Vassar Commencement Speech

Posted: May 20th, 2001 12:54:44 pm

Thank you, President Fergusson-Trustees-members of the faculty-family members-and-of course-you graduates of 2001.

Last week, this week, next week; all over America young men and women-and some not so young-in caps and gowns are listening to scholars, politicians, eminent thinkers, and probably Oprah Winfrey send them forth into their lives. You here at Vassar have invited the man most commonly seen as America's Boogeyman to do that, and I have to ask you What were you thinking? What in God's name were you thinking?

Possibly that I'd take the day off and paint you a shining picture-"shining," get it? that one's mine-of a glorious American future where George W. Bush rules like Glinda the Good, with Dick Cheney at his right hand and John Ashcroft at his left? Not going to happen. Dubya may be the Wizard of Oz but he's no Glinda, and the boogeyman never takes the day off. I guess no one told you that—and now it's too late.

In that spirit, I invite you now to take a look around and imprint this cheerful scene on your mind. Make it a mental Kodak Moment. Have you got it? Okay, now close your eyes. Seriously. Nothing will bite you. All I want you to do is to see what you were just looking at with your eyes open.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, cast your minds a hundred years into the future. It's May 20th, 2101. Imagine this stage and these same folding chairs on this same lawn, but now there's a sign over the stage that says VASSAR WELCOMES THE SURVIVORS OF THE 2001 COMMENCEMENT EXERCISES. Keep your eyes shut just a moment longer, okay? They've put out a chair for everyone that's here today. One for each student, parent, grandparent, sibling; one for each faculty member and invited guest. Do you see those chairs? Sure you do. Your imagination is getting a great view of them. Because if we reunited a hundred years from today, we wouldn't need to hold the festivities on [the side lawn at Vassar]; we could get everyone left into the newsstand at the Courtyard Marriott out on Route 9.

We're looking at some marvelous medical advances over the next hundred years-most cancers will be treatable and beatable, at least for those who have the resources; with genetic tailoring, a good many children may actually be born cancer-immune—but none of those wonder-children are here today. We have incredible new drugs to protect against stroke and heart attack-drugs which should be almost unnecessary, given what we now know about the lifestyle markers leading up to stroke and heart attack, but what we know and how we behave are often divergent paths, aren't they? Human nature is for the most part an alligator that just wants to doze in the sun and snatch whatever prey happens to wander too close. We know too much cholesterol is bad for us, but God I love a box of french fries. And I'm not the only one.

Our pills and treatments are largely designed to work in spite of human nature, and more and more often they actually do that. Given what we now know about the human genome, there are apt to be even more striking advances over the coming decades, some of which we can foresee now no more than the visionaries of 1970, when I graduated college, could foresee America's amazing transition from a purveyor of goods to a purveyor of information. The land of big shoulders has become the land of smart guys and gals with pens in their pockets, CD players in their computers, and beepers on their belts. Hardly anyone saw it coming, but here it is.

What I'm saying is that I don't see all empty chairs when I close my eyes. I do believe that there are people here today who could still come to a reunion a hundred years from today, but as I say, I think you'd hardly need [the side lawn] to accommodate them. Since we started today, have you heard the occasional cry of a baby? Some young American more interested in eating or getting into a dry diaper than in listening to all this rhetoric? I'd suggest that those few crying babies are your most likely hundred-year survivors-always assuming the world itself continues to survive-and while a few of them might show up in wheelchairs or on walkers, I'll bet many would be tres spry. Alzheimer's? Nah. Most of them will have ninth-generation computer chips in their heads, serving as firewalls against that problem. Diabetes? Maybe, but those who have lost limbs to the disease will have computer-driven prosthetics which have complete range of motion and even feeling-they'll occasionally itch, and go numb if you fall asleep in the wrong position.

