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Stephen King's Net Horror Story

Five months ago, in the name of authorial independence and technological empowerment (not to mention money), Stephen King decided to bypass his publisher and sell his serial novel The Plant directly to readers over the Net. The story is about a predatory vine that terrorizes a small publishing house. Last week, the experiment was suspended. Whether or not he scared his e-readers, King instantly traumatized the publishing industry, which suddenly had to confront its worst nightmare -- technologically-empowered writers end-running Stone Age marketing notions to tell their own stories and sell them to readers without middlemen. An analysis.

The Plant drew the massive media hype associated with anything new involving media and the Net. Then the hype quieted -- and the sales fell. King and the publishing industry both got some valuable lessons about the Net and how it does or doesn't work to sell books. Last week King abandoned the experiment.

What King's adventure demonstrates is that the Net is a powerful new tool for selling books rather than a technology that replaces them.

King's "Plant" Web site is worth a look. As talented as King is, here is a lesson in how not to sell and market a novel. On the page where a visitor could download The Plant, there are answers to more than 20 frequently asked questions and difficulties, more than on the Netscape FAQ.

Peddling content online is a consistently misunderstood endeavor for information marketers, as conventional media's numerous online headaches have repeatedly shown. Online, people interested in movies, sex, dogs, open source, flowers, travel (or books, for that matter), gather in identifiable communities. They know exactly where to go to seek and discuss information they want, including, links to books,bookstores and publishing and author sites.

Generally, publishers have not only failed to commission books that cover the ascendant culture of technology well, they make little use of the Net's organic hyperlinking capabilities. Their Net marketing notions are superficial. They almost never take the time or spend the money to penetrate the network to find massive audiences like those on giant (or small) private and commercial Web sites, instant messaging systems or mailing lists.

That's too bad. Interactive Net consumers are independent minded and experienced when it comes to buying information like books. They are often obsessive readers. Publishers forget that it's impossible to go online for any length of time without doing some reading and writing. Many of these new content consumers have been making information choices their whole lives. They are more apt than traditional media consumers to make up their own minds about what to buy and read and depend less on gatekeepers like reviewers and journalists. They also grasp the limitations of the Net.

Lost in the Net hysteria is the fact that non-virtual books are a powerful technology themselves. They are easy to buy, and don't require tech support, batteries or upgrades. You can read them in toto, anywhere you want, even when the power goes out, and they are impervious to viruses and other tech bugs. They can be passed along to others and last a long time. Those are strong selling points.

But the publishing industry -- panicked by the growth of the Net -- doesn't seem to grasp the value of its own products, certainly not in its marketing approaches. The publishing industry has a passive, dependent ethic when it comes to selling books -- they mail them to skeptical and overwhelmed reviewers, producers, reporters and editors and beg, relying on the media's diminishing good will and shortening attention spans to call attention to their creative offerings.

Needless to say, this approach fails much more often than not. The Net offers a miraculous alternative to this medieval system, a great potential boon to writers and publishes alike, but so far, most publishers are stymied by the network, using it to undermine their most valuable asset, the form of the book itself.

Hyperlinks and search engines make it possible for information entities like books to find their own audiences, and for writers and publishers both to by-pass expensive and ineffective media systems to pinpoint the readers they need to reach and skip the others.

The digital mediasphere has fundamental rules -- more information at at less cost, and the information system that meets the information needs of humans will always prevail. The most successful information vendors aren't those that create information, but those that connect people with the information they want and need. The competition isn't just tough, it's literally incalculable.

According to the New York Times, about 40,000 copies of The Plant were downloaded in the first week after the most recent installment became available, sharply down from the more than 120,000 copies ordered in the week after the first installment appeared.(King was charging relative payments per download. You pay once but can download both the PDf (Adobe Acrobat format) and Palm versions. The site counts that as two downloads when in the real world of book sales, it would be counted as one.)

Even worse, fewer and fewer of those downloaders were willing to keep paying. King issued the installments under an honor-system payment model, asking readers to pay for $l for each chapter downloaded and promising to keep writing only if at least 75% of the readers complied. "If you pay, the story rolls. If you don't, the story folds," he wrote on his Web site. But this week, King staffers said that only 46% of the downloads of the most recent chapter were paid for, and the experiment was suspended.

King still managed to far outsell almost all electronic books published by the major publishers. According to the Times, publishers say typical e-books sell far fewer than 10,000 copies. One publishing analyst says the actual number is closer to 3,000. When Simon & Schuster published King's electronic novella Riding the Bullet, more than 500,000 copies were downloaded, although many people got the novella for free as overloaded sites like Amazon started giving it away. Hardly the long-awaited new model for writers or for publishing.

But really, folks, why would people want to buy or read a story this way, no matter how low the cost?

Direct digital publishing makes sense in some contexts. Textbooks seem to have a natural niche for selling on the Net. There is an enormous market for almost universally-wired students and educators to pay for downloads of textbook revisions rather than shell out a fortune for updated hardcover versions (or for software, for that matter). Scientific, academic and other research could be published on the Net, shared and peer-reviewed and sold instantly. Each Spring, gardeners might love e-books on climate, bulbs and the tools to plant and take care of them. Same with technical manuals and dictionaries, or home repair guides and store catalogues, or print-on-demand books, especially out-of-stock books and editions. Topical pamphlets, afterwords, updates and reference material also could work well online, along with e-updates of non-fiction books like biographies.

Publishers now also have to compete with the growing number of open media sites -- Web logs, Web sites, mailing lists. Many are centered around communities of interest. Because they are not mass-marketed, increasingly popular open media sites are freer in voice and diversity as well as cost. These sites are much more in tune with the culture of the Net -- open, raucous, smart and informational, traits not always associated with giant publishes. Invariably, they share a common utility with their consumers -- free music, open source, archived materials -- and they give their readers and browsers work to do and a role to play: contributing, moderating, commenting and arguing, reviewing, sharing information, linking.

On a bookstore shelf, King is a lethal competitor against other books and writers, even many movies and TV shows. Online, he and commercial publishers are competing with narrative in every form, from sex to programming to e-trading to tech exchanges to videostreaming. It's difficult to get attention, harder yet to get people to reach for those credit cards.

Even though many publishers appear to be giving up on them, books don't appear to be doomed. New technologies aren't all consuming. They change some things, and leave others unscathed. Books (the same may be true of movies) may be one of those narrative forms that work best in the form in which they are currently being presented. Technologies tend to create elites -- the people that make and use them -- who often lose touch with the un-hip hordes. The vast majority of Americans -- 95%, according to Business Week -- don't yet have broadband and aren't going to get any anytime soon. That means time is a major factor in decisions like downloading book and movie-buying online, especially when the audience is away from college T-3 lines.

Publishers are already drawing the wrong conclusion from the demise of The Plant.

"Whether in print or electronic form, a publisher brings quite a lot to the table," a Harper Collins executive told the New York Times, "starting with the editing process and including marketing and publicity and and all the advice and wherewithal."

Maybe so. But it's a given in the book business that editors don't edit much anymore. And most marketing departments are a mess, still in shock over the advent of the Digital Age. It's almost conventional wisdom among writers and editors that book campaigns and publicity tours are inefficient and ineffective. Mostly what publishers bring to the table is lots of books.

The wiser conclusion to draw from King's experiment is that the Net is a powerful and still much under-utilized new tool for selling books, not replacing them.

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Analysis: Stephen King's Net Nightmare

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