“There’s a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun,” said one American literary agent last week, “but (what he’s doing) is not a way to run a business.”
That remains to be seen. The fellow, of course, is horror guru Stephen King and what he is doing is, once again, pushing the envelope of the way books are sold and distributed. Indeed, he is pushing the envelope of what a book even is.
In March, Mr. King made publishing history when, together with his longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, he put a novella directly onto the Internet. But that was in an encrypted format that could not be accessed until paid for. Last week, he took a giant step further. Starting Monday, fans could download from Mr. King’s Web site, for “a buck an episode,” the first part of his still incomplete novel, “The Plant.” (Amusingly to some, though not to Simon & Schuster, the plot concerns a creeping vampire plant that takes over a publishing company.)
The difference this time is that readers can pay before or after downloading the unencrypted text of “The Plant” — or not at all. The catch is that unless 75 percent or more do pay, there will be no more installments after Part 2, promised for August. “Remember!” Mr. King warns, “Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds. No stealing from the blind newsboy!”
“The Plant” looks set to be a fascinating social experiment on a number of levels.
In the first place, it tests the very concept of a book. A story, Mr. King says, doesn’t depend for its telling on paper, glue or even fancy “e-book” technology. A book can be as simple as e-mail. If you want to keep it, save it to your hard drive or print it out and put it in a binder. Otherwise, just delete it. It’s the ultimate throwaway: pulp fiction with nothing to pulp. Book collectors will shudder; trees will rejoice.
In the second place, his idea tests the very concept of the publishing industry. Who needs it? he asks. Naturally, the industry retorts that plenty of people already publish on the Internet, to little avail. Publishers do not just put books in covers; they drum up markets for them. If readers are willing to download “The Plant,” bypassing Mr. King’s publisher, that is because — thanks to his publisher — they already know who he is. Nevertheless, the industry is worried that other brand-name writers might follow his lead. Profits from blockbusters, after all, support the bottom of the list: the unknowns and the niche authors. Who besides the likes of Mr. King benefits if this system is undermined?
And finally, this is a test of public probity — or at least, that is how Mr. King frames it. “This ain’t Napster,” he said last week, referring to the controversial Web site that enables users to download music for free. “Take what you want . . . and pay for it.” It’s easy enough to do. Mr. King has teamed with Internet book giant Amazon.com to process payments instantly by credit card, check or mail. But will people pony up?
This is the big unknown, because the other way of looking at this experiment is to see it as a gullibility test. Mr. King forgets, perhaps, that people are used to skimming books for free in the bookstore before deciding whether to buy or not. So let’s get his deal in perspective. A dollar an episode sounds cheap, but how many episodes will there be? Mr. King is not saying, but his novels average around 60 chapters. Even if “The Plant” is packaged in installments equal to three regular chapters each, will people pay $20 for a bit-and-byte book when they could have a real paperback with a nice lurid cover for $6? Maybe once, out of curiosity, but not, one would think, on a regular basis. Then again, Mr. King would not be the first to make a buck out of underestimating the intelligence of the reading public. As we said, it is an interesting social experiment.
One other question seems pertinent: Is “The Plant” any good? Besides giving new meaning to the phrase “you can’t put it down,” Part 1 does confirm that Mr. King certainly knows how to spin a yarn. On the other hand, we’re not uncontrollably hooked yet. It all depends on Part 2. . . .
Conclusions? It’s too soon to tell. Mr. King himself thinks the implications are huge. After paying up for Part 1 of “The Plant,” you get an e-mail back from the author: “Thanks for reading my story, thanks for your honesty, and thanks for helping us change the face of the publishing industry.” As to the last, chances are that Mr. King — along with a few others — is a law unto himself. The face of the publishing industry might not change at all in the wake of “The Plant.” Or it might change somewhat, in ways that do nobody much good. But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, “The Plant” heralds a business revolution whose face we cannot even discern from here. Stay online.
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