The Plant: Getting a Little Goofy
By Stephen King
In a December 1st editorial titled "King's Closure," the New York Times states, "... one reads Stephen King novels in a single gulp. Their chief effect is suspense of a kind that cannot be drawn out over months." Surely whoever wrote that particular opinion can't have much acquaintance with the Times's own bestseller lists. In 1996 I published a novel called The Green Mile in six installments, and the experiment was a roaring commercial success. At one point, all six chapbooks were on the Times paperback bestseller list at the same time, causing the folks who craft the lists to change their way of listing such endeavors (serial novels are now accorded only a single slot on the Times list, no matter how many installments they may include).
John Saul later published a similar novel in six parts, and enjoyed similar success. Interestingly enough, Jackie Collins's foray into the serial novel field was less popular, perhaps because it was not a suspense story. Contrary to what the Times editorial department may think, tales of suspense almost cry out for serialization. They don't call them "cliffhangers" for nothing.
I learned a great many interesting things in the course of The Plant's run on the Internet (a run that's not over, incidentally, but only in hiatus). Perhaps the most dismaying is the profound misunderstanding most business people seem to have concerning how entertainment-which is mostly produced by talented goofballs-interfaces with the business potential they see (or think they see) in the web. One thing seems clear to me: what works on TV, in the movies, and in popular fiction doesn't work in the same way on the Net. A great many business ventures (and not a few fortunes) have already crashed as a result of that erroneous assumption.
Popular entertainments have a place on the Net, but finding the most efficient ways to make them work is a trial and error process. Most people who invest big money in flossy entertainment websites are going to find themselves out of luck, out of dough, and scratching their heads. People who start out just to have fun-to goof around, in other words-are going to find some Napster-sized pots of gold. Profit never comes first, though. What comes first is something like, "Gosh, I've got an idea and my uncle's got a barn-let's put on a show!" There's a lot of available barn space on the Internet, and a lot of people are going to put on shows. I was delighted to be one of the first, and I'm not done yet. Goodness, why would I be? I'm having a hell of a good time.
The Plant will end up grossing at least $600,000, and may end up over a million. These are not huge numbers in today's book market, but The Plant-pay attention, now, because this is the important part-is not a book. Right now it exists as nothing but electronic bits and bytes dancing gaily in cyberspace. Yes, it's been downloaded by a hundred thousand or so people, and some of them have printed hard copies (hand-bound them just like medieval manuscripts, too, for all I know), but mostly it's just an electronic mirage floating out there all by itself like Coleridge's stately pleasure dome, with no printing costs, publisher's cuts, or agents' fees to pull it down. Advertising aside (and finding the correct advertising venues for internet users is a whole other issue), costs are nonexistent and the profit potential is unlimited.
I see three large problems. One is that most Internet users seem to have the attention span of grasshoppers. Another is that Internet users have gotten used to the idea that most of what's available to them on the Net is either free or should be. The third-and biggest-is that book-readers don't regard electronic books as real books. They're like people saying, "I love corn on the cob but creamed corn makes me gag." Since The Plant experiment began in July, I've had dozens of people come up to me and say that they can't wait to read the story - when it's in book form. They either don't go on the Web, don't go on it for anything but e-mail, or just don't think of reading online, even if what they're reading has been printed out in the privacy of their own homes, as real reading. To them, it's creamed corn. And it makes them gag.
In this last fact, I see a tremendous opportunity. In truth, I don't believe the on-line publication of The Plant has done more than graze whatever potential it might have as a book. The two markets aren't quite apples and oranges, but there is still only a small overlap. In other words, we seem to have discovered an entirely new dimension to the sort of publishing which used to be called "first serial rights." Only instead of generating ten or twenty or perhaps even fifty thousand dollars for pre-publication print rights (in a traditional magazine like Cosmopolitan or Rolling Stone, let us say), we're talking about much bigger numbers.
None of this is a bad thing or a good thing. Neither is any of it a sure-fire thing. Like the more traditional artistic endeavors, it's a goofy thing. A fun thing. Neither the sums generated nor the future of publishing is the point. The point is trying some new things; pushing some new buttons and seeing what happens.