So there will be hundred-year survivors. But I have to tell you the scary truth, because that's my job. You know the old proverb, don't you, about the woman who carries the drowning scorpion across the raging stream? Once they're on the other side it stings her and as she staggers to her knees, dying, she reproaches it for ingratitude. "C'mon, lady," it says, "you knew I was a scorpion when you picked me up." And you knew I was the scary guy when you picked me for this job, so deal with it.

Any trustees, Board of Directors, faculty, at our one-hundred-year get-together in 2101? Maybe a couple of faculty. We'll be generous and say two. But they're in their hundred-and-thirties and not much good in a game of Frisbee. Grandparents? Gone, of course. Aunts and uncles? Gone. Parents? With maybe a couple of exceptions, gone. Graduates? Let's be generous here. Fourteen surviving members of the class of 2001. Men and women ranging in ages from one hundred and nineteen, let us say, to a hundred and twenty-two. Many more little brothers and sisters-except by 2101, the annoying little brothers and sisters are going to be old, gray, slow, and cranky. And those crying babies, of course.

Now I'm sure that there are those-I hope their number is small, but I'm sure they're out there-who feel that I am being tasteless, casting gloom-even the pall of death-on what should be a joyous and wonderful day. Let me respond by reiterating the obvious: you knew I was a scorpion when you picked me up. And I do have a point to make. Because I do, I apologize not at all from pointing out the simple fact of your mortality on the day of your commencement.

Let us suppose the world has that coming century. Let's suppose no one decides it's time to start the next nuclear exchange in Pakistan or Jerusalem or Kansas City. Let us suppose you go forth from this happy place in good health and no one drops a safe on your head, hits you with a taxicab, or dumps you out of a hot-air balloon. Let us suppose cancer misses you, that you continue to run and work out and avoid Mickey D's and your heart grows stronger as the years get longer. Let's suppose you are fortunate enough to land the job you want and the friends you love (and who love you) and maybe even a life's mate that you can reach over and touch in the night when the hours spin long you've got the blues. Let's suppose you have those years, that fullness of time. I wish that for you. I do. I wish you the passion of this springtime, a long and productive summer, and a harvest ripe beyond your dreams come fall. I do. But you have to think about what I'm talking about. There's a Jackson Browne song, "The Pretender," that goes, "I'm aware of the time passin by, they say in the end it's the blink of an eye." They say, and it's true. Time is short.

That human life is brief when placed in time's wider perspective is something we all know. I am asking you to consider it on a more visceral level, that's all. Thinking of all those empty chairs a hundred years from now is frightening. Yet it also offers some valuable perspective.

What are you going to do, Vassar oh-one? Who will be the doctors, the lawyers, the writers, the painters, the executives, the politicians? Who's going to look around at age forty-five, surprised as hell to find himself or herself the head concierge at the Hotel Carlyle in New York and say, "How in the hell did I wind up here?"

What will you do? Well, I'll tell you one thing you're not going to do, and that's take it with you. I'm worth I don't exactly know how many millions of dollars-I'm still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I'm doing okay-and a couple of years ago I found out what "you can't take it with you" means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you're lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. If you find yourself in the ER with a serious infarct, or if the doctor tells you yeah, that lump you felt in your breast is a tumor, you can't wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away. My life, as it happened, was saved. The man who saved it was a volunteer EMT named Paul Fillebrown. He did the things that needed to be done at the scene, and then he drove me to the nearest hospital at a hundred and ten miles an hour. And while Paul Fillebrown may have an American Express Card, I doubt very much if it's a gold one or, God save us, the black one that offers double Frequent Flyer miles and special deals at Club Med.

We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life's simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we're just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. President Ferguson? Broke. Steve King? Broke. You guys? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? How long have you got to be in the chips? "I'm aware of the time passin by, they say in the end it's the blink of an eye." That's how long. Just the blink of an eye.

