Prisoners Dilemma and Free Milk

Lately I’ve been following various blogs discussing whether it is good or bad for self published authors to “sell” their e-books for free.

On the pro side people say it is a good way to get your name known and to make some fast stats on Amazon.  Most agree the strategy only works well if you have other books to sell for money.  On the con side people say it devalues the book and the trade.  Nobody respects something they get free and they certainly aren’t going to think of the author as significant in the book world.

I admit my tablet is crowded with dozens of free e-books I may want to read someday.  And I have read a handful of them.  Some were pretty good.   Some were worth what I paid for them.

It seems that all authors at every level would benefit by a “no free books” policy.  If there were no free books, people would adjust to paying three bucks a book (that’s still dirt cheap).  People wouldn’t have “piles” of free books all over their reading devices, but they would probably read most of what they downloaded.  Authors would all make more.

The problem comes in with the “prisoners dilemma”.  The prisoners dilemma is a situation where two criminals are caught working together on a crime.  If they both kept their mouth shut the police would not have enough evidence to convict them.  So the only way to arrest them is if the police get them to squeal.  The cops isolate the prisoners and after a long time they offer each one a “lesser sentence” if they confess and implicate their partner.  Even though the best result for both is not to talk, the very bad result of a much greater sentence is so unbearable that most of the time they will take the deal and confess in exchange for shorter jail time.  And realistically, the other guy is a criminal.

This is what’s happening to authors.  The best thing for everybody is the business is for all e-books to be three dollars or more.  Everybody earns more money that way.  But, to the individual author the chance for quick advertising is so tempting that they sell out a book for free (and list it for a buck when they can’t have it be free) just to boost their readership.

“Why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?”  Since there are free e-books, readers tend to download more of them than they could or would ever read.  Thus the need is filled and there is no need to pay for a book.  They can spend their three bucks downloading music.

I have held out for a publisher.  And that is still my plan.  But with four books written, if I decide to go with self publishing, I will probably give one away and hope it inspires people to pay for the others.  It’s not like I have access to any other advertising resources.  Even knowing it will be making things worse, I can’t count on my accomplices to keep their big mouths shut.  So I’d have to take the lesser sentence.  Free milk anyone?


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