When is a free book not actually free, and not really even a book? I got on the phone and grilled Sam Stubbs, co-founder of KiwiSaver provider Simplicity about his 95-page book, or booklet, Money Made Simple, which is right now taking up not that much space in bookstores all around the country.

It’s small and thin (15cm X 12cm, 95 pages written in what looks to be 12 or 14pt). It offers advice on how to manage your money. It has drawings of oranges to illustrate the evil of fees, a graph of compounding returns, and a glowing reference to the book Money Matters by financial journalist Amanda  Morrall, who is Stubbs’s partner. Stubbs supplies eight “golden rules”. Rule one: “Pay off your debts.” Rule four: “Get into KiwiSaver.”

Okay. So it reads like a collection of fortune-cookie messages, little pithy instructions written in the sand with a blunt stick. But some people might find it helpful, and Simplicity has gone to considerable expense to put it into as many hands as possible: it’s published 150,000 copies.

I began the interview by asking, or just sort of flatly commenting, “That’s a staggering number of books.”

Stubbs said, “That’s a staggering number of books and I guess its because of two reasons. First of all, is because it’s free. Free’s always good, isn’t it. The other thing is that we wanted to distribute it in bookstores to give them a chance to get more foot traffic, and help out the bookstores.”

That sounded good. But the wheels began to come off in our interview when I asked Stubbs about the costs of producing Money Made Simple (it worked out at about 95 cents to print each book), and he mentioned, almost as an aside, “I’m not receiving anything. All proceeds, if the books sells, because it will have a recommended retail price of $9.99, will go to our charities.”

I said, “Wait. I thought you said it was free?”

Stubbs said, “Well it is free. But it does have a price. You can buy it for $9.99 if you want to, but for the month of August, if you buy any book in the bookstore for over $10,  you’ll get this book for free as well.”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I didn’t say anything.

He gabbled, “But also what we’ve done is that we’ve said to Simplicity’s 125,00 members is that if you go into a bookstore, then you get two free copies if you just show you’re a member. One for you, one for the family….And if bookstores sell it in the future, at the end of August, they can keep the entire proceeds themselves. They can keep all $9.99.”

So it was free for some people, but for others it was only free if you spent $10, and then not free at all at the end of the month. I had left long silences after Stubbs answered my questions. Sometimes he’d fill them with gabblings, other times I took a deep sigh and asked another question or made some flat comment.

I sighed, and said, “Money Made Simple is essentially a brochure for Simplicity.”

He said, “No, it never mentions our products.”

On page five, Stubbs sings a hymn to Simplicity: “Simply the best job I ever had.”

He explained that the book, or booklet, or company brochure, came about after Robbie Burton from publishers Potton & Burton saw him give a presentation. “They said, ‘You’re effectively demystifying money and making it much more easier to understand. You should turn this into a book.’ So I said I was happy to do that, and – I don’t know if you’ve seen a copy of it?”

“I’ve got a copy,” I droned.

He said, “You can read it in an hour, or an hour and a half. It simplifies money. There’s a hell of a lot of good books about money, fantastic books, but there’s no one who really effectively makes it really simple. So it really fills a sort of a niche which kind of isn’t there.”

I asked, “Did you write it?”

“Oh yes. I wrote every word. I tell you what, writing a book’s bloody hard, mate! I’ve written it and rewritten it about six times!”

“How many words is it?”

“No idea. I just know it’s 95 pages. But it’s not much.”

No. It wasn’t much at all. I liked the idea of Money Made Simple when I thought its fortune-cookie wisdom (“Only spend what you earn”) was a free gift. But $10 for a small, thin piece of junk seemed inflated, and who was it really benefiting? I sighed again, and said, “You can see what I mean when I asked you if this is a brochure. Because it’s something that could directly benefit Simplicity.”

Stubbs said, “Oh yes, absolutely. It has our logo and brand on the back. We did seriously debate whether we should just call it Simplicity and just give it away, but Robbie Burton said, ‘It should be a book.’ And also bookstores will be distributing a book, not a brochure.” Then it was his turn to sigh, and he said, “But you are absolutely right. You are absolutely right.”

Things had gone south. That was a shame. I had looked forward to interviewing Stubbs. His backstory is appealing. He grew up in Sunnyvale, that low-income zone of sickly creeks and cheerful bogans out west near Henderson, and escaped to earn very good money in merchant banking. Then he turned his back on a career among the fuckwits of Fay, Richwhite to co-found Simplicity, which advertises itself as the good guys: “Nonprofit, low fees, and ethically invested.” Stubbs, too, presents as a good guy. But it had come to this: casting himself as a kind of altruist (“helping out the bookstores”) when really he was just the author of a company brochure with some (not much) content in it.

Still, between the two of us, we discovered a way of making it free – for everyone. On the subject of Simplicity members marching into bookstores and pocketing two free copies of Money Made Simple, I asked, “How do you prove you’re a Simplicity member?

Stubbs laughed, perhaps a little desperately by this stage in the interview, and said, “Aw, you know what? I don’t think you have to prove anything like that! You can just go in and say you’re a Simplicity member, and you’ll get those copies. It’s perfectly fine if someone isn’t a member and still wants to get copies of the book. That’s great, too.”

Yes, that is great; instead of buying a book for $10 and getting a copy of Money Made Simple for free, or instead of paying $9.99 for it, just brazen it out and inform the bookstore that you’re a member of Simplicity, and pocket two copies for nowt, gratis, on the house. Free’s always good, isn’t it.

Money Made Simple by Sam Stubbs (Potton & Burton, $9.99 or free depending on how you play your cards) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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