Let me give you some rough numbers, okay? The class of 2001, if everyone graduated on time, would consist of six hundred and twenty-four men and women. But things come up and probably a fewer number will actually get diplomas today. Say six hundred. Now let's take an average year's salary for a Vassar graduate-and when I say average, I mean knocked down to reflect the scuffling early years, when you won't be paid what you're really worth and won't care-if you're normal, in those early years you're going to care more about seeing U-2 or Wilco in concert. So we'll say forty-one grand. Now let's say each of you works forty years. Given those marvelous medical advances we were talking about, many of you may work longer, but let's be conservative. Forty years. Given these numbers-these very conservative numbers-this class as a group can expect to earn 984 million dollars during its active years in the American economy. These are still not Bill Gates numbers, but we need to remember that Vassar is only one of the many good schools graduating seniors today. Almost a billion dollars. And so what? I'm aware of the time passin by, they say in the end it's the blink of an eye, and the scary man said I was going to go out broke. The scary man actually says more than that. The scary man says all the money you will earn, all the credit you will swing like Tom Sawyer's dead cat on a string, all the stocks you will buy, all the mutual funds and precious metals you will trade-all of that is mostly smoke and mirrors. You will continue to put on your pants one leg at a time no matter how many T-bills you have or how many shares of General Electric in your portfolio. It's still going to be quarter-past getting late whether you tell the time on a Timex or a Rolex. No matter how large your bank account, your kids will still play their music too loud. No matter how many credit cards you have, sooner or later things will begin to go wrong with the only three things you have which you can really call your own: your body, your spirit , and your mind.

Yet for a short period-let's say forty years, but the merest blink in the larger course of things-you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That's your time, your moment. Don't miss it. I think my generation did, although I don't blame us too much; it's over in the blink of an eye and it's easy to miss.

Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands-gradually at first, but then with a speed that will take your breath away-the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country-resources you yourselves will soon command-but they are only yours on loan. Only yours to give for a short while. You'll die broke. In the end, it's the blink of an eye. I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale.

Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All you want to get at the getting place, from the Maserati you may dream about to the retirement fund some broker will try to sell you on, none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Don't I think wealth-and some of you are going to finish up very wealthy, although you may not think it now-should be kept in the family? Some, yes-charity begins at home. Those of you who have been able to pay for the college educations of your sons and daughters-their Vassar educations-have done a wonderful thing. It's a great gift. If you're able to go on and give them a further start in life-a place in business, possibly help with a home-so much the better. Because charity begins at home. Because-up to a certain point, at least-we are all responsible for the lives we add to the world. But I think the most chilling thing a young man or woman can hear is "Some day all this will be yours." And of course, the runner-up: "I do it all for you." I think what a lot of new grads would like to hear is some version of, "You're on your own, good luck, call if you need help. And reverse the charges."

Here's another scary thing to think about before you leave here. Imagine a nice little back yard, surrounded by a board fence. Dad-a pleasant fellow, a little plump, wearing an apron that says YOU MAY KISS THE COOK-is tending the barbecue. Mom and the kids are setting the picnic table by the backyard pool: fried chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, a chocolate cake for dessert. And standing around that fence, looking in, are emaciated men and women, starving children. They are silent. They only watch. That family at the picnic is us, ladies and gentlemen; that back yard is America, and those hungry people on the other side of the fence, watching us sit down to eat, include far too much of the rest of the world. It's Asia and the subcontinent; it's countries in Central Europe where people live on the edge from one harvest to the next; it's South America, where they're burning down the rainforests to make room for housing developments and for grazing lands where next year's Big Macs are now being raised; most of all it's Africa, where AIDS is pandemic-not epidemic but pandemic-and starvation is a fact of life. Am I overstating? Well, America contains five per cent of the world's population and uses up seventy-five per cent of the world's resources, so you tell me. What we scrape down the kitchen disposal after Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight would feed a Liberian village for a week, so you tell me. And the Woodstock Generation which set out to change the world has, by and large, subsided into a TV-driven existence of quiet and unobtrusive selfishness. While our national worth has tripled over the last quarter-century, the help we give the world's poor has sunk back to 1973 levels, so you tell me, you dare to tell me I'm overstating the case. In West Africa, the average lifespan is thirty-nine years. Infant mortality in the first year is fifteen per cent. It's not a pretty picture, but we have the power to help, the power to change. And why should we refuse? Because we're going to take it with us? Please .

