Stephen King's horrifying proposal

The bestselling author creates a writer's worst nightmare: pay-per-chapter downloadable e-books.

By Janelle Brown

Published June 13, 2000 6:54PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. King,

I've been very impressed with the way you've embraced digital distribution -- you sold, what, a half-million digital copies of that e-novella, "Riding the Bullet"? OK, OK, so you gave a lot of those away. But still, it was gratifying for anyone who believed in the future of electronic books.

But today, on your Web site, I read about your latest brilliant idea: not just selling books digitally, but selling them chapter by chapter. You wrote that you've had this book, "The Plant," languishing for almost 20 years, and you now think that to revive it you should invite readers to pay $1 to download each "episode" of the story from your Web site, at roughly 5,000 words a pop.

Are you crazy?

It's not that the book doesn't sound interesting; I mean, who could resist a plot involving "a sinister plant -- sort of a vampire vine that takes over the offices of a paperback publishing company, offering financial success in trade for human sacrifices" (is this based on your own publishing experiences, hmmm?). But the buck-a-chapter idea is a big mistake.

Do you really want to know exactly how many readers are willing to pay to keep going after they read Chapter 6? Or even Chapter 3? Even worse, do you want publishers, editors and competing authors to know this too? With this little scheme, you threaten to expose the dark secret of authors everywhere: Not every reader gets to the end of every story. Matter of fact, an awful lot of people don't even get to the second paragraph, let alone the second chapter.

If we break down the value of a digital book by chapters, what will happen next? Will publishers only pay royalties for each chapter consumed? Will editors demand that you spice up the plot ("Give us more blood, Stephen!") in order to regain fickle readers that you might have lost a few chapters back when you rambled with a few long passages of mise-en-schne?

Granted, with the wonders of tracking tools the Web is already doing this to journalists -- and believe me, it hurts when you realize that not everyone who clicked on Page 1 of your critical opus actually made it to Page 4. Sure, the serialized novel has been around since the days that Dickens had to manufacture weekly cliffhangers for Pip and Estella. But never before has anyone proposed such a bluntly mercenary evaluation of a book's merits. You wouldn't try to sell a song stanza by stanza, would you?

If you insist on breaking the paradigms of book-selling (and I'd applaud you for it), consider a subscription model where the reader pays a full fee upfront but gets the chapters delivered as they're finished. Or distribute the first chapter free and charge for the rest of the book. Heck, if you really feel adventurous, let readers participate in a Dutch auction where they can bid on a limited number of copies.

But a buck a chapter? God help authors everywhere if it catches on.


Constant Reader

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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