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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.
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)
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.
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),
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.
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.
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?
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?
Are you working on THE PLANT again?
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!
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?
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.
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.