We've elected an administration-I guess we elected them, we might as well say we did-that takes a dim view of charity as national policy. George W. Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism," an oxymoron right up there with jumbo shrimp and humane execution. What he's talking about has been Republican Party bedrock for a hundred years; it amounts to, "Don't give a man a fish, give him a fishing pole and teach him to fish." (This, of course, would be before idiotic conservation and environmental policies render the whole concept of "fish" irrelevant.) My own philosophy-partly formed as a young college graduate without a job waiting in a line to get donated commodities for the kids-is by all means give a man a pole and teach him to fish, but people learn better with full bellies. Why not give him a fish to get started?

Giving isn't about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It's for the giver. One doesn't open one's wallet to improve the world, although it's nice when that happens; one does it to improve one's self.. I give because it's the only concrete way I have of saying that I'm glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love. I hope that you will be similarly grateful to be alive and that you will also be glad to do whatever it is you wind up doing—even that guy who's going to end up as the concierge at the Carlyle Hotel. Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs-on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.

I wish you the most pleasant day-both graduates and families. I wish you the joy of your fellowship, one with the other. This isn't a hundred years from now, after all; it's just today, and today we're fine. Today nobody's better than us. But when you go somewhere and sit down to break bread with your families, as most of you will, I want you to remember that image of the hungry and the dispossessed standing on the other side of the backyard fence. For the most part, they do not want to harm you, or take away your joy in this day; they only want what you want and we all want: food for themselves and their children, clothes for the body, a roof to keep the rain off at night. There are people who need these things right here in Poughkeepsie, as well as in India and Sierra Leone. Many of you know that; in April of this year, Vassar College held a panel discussion called "Faces of Homelessness."

Dutchess Outreach is one local organization dedicated to helping the hungry, the sick, and the homeless. They're at 70 South Hamilton Street, near a part of town which is very different from this green and pleasant campus, a part of Poughkeepsie where you might feel uncomfortable walking at night. Dutchess Outreach runs an Emergency Food Bank for those who are hungry and have nothing to eat. They run something called the Lunch Box, which serves midday meals six days a week. They have a Children's Clothes Closet for kids who need pants and coats and shoes. They provide nutrition, information, and emergency services for people with AIDS.

I don't as a rule talk about charitable giving; I actually do happen to believe that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing—or if it does, it shouldn't discuss it. Today I'm going to make an exception to that rule. I intend to give $20,000 to Dutchess Outreach, in honor of the Class of 2001. I would take it kindly if those of you who are here today would match that amount. Each strictly according to his or her resources; nobody gets hurt. I don't ask that you do this because it will solve the problem of hunger and want in Poughkeepsie or Dutchess County, let alone in the whole world, but because you'll enjoy your own coming meal more fully knowing that you shared your joy and your good fortune in having been a part of this happy occasion. And don't let it be a one-shot. Let it be the beginning of a life's giving, not just of money but of time and spirit. It repays. Not least of all because it helps us remember that we may be going out broke, but right now we're doing okay. Right now we have the power to do great good for others and for ourselves. So I ask you to begin the next great phase of your life by giving, and to continue as you begin. I think you'll find in the end that you got far more than you ever had, and did more good than you ever dreamed.

Thank you.

Delivered May 20, 2001

If you have a little extra money, make a donation to:

Dutchess Outreach Inc.
29 N. Hamilton Street #202
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
(845) 454-3792

Message from Stephen

Posted: December 4th, 2000 12:23:39 pm

We have been deluged with requests for comment on the cessation of The Plant at the end of December. First, let me make two things clear. The first is that Part 6 of The Plant does conclude the first major phase of the story. It is complete in itself, containing the three classical elements: beginning, middle, and end. The second thing is that The Plant is not finished online. It is only on hiatus. I am no more done than the producers of the TV show Survivor are done. I am simply in the process of fulfilling my other commitments. In my view, The Plant has been quite successful. You can form your own opinion based on the story itself and our complete financial records which will be posted to this site in January. Think of it as Plant Part 7!

