TCS Daily


Would You Pay $1 for this Article?

By Wendy M. Grossman - September 11, 2000 12:00 AM

Stephen King, as the screenwriter William Goldman observes in his latest book, Which Lie Did I Tell?, (go get it, it's terrific), is a very smart guy. So it somehow should not be surprising that he may have hit on the first business model for supplying Internet content that has a chance of actually working in the sense of producing profits for the content owner. (It is just a bit of extra satisfaction that in this case the content owner is also the artist.)

For those who have not read a newspaper or seen the TV news in the last couple of weeks, King has posted the first chapter of his new book, The Plant, on his Web site in Adobe Acrobat, plain text and HTML formats. Would-be readers are asked, but not forced, to pay $1 to download the new chapter.

No registration form is shoved in your way to fill out, so it really is on the honor system. King will, however, have logs showing how many downloads there have been, and his announced intention is that if the percentage of paying readers drops to less than 75% over the first few installments (to be posted at intervals of roughly a month), he will quit writing it.

A plan fit for a King

The plan at the moment, according to King's Web site, is $1 for the next installment of 6,000 to 7,000 words, $1 for the third at 10,000 to 12,000 words and then $2.50 each for the final four or five installments of 25,000 words. This would give a total price of $13 to $15.50 for an entire book of 124,000 words.

Considering that readers are paying for their own paper, printing and download time and King has minimal distribution costs and no middlemen, the price is a bit steep compared to the price of books today. Still, King is on to something.

It is not the $1 charge for the first installment that is brilliant, nor the pricing structure for the remainder of the book. The threat of quitting part way through the book is the brilliant move.

The potency of this can be seen by the fact that (again, according to King's Web site), some people are anxiously asking if they can pay extra to cover the freeloaders. This takes us right back to Victorian times, when Charles Dickens made such a thing out of serialization, when novels were released in installments as part of the popular press and awaited as intensely as the next episode of a soap opera.

The whole thing gets an extra punch from the fact that the later parts of the book are not written yet, so it is possible that King, as much as his readers, has no idea how the story will end. Doubtless by now, the novel-in-progress is being intensively discussed in online communities and bulletin boards, and King is on his way to becoming, yet again a cultural phenomenon. Brilliant stuff.

Will this change book publishing?

Of course, it helps King that he already is famous, and to a large extent, his product is a known quantity. Nor does it hurt that just about every media outlet has covered his venture into self-publishing online, giving him publicity he could not have bought if he had wanted to.

He is not the first person to offer the beginnings of a novel online, nor the first published novelist to do so. The London-based science-fiction writer Geoff Ryman, for example, posted his interactive Web novel, 253 online in early 1997, and while that version was free, the print "remix" published by HarperCollins a year later was not.

It is a lot harder for a complete unknown to build a readership large enough to live on while continuing to write installments. Such an unknown would not get media coverage until his online readership had become a mass phenomenon and his popularity had spilled into other media.

My own foray into online publishing was rather different. My last book, net.wars, is still online for free on the publisher's site and getting a respectable number of hits, and its successor, From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age, due out sometime this winter, will be similarly treated.

Both the publisher and I believe the book has sold more copies for being so accessible. If nothing else, it allows online book buyers to browse the book the way real-world ones do -- in a book store. There you are not limited to reading chapter one or checking the index, and theoretically you could stay there all day and read the entire book.

What I do think King will find over time, though, is that people want properly printed and bound copies of his new work. It is all well to have nicely formatted Acrobat files, but Bruce Sterling, who distributed the full text of his book, The Hacker Crackdown, online for free as far back as January 1994 found --like a score of us after him -- that giving away electronic copies inspired a lot of people to buy "real", that is, print, copies. If that is the case with King's latest, he will not have any trouble finding a publisher interested in supplying that market.

And no, I did not pay the $1 when I downloaded the first installment. I'm a journalist. Don't I get a review copy?

Wendy M. Grossman is co-editor of Skeptic magazine and was a judge for the Online Journalism Awards. The full text of her last book, net.wars, is online for free. She is a regular commentator for IntellectualCapital.com.
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