If, in an unkind moment, you have ever blown cigarette smoke at a bustling anthill just to see the residents scurry around in pointless frenzy, you'd definitely get a kick out of watching the publishing industry respond to the challenge of e-publishing. The chief smoke-blower has been Stephen King, who in March offered the novella "Riding the Bullet" in digital form only, through his publisher Simon & Schuster (500,000 people took him up on the offer).
Monday, King provoked even more antenna waving by releasing the first installment of a horror novel called "The Plant" on his own Web site, with no publisher involved. He instructs his readers to pay him directly (payments processed by Amazon.com) for each installment and "on the honor system." If at least 75 percent of the downloads are paid for, he'll continue to post installments; otherwise, he'll abandon the project. In essence, "The Plant" is shareware. "If you pay, the story rolls. If you don't, the story folds ... My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare."
King is one of about 25 fiction writers capable of pulling off this sort of thing: He has a substantial, loyal fan base; he has developed a solid relationship with his readers through his Web site and various fan organs; and he writes the kind of fiction that's really, really hard to stop reading once you start. Nevertheless, like "Riding the Bullet" before it, "The Plant" has prompted dozens of journalists and commentators to speculate that technology will soon allow scads of authors to jettison their publishers and reap greater profits for themselves.
Publishers retort that what they offer in editing and marketing services, not to mention the more humdrum tasks involved in getting a book out into the world, justify their cut of a book's sales. "This may work for Stephen King," Larry Kirshbaum of Time Warner Publishing told the New York Times, "but it won't work for 99 percent of the people out there." So he's not scared, apparently.
Yet there is a nightmare in this story, and a sly reference to it can be found as early as Page 4 of King's new opus. The novel, told in letters and memos, is set at a book-publishing firm, where one of the editors kicks off an interoffice memo with the sentence: "A new year, and the slush in the slush pile grows ever deeper."
There, in a nutshell, King alludes to the impending terror. For, while book publishers offer authors editing and marketing (though some published authors claim to have received precious little of either), what they offer readers is a bulwark, a sacred shield against the ultimate monstrosity: rampant, unfiltered, unholy slush.
It's not customary for people in the publishing industry to ask what readers (as opposed to booksellers or authors or the press) really want. Perhaps that's why nobody -- and that includes authors and would-be authors -- has bothered to wonder if anyone in the modest population of regular book buyers has ever complained that there just aren't enough books out there. I'll hazard that very few readers walk into their local bookstore, look around, sigh and say, "Is that it?"
Even the most fanatical readers can consume only about 200 books per year, and what most of them want is help in finding the small fraction of worthy books among the 50,000 new titles published annually. And those 50,000 are just the books that have made it past publishing's gatekeepers: agents and editors. For while agents and editors often misunderstand their market and sometimes reject good or even great works, they do prevent a vast quantity of truly execrable writing from being published. Only those who have actually read unsolicited manuscripts can know the full extent of this horror.
While most people have a pretty realistic sense of how well they can sing or draw, pretty much anyone able to jot down a grocery list thinks that he or she ought to write a book, and that this book ought to be published. Like the vampires that terrorize New England in King's novel "Salem's Lot," these folks just can't be stopped once you make the mistake of inviting them into your home -- or, rather, allowing your company to be listed in Writer's Marketplace. With the myriad new publishing options -- from e-books to Web publishing to print-on-demand -- offered by technology, these authors can make their pitch directly to you, the reader.
The truth is that terrific writers are few and far between, and flooding the marketplace with the work of awful writers isn't going to make it any easier for readers to find the good ones. So what if e-published authors can offer sample chapters on their Web sites and concoct their own creative publicity campaigns to attract readers? That just means readers are stuck with the task of wading through the slush pile themselves. And as countless publishing interns can attest, nothing breeds literary despair like slinging slush.
Readers are a precious cultural resource and ought to be cultivated, or at the very least treated with more respect. If they lose heart, if they stop believing that they can find books that are worth their money and their time, they might just give up looking. Eventually, new kinds of filters and gatekeepers will emerge to help guide readers to the minority of good books out there, and perhaps those gatekeepers will be better at doing so than the agents, editors and publishers who perform that function today. (It wouldn't be hard.) But in the meantime many readers may decide that figuring out what to read takes so much time and yields such poor fruit that it's really not worth the bother. And we may never win them back. I doubt Mr. King could come up with a scarier scenario.