That said, I think that the following New York Times editorial and my reply (which they declined to publish) pretty much delineates the boundaries of this fascinating little adventure. If you read them, I urge you to read them together. They will serve as my only point-counterpoint on this subject. May I scold for a minute? This whole discussion is beside the point. My job is not to comment on art and fiction. I am not a critic. If anything has discouraged me about the course of The Plant from July until December, it has been the almost total lack of discussion of the story. Let's get back to that and try to stay there.

Stephen King

Message from Stephen

Posted: December 4th, 2000 12:13:56 pm

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.

Read the OP/Ed Piece from The New York Times

Reprinted from The New York Times Opinions and Editorials for 12/01/00

Posted: December 1st, 2000 12:17:18 pm

King Closure

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)

Message from Stephen

Posted: October 9th, 2000 12:06:58 pm

Following December's installment of this story—December's very long installment of this story—The Plant will be going back into hibernation so that I can continue work on Black House (the sequel to The Talisman, written in collaboration with Peter Straub). I also need to complete work on two new novels (the first, Dreamcatcher, will be available from Scribner's next March) and see if I can't get going on The Dark Tower again. And my agent insists I need to take a breather so that foreign translation and publication of The Plant—also in installments, also on the Net—can catch up with American publication. Yet don't despair. The last time The Plant furled its leaves, the story remained dormant for nineteen years. If it could survive that, I'm sure it can survive a year or two while I work on other projects.

Part 6 is the most logical stopping point. In a traditional print book, it would be the end of the first long section (which I would probably call "Zenith Rising"). You will find a climax of sorts, and while not all of your questions will be answered not yet, at least—the fates of several characters will be resolved.

Nastily

Permanently.

As a way of thanking those readers (somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent) who came along for the ride and paid their dues for parts 1 through 3, Part 6 of The Plant will be available free of charge. Enjoy... but don't relax too much. When The Plant returns, it will once more be on a pay-as-you-go basis.

In the meantime, get ready for Part 6. I think you're going to be surprised.

Perhaps even shocked.

Best regards (and happy holidays),
Stephen King

And just by the way...

Readers of The Plant should be aware that although I am stopping at the end of Part 6 because of other commitments—most notably the job of finishing The Talisman sequel with Peter Straub—the pay-through rate has fallen off radically with Part 4. In fact, the numbers have dropped below 50%. Neither Marsha nor I can assign any particular reason for this precipitous drop off, it may be that people are stealing this particular installment simply because they know the story is going to stop anyway.

Message from Stephen

Posted: August 25th, 2000 12:12:15 pm

Dear Constant Reader,

For those of you who are interested, here's an update on The Plant as of late August. I judge Part 1 as a considerable success, both in the number of downloads and in the pay-through. The situation with Part 2 is less clear. For one thing, a number of people have experienced problems getting connected and successfully downloading the story. These are technical problems which are being worked out, and all I can say is that if you have had problems, keep trying... and remember what one E-book executive has said: Where we are with this new form is roughly analogous to where the automobile industry was in 1908. In other words, if you are having problems getting the engine started, keep turning that crank.

We are seeing two potential problems with Part 2. First, while downloads remain strong, we have little doubt that the total number is down slightly from Part 1. This may be because people don't like the story; it may be because there has been far less publicity and media interest. As the author of the story, I naturally prefer the second possibility. In terms of continuing, this is not a problem. Based on the ground rules I set down at the outset, my job is to continue even if only 800 people download every episode-as long, that is, as 75% of those 800 people pay for what they are getting. The real problem is that we at Philtrum are beginning to see a widening disparity between downloads and payments. There is undoubtedly some thievery and bootlegging going on, but Marsha and I believe the real problem may lie elsewhere. It appears to us that some people are downloading two and even three times to different formats-to the Palm Pilot say, and also to whatever Microsoft uses. This may be based on a simple misperception. Let me put it this way: you couldn't go into a bookstore and say, "I want you to give me the paperback version and the audio version of this book free because I bought the hardcover." As simply as I can put it, you must pay for what you take every time you take it or this won't work.

