you will be doing research that is designed to understand how to encourage the habit of book reading.

There are all sorts of opportunities to leverage the economics of digital goods to both grow access and increase revenues. The intersection of digital books and higher education offers particularly rich opportunities for these sorts of experiments. Smart publishers - and Amazon - should be moving much more aggressively (I hypothesize) to create the next generation of book readers (and book buyers).

Bill, your gift of Factfulness to every graduate is an incredibly generous gesture. Thank you. I only ask that you think about the perhaps unintended opportunities that your gift may be creating.

It just may be that in demonstrating the potential to give away 4 million books that you are teaching us some new things about the future of reading.

What other research can you imagine coming out of this graduation gift?


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Joshua Kim

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