Is King’s E-Book a Publishing Nightmare?

Horror writer Stephen King has a knack for making his readers lose sleep, but there is widespread speculation that his latest work has book publishers and retailers tossing and turning even more.

However, dire predictions of the end of publishing as we know it are probably premature. The experimental honor system sale of King’s new novel, “The Plant,” is merely a novelty, and the author’s pioneering approach to book selling is unlikely in the near term to develop into anything the giants of the publishing world cannot easily shrug off.

Sweet Dreams?

On his eponymous Web site, King proclaims that he and his readers “have the chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare.” But Simon & Schuster, which has made millions (US$) on King’s wildly popular novels in the past, say they are not expecting the sky to fall.

Someone is wrong. My guess is that despite tepid early sales, King’s online serial may be a success over time, although I am very interested in seeing what will happen if payments fail to reach the 75 percent threshold King set as a prerequisite for further installments. In that case, will King publish the rest of the novel through traditional channels?

Even if King’s direct marketing experiment succeeds, the fact that this is a new approach has garnered millions of dollars in free advertising, which is certainly driving a major percentage of the book’s sales. That sheen of newness will eventually wear thin, and future endeavors — even a second attempt by King himself — will likely not generate the same amount of heat.

Advantage: Publishing

That is the advantage that publishers hold. King is, in essence, beating publishing at its own game — for now — by creating a buzz around a book that no reviewer has ever laid eyes on.

In the entire publishing world, there are maybe a dozen authors who could duplicate King’s feat — but whether they want to remains a huge uncertainty. King is a workhorse of a writer, churning out books at an alarming rate that makes one wonder if he ever sleeps. Most of his contemporaries publish less often and are probably less inclined to entrust one of their precious works to an unproven publishing method.

Meanwhile, publishers are also raising questions about whether the $1 per download figure is arbitrary. While publishing on the Web is as close to free as you can get, it is likely that just about all of that dollar will be eaten up by processing costs.

Then there is the simple fact that King has lopped off a considerable portion of his own readership by publishing online. Maybe the author’s unconnected readers will settle for a printed PDF as the chapters become available. But the outwardly calm publishers are betting that most readers still prefer actual books to cold computer screens or printouts.

The Medium Is the Message

In other words, unlike digital music, the form that novels take is as important as the medium itself. Until portable document readers become widely adopted, printed books will continue to rule the publishing roost.

If King does succeed in a big way, watch out. Suddenly, popular artists with the clout and the big names and fan bases may begin kissing off their publishers and record labels in large numbers. After all, who needs the middle man?

The answer is that we all do. King, John Grisham and a handful of others might succeed with a direct publishing model, but those authors and their automatic bestsellers are what make it possible for publishing houses to produce books by lesser known writers who appeal to readers with more eclectic tastes. Without their big guns, publishers would be hard pressed to give any second-tier writers a chance.

Not Panic Time — Yet

But the publishers can probably relax for quite a few more years. King is trying to make the dream of free publishing — undoubtedly one of the first daydreams the Internet gave birth to — a reality.

But he will have to overcome quite a few barriers. First, he will have to get people to pay for something they can get for free. (Can the honor system possibly work?) If King manages to clear that hurdle, he will have to find a way to sustain the buzz his online launch has generated. And then he’ll have to work at expanding his Web publishing company’s reach to new readers.

In other words, it is a lot of work to write a book, but takes a lot more effort — and expertise — to get it in front of readers in a timely fashion. That is the work that publishing houses still do best.

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