Games of honesty

A new post on the Freakonomics blog today describes a music artist, Jane Siberry, who sells on-line tracks by means of an honour system. No one has to pay but she posts statistics regarding what proportion of people have paid and what they paid. Suffice it to say, most pay her recommended price despite the ability to simply receive a ‘gift.’

Stephen King tried a similar idea in 2000 selling a book on-line in chapter installments. He bypassed traditional book publishers for his novel, The Plant. Instead, he released the book in installments through his web site (, of course). The cost of each installment was initially $1 each the first three episodes (1) 5,000 words; (2) 6-7,000 words; (3) 10-12,000 words. Installments 4 through 7 or 8 would be much longer-perhaps as long as 25,000 words-and the download price would go up to $2.50.

The deal was this: so long as 75 percent of people who download an installment pay up (on his site or at he will publish the next installment. Note that it is downloads only and he is allowing people to distribute a particular download as widely as they wish. If fewer than 75 percent of those who download any installment pay, no further installment will be published

Here is a piece I wrote about that experiment. I speculated that it might have had a better chance of working had it had the transparency of the kind Siberry has used. The pitch was also put a little differently than Siberry. Rather than gifts, King appealed to guilt:

My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare. Not only are we going glueless, look Ma, no e-Book! No tiresome encryption! Want to print it and show it to a friend? Go ahead! There’s only one catch: all this is on the honor system. Has to be. I’m counting on two things. The first is plain old honesty. “Take what you want and pay for it,” as the old saying goes. The second is that you’ll like the story enough to want to read more. If you do want more, you have to pay. Remember: Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds. No stealing from the blind newsboy!

Stephen King’s experiment failed but that may be partly an issue of scale and partly an issue of poor design. It has been five years now, I wonder if someone will try it again.

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