As for the story itself, I have gone back to work and have written another 50,000 words. I am now all set to publish episodes of The Plant in September, October, and November. All I am guaranteeing, however, is Part 3 in September. After Part 3 is published, we will make a go-no go decision based on the pay-through.

I have been asked by a good many people about the fate of The Plant if the on-line experiment fails. All I can say is that while I love the new stuff, I have a great many other commitments, and the chances of it being finished or published in the near future would be slim. With the Internet to drive matters, the show will go on. If, however, the numbers don't support continuing the story, I will have to cease. The eventual decision doesn't rest with me; it is floating around somewhere out there in cyberspace.

One thing I almost forgot, and that is the issue of pricing. Installments one, two and three are going to be available for $1. Further installments up to 8 will be available for $2 each. In other words, you complete financial liability for the first 8 installments of this story will be $13 or about the cost of a trade paperback or a hardcover novel offered at 40% discount in a chain bookstore. Any parts beyond 8-which would be the balance of the story, would be posted free.

We have also had some complaints about the cost of ink and paper. On that subject, I have just two words: oh, please. One would think the books people bought in book stores were printed on air or that the cost of ink, paper, binding and boards were not included. As Internet readers—en as printers-buyers of The Plant are being spared these last two expenses. In closing let me quote science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein: TANFL, that stands for There Ain't No Free Lunch.

In closing I just want to add that I appreciate all the support you have shown me thus far, and to add that the profit-motive was never the principal force driving this amusing exploration, and that is not what's driving it now. We are exploring a new continent, that's all, and so far it has been fun.

Steve

Message from Stephen

Posted: July 31st, 2000 12:10:43 pm

UPDATE ON THE PLANT

I promised visitors at this site—not to mention interested media types—an update on how we're doing as of 7/31. This is that update. I have been as honest and specific as I can be, believing that's the best way to spike rumors.

How many downloads so far?

152,132

How many have paid?

116,200, or 76.38 per cent. 93,200 have paid up front with credit cards, using Amazon.com's service. 23,000 have promised to pay later, and these payments are showing up already (one guy sent me a silver dollar). The pay-through rate has been higher than I dared hope.

Costs to you, as of Part 1?

$124,150 for print ads in Publisher's Weekly and USA Today, Load test for the Web Servers, Project Management Fees, Server setup fees and Compositor's fees to Mr. Michael Alpert, who has done his usual great job of making the Philtrum product look smart—ladies and gentlemen, give him a hand. There's also the cost of maintaining the servers through which my story is downloaded. Marsha may have an idea of what these fees amount to, but so far I don't. Not added to these costs are my services as writer and Marsha's as all-around whirling dervish.

A lot fewer downloads than "Riding the Bullet." Disappointed?

Not yet. You need to remember that "Bullet" was a magnificent one-shot, available from a lot more sources and in many cases given away for free. If THE PLANT gets done, people are going to be downloading well into 2001, even with longer segments on offer. If those who have downloaded Part 1 so far download the following ten or eleven installments, the total downloads would be 1,673,452. Do the math. It's pretty good math, if people keep coming back.

Do you expect more downloads of Part 1?

Sure. It'll be up by itself until August 21st, remember, and then up in tandem with Part 2 until September 25th. I think we'll get a bump on Part 1 when Part 2 goes on sale. How big is anybody's guess.

Are you go for Part 3 in September?

Yes.

Are you working on THE PLANT again?

Yes. Hard.

Will people continue to come back?

