The suspension of "The Plant" -- Stephen King's online serial novel -- after the fifth monthly installment gives rise to all kinds of horticultural metaphors. But the one that matters is that the soil was simply not rich enough. Some 120,000 paying readers downloaded the first installment of "The Plant." By this week's fifth installment that number had dwindled to 40,000, many of them no longer paying. That is a respectable number of downloads by most other measures, but not quite King-like. Some readers complained that the price of the installments had jumped from $1 to $2, though on his Web site's FAQ -- frequently asked questions -- page Mr. King explained that the price of the whole work would not exceed $13. "One thing I almost forgot." he said on the FAQ page, "and that is the issue of pricing" -- the one thing publishers never make the mistake of discussing with readers.
It was easy to over-read the significance of Mr. King's experiment when it began, and it is just as easy to over-read the significance of its ending. It was, in its own way, a reasonable test of whether readers would pay authors directly for their work over the Internet -- reasonable, that is, for authors like Mr. King or John Grisham or Tom Clancy. But it demonstrated perhaps that readers would rather not pay at all and that in the broad forest of the Web, where all the trees stand more or less the same height, even Mr. King can be hard to see. It neither proved nor disproved the possibility of successful electronic publishing over the Web.
That is because this experiment was based on a false premise. When the first installment of "The Plant" was published, analogies were drawn to Victorian serial publication, to Dickens and the impatient wait on American shores for arrival of the ship bearing the latest installment of his most recent novel. But one reads Stephen King novels in a single gulp. Their chief effect is suspense of a kind that cannot be drawn out over months. It is far better consumed in a single sitting, like a bag of hot popcorn or a bowl of cold cereal. "The Plant" withered mainly because its author misunderstood the nature of his readership.
©2000 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission.
View Stephen's Response (12/04/2000)