For an über-best-selling author of good old-fashioned books, Stephen King has always seen the promise inherent in the Internet. It's a medium designed to get as much content to as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. And there are few people who have as much content as King. In 2000, he debuted his novella Riding the Bullet exclusively on the Web; more than 400,000 downloads were recorded in the first 24 hours. At the time it was a staggering number. This month, King is dipping his toe into the Internet yet again. To promote Just After Sunset his first volume of short stories in six years King's publisher, Scribner, has teamed up with Marvel Comics and CBS Mobile to produce and distribute an online comic adaptation of a previously unreleased story from the collection.
Running at two minutes per "episode" until Aug. 29 (for a total running time of about 50 minutes), N. is accessible through its website (nishere.com), available for purchase at iTunes and Amazon, and even downloadable to cell phones ironic, given that in King's recent novel Cell, the mobile-phone network became a conduit for a global pandemic. The experiment is an example of the kind of outside-the-box thinking that publishers have had to engage in to try to reverse a steep decline in readers.
"It's almost impossible to predict where the lightning's going to strike on the Web," says King, who spoke to TIME from Maine, where he is working on his next novel, Under the Dome. "People want to harness the Web everybody from my publisher to movie studios to groups like Radiohead. But nobody really knows how to do it. It's like trying to herd cats." King well knows the perils (and potential embarrassments) of trying to attract analog readers through digital means. Riding the Bullet was a success, but an online serialization of The Plant an e-book also released in 2000 ceased after King, in a rare moment, publicly ran out of creative juice.
The online version of N., King's 54-page story about a psychologist whose obsessive-compulsive patient is entranced by a mysterious plot of land, is a hybrid of several media, using images, music and voices. "It's kind of a video comic book," says King. Others have recently attempted similar projects, referred to as "motion comics." Warner Bros. (which is owned by Time Warner, TIME's parent company) has released a Batman-related Web series and a motion-comic adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen. Yet N. has been specifically constructed to appeal to the short attention spans of cell phone and Web users. Images are drawn and inked by Marvel Comics artists with voiceover talent provided by Simon and Schuster Audio. The result is a kind of animated audiobook and a big advertisement for the upcoming story collection, with a prominent link to pre-order the book on the website.
"The point of the exercise is to stimulate book sales. It's a combination of desperation and creativity," says Susan Moldow, King's editor and the publisher of Scribner. "I'm not the first person to observe that books are in a little bit of a crisis. And we want to be able to provide our content in whatever platform people are going to turn to." Moldow, who is giddy about a potential new way to plug her authors' books ("If you're a publisher and you don't have a little P.T. Barnum in you, you don't belong in the business"), says producing "trailers" is another way publishers have tried to make book publicity more dynamic.
King, though a willing partner, is a bit more cautious about the experiment's potential for success. "I kind of soft-pedaled everybody's expectations for this," he says. "People who surf the Net are hop-toady about it. They'll find something and alight on it for a while, and then their interest wanes and they'll go somewhere else. It's so quirky as to what's going to work and what's not." And though, as one of the top-selling fiction authors of all time, King doesn't have to worry about selling books in large numbers, he is less certain that his loyal (and undeniably older) readers will take to a video comic book from him. "In a pop-cult sense, I'm over," he says matter-of-factly. "But take someone like Stephenie Meyer. The kids love her, and they spend huge amounts of time on the Web. If she were to pull out a vignette from those novels and put it online like we're doing, that baby would go viral. There's no question about it."
The N. project arose out of King's special relationship with Marvel Comics. The comic-book company has already published a dozen issues of a series based on his epic Dark Tower novels, which are among the company's best-selling titles. On Sept. 10, Marvel will begin a 30-issue run of The Stand, King's 1,200-page-plus novel about a superflu that decimates the globe. It's fairly easy to figure out why King's work adapts so easily to comic form, says Ruwan Jayatilleke, a senior vice president at Marvel, who was executive producer of N. "A lot of Steve's work translates visually. That's why so much of it has been adapted for film and TV. There's a tremendous amount of detail that goes into the plotting and the characters."
What's also obvious to anyone who has picked up a King-based comic or seen one of the dozens of movie adaptations, is that the author is quite nonchalant when it comes to others messing around with his words. "I've got my own work to do, and all this is something else," he says. "To me, when I finish with something, it's like dead skin. And if people want to make dead-skin sculptures, that's fine. Just give me my cut."