Stephen King and E-Publishing

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 8 March 2001

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2000, 2001

This document is at


This document is an adjunct to my Workshop on Electronic Publishing.

Electronic publishing threatens to disintermediate various organisations in the conventional publishing chain, by enabling players high up the chain to reach directly down to their ultimate customers. In the extreme case, authors can self-publish directly to their consumers (as has been done with this document, and every other one on this site). Business models (i.e. 'who pays what to whom, and why?') need some attention in this new context. I've written a series of papers on e-publishing.

Horror-writer Stephen King has been responsible for a couple of interesting moves in the game. This document provides background and references on the topic.

Round 1: 'Riding the Bullet'

In March 2000, King worked through one of the large publishing companies, Simon & Schuster, to sell a 67 pp. novelette, for a price of $US2.50, exclusively on the Internet (although it appears that foreign translations have subsequently been published on paper ...).

The book is 'Riding the Bullet', ISBN: 0-743-20467-0. It was promoted through the publisher's existing promotional pages for their author. It was (and at this stage still is) sold not directly by the publisher, but by a small number of selected e-tailers.

It was made available in a variety of formats, each with some form of file-protection. For example, the only version designed for Macs was a 400KB PDF format file protected by SoftLock. (Given that I'm not into King's kind of literature, and I don't trust unaudited software of that kind, I haven't downloaded it).

My guess is that the price lies between what King receives per hard-back and per soft-back copy of a full-length novel published on paper through a conventional publisher. On the other hand, he has to pay the costs of promotion - not much, since viral mechanisms did most of it for him; and of order-and payments-processing; plus the margin to the e-tailers, and the margin to the publisher. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, so even the remaining thin margin would have been of some financial benefit to him, given that it's reputed to have sold 400,000 copies during the first 24 hours.

Here are some articles about the event that were written at the time:

Round 2: 'The Plant'

In July 2000, King published on the web the first instalment of another book. In King's words, 'The Plant' is "an epistolary novel set in the early 1980s (before e-mail, in other words, and when even the fax was a fringe technology). It'll be presented in parts ranging from 5000 to 7000 words. The story is sort of funny and at the same time pretty gruesome (think Christine). I'm committed to publishing at least the first two segments. Whether or not I publish more depends".

He made it available in 145KB of PDF, ASCII (.txt - 28KB), HTML (32KB) and various proprietary e-Book formats (Palm, EPOC, and Windows CE).

The differences in comparison with the approach adopted with 'Riding the Bullet' were that:

To estimate the income from the venture is tricky. If the book had 8 instalments, and if the downloads-per-instalment fell to half by the end, and if overall 50% of downloads were paid for, then he'd receive $3, which is once again between what I guess he receives per hard-back and per soft-back copy of a full-length novel published on paper through a conventional publisher. His costs no longer include e-tailer and publisher margins; but he has to create the file-formats, and pay for web-site services to manage the downloads, and pay Amazon a margin for collecting the payments. Even after that, the margin per book is probably pretty substantial.

Rightscenter (reference below) reported that "in its first week on the market, the first chapter of 'The Plant' was downloaded 152,132 times, with 116,200, or 76.38%, customers paying upfront. ... Production and advertising costs amount to $124,150 thus far". [Why am I such a sceptic? That 76.38% looks just too good to be true!].

Later, the FAQ offered the following answer to the question 'How many installments will there be?':

"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?".

Here are some articles about the event.

Terms of Contract for 'The Plant'

To cope with the new context, King and his team came up with a novel (sorry) set of contractual terms.

What I Promise

  1. To publish the first 10,000 or so words of The Plant in two installments, no matter what. Installment One goes up on this site July 24th; Installment Two will appear August 21st
  2. If response is good and the pay-through equals or exceeds 75%, Installment Three will go up in September.
  3. When Installment Three goes up, Installment One goes down.
  4. If response is strong, I promise to carry The Plant through to its conclusion. I won't leave you hanging, in other words.
  5. Above item is cancelled if I die.
  6. If response is weak, I promise to pull the plug after Installment Two.

What You Promise

  1. To pay for each installment of The Plant, and to pay each time you download it. Look at it this way: you couldn't go into a bookstore and say, "I bought a copy of The Street Lawyer in here yesterday, so give me four more for free today." Get it?
  2. Not to print extra copies and sell them to your friends. If you want to print copies and give them away, I can't stop you (in fact I can't stop you from doing anything, which is the beauty of this thing-think of it as web-moshing). But don't sell them. Two reasons: first, it's against the law, and second, it's nasty behavior. Respect my copyright. As a writer, it's all I've got.

What Happened Next?

On 30 November 2000, the site was showing Instalments II to V available for download, and the message "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, your 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". Instalment I had been withdrawn, with the odd explanation provided in the FAQ that "Installment I is no longer available. We left it up much longer than originally planned, but it's time for us to focus on the current and upcoming installments".

Four months and five instalments into the project, a press report (I saw it in The Sydney Morning Herald of 30 November 2000, p.21) stated that "attention and sales have steadily faded, and King has decided to call it quits, at least for a while. "The Plant will be going back into hibernation", he says on his web-site, adding that he began the story years ago and will eventually finish it. Soon after posting that note, the author learnt that sales of the mostb recent monthly instalments had fallen sharply. About 40,000 copies were downloaded in the first week after the most recent instalment became available, down from more than 150,000 copies of the week following the appearance of the first instalment. Only 46% of the downloads of the most recent chapter were paid for, which was far below King's minimum threshhold".

I was unable to find any information on the site to corroborate the information I read in the Herald. Subsequently, I was advised of a page containing an 'Author's Note' bearing the date of 9 November, which doesn't appear to have been linked to and was presumably therefore a URL notified in a newsletter. It read as follows:

"Following next month's installment of this story--next month'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, 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".

Recent entries in the Guest Book appeared to be reactions to press reports rather than to King's 'Author's Note'. For example:

Another suggested some difficulties with downloads: "Tried to download The Plant twice, both times indicating I would pay by check. When I couldn't download, I didn't pay. Just wanted you to know that's one reason why someone didn't pay. Sorry it didn't work out".

It's anyone's guess as to whether the press reports were based on hard information and the 'Author's Note' was gloss; or the 'Author's Note' should be taken at face value, and the press reports treated as misinformation or speculation ...


While the world awaits the outcome of a horror story about a plant, publishing companies await the outcome of a horror story about the disintermediation of publishing companies ...

Some Further Reading

OzAuthors (2000-) at

Riemer A. (2001) 'Reading between the dots' The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2001, at


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Created: 29 July 2000

Last Amended: 8 March 2001

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