Publishing Without Publishers: A closer look at Stephen King

To the unenlightened, the word ‘e-publishing’ immediately brings to mind vanity publishing, where (awfully written) rejected manuscripts find their home. With the growing number of independent authors who consciously choose to self-publish online (yours truly included), this perception is hopefully being changed. Take for example Graham Storrs’ amazing ebook TimeSplash, or MCM’s entire publishing venture. Great fiction, and not published by commercial powerhouses.

However, electronic publishing need not be limited to the lesser known authors. Given the global reach of the internet, it seems obvious that an author with an already established fan base would find e-publishing a viable alternative to print. However, to my knowledge as of yet few famous authors have focused their attention on the e-publishing route. But I did a little digging on one famous author who has: Stephen King.

As far as I’m aware, Stephen King was the first prominent best-selling author to attempt exclusively web-based publishing. His debut in the field of electronic publishing was the novella Riding the Bullet published March 2000 in association with Simon & Schuster. Riding the Bullet is a 16,000 word story of Alan Parker, who is hitchhiking to see his dying mother and is picked up by a mysterious stranger. During the drive, Alan discovers a terrible secret about the stranger, and must make a difficult choice, a choice that can mean life or death.

The novella was at first exclusively available online to ebook and PC users, in a downloadable format for a fixed price of $2.50. Funnily enough, Stephen King himself, as a Mac owner, could not download his own book! As a publicity stunt, the ebook was freely downloadable for the first week of its release, with the result that the web servers hosting the novella were overloaded by the sudden surge of traffic and crashed. While a headache for the web servers, the crash was a clear sign of popularity, and over 100,000 internet users bought the ebook. The ebook is still for sale online today.

The novella was a definite sign of success for both Stephen King and his publisher. Riding the Bullet was deemed to be the dawn of a new era, and of the growing importance of ebooks. However, the venture was not entirely problem free: the ebook was originally encrypted to prevent both printing and electronic copying and thus protect the story from copyright violations, but hackers cracked the feature within hours of its release. Unencrypted PDF files made their way onto numerous websites, and are still accessible today. While the monetary losses were likely negligible given that many booksellers had given the novella away for free, it did raise concerns about piracy issues with electronic formats.

It is due to these very concerns that Stephen King’s following attempt at e-publishing was based on an entirely different business model, and he attempted publishing a serial novel on his own website. It is possible that Stephen King assumed it would be a more lucrative pricing model, as it was back in the 19th century when used by Dickens and other authors, although the author claims that financial returns were only a secondary interest to his attempt.

Thus Stephen King began to publish his serial novel The Plant, a story about an editor working at a publishing house. The editor rejects a rather odd manuscript, and, unsettled by the realistic photographs which accompanied the manuscript, gives the police the author’s address. Enraged, the author sends the editor a mysterious plant, and horror ensues.

Stephen King was actually recycling material, as he had actually begun writing The Plant back in the 1980’s, sending what later became the first instalment to his friends in lieu of a Christmas card. He put the first part on his website, available for anyone to download, and asked people to pay $1.00. The payment was entirely based on an honour system, and with the incentive of future updates should a certain target be met. There were supposed to be thirteen instalments total. On his website, Stephen King outlined his payment plan: the first three instalments would cost $1.00, parts four to eight would cost $2, and all subsequent updates would be free of charge, capping the total book cost at $13.00.

Over 150,000 users downloaded the first instalment, and 120,000 paid. For the first three instalments, the target was met. To offset the increased price of subsequent updates, Stephen King doubled the update length from 27 to 54 pages. However, with the fourth instalment, the total number of downloads fell to 40,000, and the number of paying readers dropped to 46%. The drop in numbers may have been partially due to multiple downloads by the same user for different platforms, whether their laptops, e-readers, or phones, but the rising costs most definitely were a factor as well. The fifth instalment followed much the same route, possibly exacerbated by the fact that Stephen King had warned readers of the situation and there was a growing expectation that the book would remain unfinished. Ultimately Stephen King posted the sixth part for ‘free’ to reward users who had paid for the first three parts. He then abandoned the novel to complete other projects, promising to eventually return to the story.