That's anybody's guess. Some readers have been disappointed in the epistolary format ("Why should I pay for a bunch of office memos?" one Constant Reader asked). It's certainly too late to change that now, and what was good enough for Bram Stoker (DRACULA) is good enough for me. And the tale becomes more narrative—although from different points of view—as it goes along. In ANY case, I have to get enough downloads to feel the experiment is working. That was, after all, the point.

And if the downloads don't stay up?

I pull the plug, say thank you very much, and go back to work. On THE PLANT if I'm having fun (so far I am), on something else if I'm not. There's certainly no problem with the pay-through. If we've proved nothing else, we've proved that the guy who shops for entertainment on the Net can be as honest as the one in a retail bricks-and-mortar store.

If I have other questions?

Save 'em. We're busy. And to all of you who downloaded and then said "Right on, keep it coming," THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Steve

Message from Stephen

Posted: July 25th, 2000 12:26:36 pm

Post #2

Here's the truth: When I made a decision to post the first two installments of The Plant, my hopes of success weren't very high. Publicly, I have always expressed a great deal of confidence in human nature, but in private I have wondered if anybody would ever pay for anything on the Net. It now looks as though people will, and I am faced with the real possibility of finishing The Plant. I don't think anyone wants to buy 5,000 word installments over a period of over 20 months, and my experience with The Green Mile makes me think that interest would fade, anyway. Therefore, what I propose doing is this: Episode 2, 6-7,000 words; Episode 3, 10-12,000 words. Download price in both cases would remain $1. Installments 4 through 7 or 8 would be much longer-perhaps as long as 25,000 words-and the download price would go up to $2.50. What do you think about this? Will it work?

Steve

Message from Stephen

Posted: July 25th, 2000 12:09:02 pm

Dear Constant Reader,

Thanks for your response to The Plant! It's been great! These numbers aren't equal to Riding the Bullet-at least not yet-but our publicity campaign was almost non-existent. New travels fast on the web, however; it's the 21st century version of the jungle telegraph, and the number of downloads seems to be staying hot. Better still, the confirmed rate of payment by credit card is very strong-75% at least. When the dust settles, Marsha and I are hoping-quite reasonably, we think-for a pay-through rate of 85-90%. I should add that a good many non-payers appear to have been not readers but browsers... like people in a bookstore who read a couple of pages and then put the book back on the shelf. We have been deluged with questions from the press about how we are doing. The short answer is that we are doing fine. We are going to give trend figures on July 31st, after this project has been running for a week. We don't anticipate talking to the press again until that time. The reason for this is simple: the people who drive this and are paying their dollars are the people who visit this web site, not the people who necessarily read The New York Times or watch CNN. Good or bad, you deserve the news first, you deserve to read it here, and that's the way it is going to play out. For the time being, just let me reiterate that this experiment seems to be working. I am delighted. Thank you. Tell your friends.

Peace,

Steve

Message from Stephen

Posted: November 2nd, 1999 12:47:54 pm

I am aware that a lot of people have been concerned about press reports that I am either not writing or not able to write. Most of these reports are the result of material taken out of context in the Dateline interview Tabby and I did. What I said—and I believe the actual interview makes this clear—is that I found it extremely difficult to find my way back into writing after the accident. That battle was fought in July however, and I feel that I won a conditional victory. Since the accident I have finished my book on writing, I have written a novelette called "Riding the Bullet," and have begun work on an original miniseries for TV. This is called Rose Red and is an expansion of a screenplay I wrote some years ago. I have also begun talking with Peter Straub about finally writing a sequel to The Talisman—we jokingly called this project T2, although I doubt if there will be a part for Arnold Schwarzenegger. My endurance is much less than it was, and my output has been cut in half, but I am working. I hope that this sets some fears to rest, and believe me when I say that I am very touched by the expressed concern. I am touched, in fact, that anyone cares at all, one way or the other. Now get out there and do something nice for someone else.

Steve