I stole from Stephen King

The honor system? I don't think so.


Andrew Essex
July 26, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Now it can be told: I ripped off Stephen King.

King tried to change the face of publishing yesterday when he released the first installment of "The Plant," a new serialized novel on his own official Web site.

Unlike King's debut e-book "Riding the Bullet," which sold 500,000 copies last March with a little promotional mojo from Simon & Schuster, "The Plant" is being self-published, with Amazon collecting $1 for every purchase. Most important, "The Plant," which concerns "a deranged writer whose novel takes readers to some demonic places," is being sold on the honor system. The catch: If people don't open their wallets, King will move on.

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"If you pay, the story rolls," King explained. "If you don't, the story folds ... My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare." King promised to publish installment No. 2 on Aug. 21; if response is "good" (i.e., pay-through equals or exceeds 75 percent), installment No. 3 will arrive in September. And so on.

A colleague of mine bought the first installment, which she says is really fun. (It begins as a parody of the publishing world in epistolary form.) She even got a personalized receipt from the author:

"Thanks for reading my story, thanks for your honesty, and thanks for helping us change the face of publishing! Stephen King."

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I was not so honest. I went to Amazon and clicked through four pages until I found instructions on how to get "The Plant." ("The story's scary, but the download and payment aren't!") I also found information on the Man, the Rumors and the Answers.

Then I read the guilt trip against freeloading: "First, it's against the law, and second, it's nasty behavior. Respect my copyright. As a writer, it's all I've got." I clicked on "I agree and will pay later." I have the chapter on my desktop now. It looks cool (two fonts!).

Since King's people don't have the technology to hassle me (yet), I'm supposed to show a little initiative and come back later and pay. Maybe I will, but probably not. And I suspect I'm not the only infidel. Though the Associated Press reported yesterday that King's effort had got off to a smooth start -- with "thousands of users" downloading the first installment and "early indications ... that most readers were abiding by the honor system" -- as the dust settled this morning, it seemed King had stumbled, selling a mere 40,000 copies, less than a 10th of the total tallied by "Riding the Bullet." (Of course, 40,000 copies in one day is a figure, it should be mentioned, that most novelists would sell their own mothers for.)

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Why hasn't "The Plant" galvanized the public like "Riding the Bullet"? For one thing, the e-novelty is gone. Other than that, I can only guess it has something to do with the thoughts of people like me.

What I'd like to say to King is this: The honor system is for fresh brown eggs and Mrs. Smith's homemade zucchini bread, not intellectual property. The $1 price tag may strike you as the essence of egalitarianism, but readers may be wary. There's a certain irony in changing a system from which you made millions of dollars. Do readers hate Big Publishing? They may thank Big Publishing for shielding them from the horror of an e-publishing free-for-all.

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I'm a King fan -- he made me into a reader -- but this only reinforces those well-known insults about diluted profligacy that haunt his career ("He's got another &*@^! book???"). Then there's the pedantic notion that a man who just survived a life-threatening accident might be more interested in something loftier than ... a killer shrub.

Or maybe I'm just jealous, and King has actually changed the face of publishing.

Anyway, thanks for the chapter. The check is in the mail.

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Andrew Essex

Andrew Essex is business editor of Salon.com.

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