Outsiders blamed the project’s outcome on untrustworthy readers who wouldn’t comply to the honour system, and from the publisher’s perspective, The Plant was considered a failure. After all, 40,000 downloads–whilst a sizeable number–hardly compared to his millions of print readers. Yet the New York Times claimed that The Plant failed not because e-publishing wasn’t viable, but because King did not understand his readership, and that his novels were not made for serialization; a ridiculous claim considering the success of King’s serialized version of The Green Mile, which had dominated the New York Times’ bestseller list for weeks.

Stephen King had an entirely different outlook on the matter. He views the venture as a success, stating that while the revenue generated is not big in the context of the bookselling market, The Plant is not a book. It had no printing cuts, publisher costs, or agent fees. His business model simply needed tweaking.

[EDIT] In July 2008, King experimented with a brand new business model with his short story N, brought to life as a video series that combined story, film, and comic book styles. Of the venture, King said, “I’m always interested in new delivery systems for stories, and always curious about how those systems work with the old story-telling verities. This one, it seems to me, works extraordinarily well.”

In February 2009, Stephen King, working in conjunction with Amazon, released an ebook available exclusively on the Kindle, priced at $2.99. The novella, UR, follows a college professor who, via his pink Kindle, finds a newspaper that tells of a future event he feels compelled to forestall. While Amazon was tight-lipped about its success, there were rumours that the sales of the ebook reached ‘five figures’ within three weeks. Over a year later, the ebook remains in the top 200 paid bestsellers list and they’ve actually upped the price to $3.75.

The publishing industry may be scorning authors who shun tradition and self-publish online today, but I remain hopeful. We’ve just got to keep on tweaking.

13 thoughts on “Publishing Without Publishers: A closer look at Stephen King

  1. That was SO interesting. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, always have been. He strikes me as a leader of the pack, always going in new directions. They might not always work but I love the fact he tries. I think his adopting e-publishing is a good sign for the rest of us.

  2. AM, this is a great piece of industrial speculation. The King hook is splendid, especially on people like me who love that lug. I knew about The Plant but didn’t have as many details as you. Thanks for writing it. Any e-publishing would certainly be easier with King’s brand name and recognition, but that same platform allows him to be a strong example of what can happen in e-publishing.

    Are you familiar with his promotional work for “N,” with web videos intended to go viral for intrigue?

    There were two lines where I think you may have mistyped or forgot to finish a thought. That’s understandable for good long-form journalism like this, I just want to point them out so you can fix them if they are actually errors.

    Paragraph 9: “The fifth instalment followed much the same route, possibly because Stephen King had warned readers of the situation and there was a growing expectation that the book would remain unfinished.”

    Are you asserting that paid readership continued to drop specifically because King brought attention to the drop? If so, that’s a statement worth unpacking, especially in reflection of the trend already existing and presumably having other complimentary causes. (Also, I believe it’s “installment” – that’s a kind of typo I make all the time)

    Paragraph 10: “After all, 40,000 downloads—whilst a sizeable number—is hardly a drop in Stephen King’s readership.”

    That is a sizable drop in King’s readership, both for The Plant and in contrast to his average millions of print readers. I think you were trying a “drop in the bucket” idiom here?

    • No actually, I didn’t really look in depth at N as I was afraid the post was getting too long!

      Re: Paragraph 9, good point. I meant that it could have been exacerbated by King bringing attention to the drop, not that it was the sole cause. I shall tweak. (And I think ‘installment’ is American English, and ‘instalment’ is UK English?)

      Re: Paragraph 10, what I meant was that the publishers considered The Plant a failure because they expected his millions of print readers to buy the book. So to them, 40,000 people was nothing compared to his “actual” audience. I’ve edited to hopefully make that clearer.

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