Boo! How He Startled the Book World

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Boo! How He Startled the Book World

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.
You 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.

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In the meantime, thousands of unpublished writers are turning to the Web, cd-roms and devices like the Rocket eBook as potential outlets for their work.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, 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 way.

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., 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.