I stole from Stephen King

The honor system? I don't think so.

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


Andrew Essex

Andrew Essex is business editor of Salon.com.

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