5, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 22
How He Startled the Book World
By ANDREA SACHS
Either book publishing changed in March, or Stephen King should start
himself a cult. With minimal advertising, he got more than 500,000 readers
to go online to download his 66-page short story. The economics certainly
worked in his favor. The New Yorker or Playboy might have paid him $10,000
for the piece, says King. But he estimates he'll make at least $450,000
for the e-book.
ALSO IN TIME
would think all this would make him bullish on the Net. But he's more
like a skeptical consumer. "There's a lot of plumage here, but I wonder
if the beast underneath isn't still pretty scrawny," he says, pointing
out that the Net is still too slow and hard for many people to use. King,
a Macintosh user, couldn't download his book, which came out only in PC-readable
formats. "This is a good illustrative example of all the potential that
so-called e-commerce has, and then the reality of the situation," he says.
"In point of fact, what e-commerce has been selling for the past five
years, the whole dotcom thing, is about potential. It's all about the
sizzle, and none of it's about the steak. And for somebody like me, who
is used to producing on deadline, it drives me crazy."
edition's table of contents
Still, given the limitations of technology, the demand that greeted his
short story surprised him. "This is a watershed moment," he told Time
from his home on Florida's Gulf Coast, where he has been recovering from
extensive injuries he suffered when he was hit by a car a year ago. ("I'm
delighted to be alive," says King. "I'm having a great time.") Based on
his success, he says, he is considering publishing a serialized novel
online: "If I were to do something like that, whether they wanted to or
not, it would force a lot of people to read online. I would love to do
something like that because I think we're at a point where there are maybe
a dozen writers who could literally change the way people regard reading."
In the meantime, thousands of unpublished writers are turning to the Web,
cd-roms and devices like the Rocket eBook as potential outlets for their
work. While their experiences aren't as compelling as the King episode,
a number of them are finding a place to be seen. Melisse Shapiro put her
erotic thriller Lip Service (under the pseudonym M.J. Rose), on the Web
in 1998 after getting rejected by several publishers. "My goal was to
get a couple of thousand readers and go back with a new novel to publishers
and show them I had a following," she said. But after promoting her virtual
book on woman-friendly websites and selling 150 downloadable copies at
$9.95 each, she hocked the jewelry she got from her ex-husband to print
3,000 paperback copies. The Amazon reader reviews were so positive that
she soon got a contract from Pocket Books, which made her the first online
author to get a book deal. Lip Service has now sold more than 40,000 copies.
And she has a contract with Pocket Books for her next novel, In Fidelity.
King's interest in publishing an e-book was piqued after Arthur C. Clarke
published a short piece and sold it online only through Fatbrain.com,
one of the Net's biggest e-book sellers. "I thought, this is good, but
it's too small. It isn't a fair test of what the market is about," King
recalls. He decided to experiment with his short story, written during
his recovery from his accident. "What Arthur Clarke did, which was a six-page
thing, was like a kiss goodnight. The Riding the Bullet experience is
more like heavy petting. But you talk about a novel, a full-length novel
that would come out in installments and might total 700 or 800 pages--then
you're talking about full intercourse." An earlier e-book of his, The
Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, sold modestly because there were copies in
print. "There was no particular incentive," says King, "to get it this
King doesn't spend much time online. "My wife is the techie of the family.
She's really hip to this stuff. She calls herself the house geek. But
I'm not hip to it at all. In fact, I'm in the process of writing a book
now. I'm working longhand." The first time he opened his PowerBook in
months was around the time his e-book debuted, when he wrote a letter
to John Grisham.
Fatbrain.com, which sells e-books online for about $5 each, has made other
big moves this year, handing out advances of as much as $100,000 for essays
from such authors as Pete Hamill, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Newt Gingrich.
But King thinks the real promise of Web publishing is for writers who
can't get big audiences. "There's this space on the Internet, this infinite
space, for people to publish, for the midlist to be re-created, for people
who have been disenfranchised by the shrinking lists of publishers, to
actually do their stuff."
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