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DarkEcho Horror
Death by Rick Berry
The DarkEcho Files

IT CAME FROM BANGOR

For more than six years Paula Guran published -- in email form on a weekly basis -- an eccentric newsletter for horror writers and others. This commentary came from it.

DarkEcho
07.27.00
V.7 #27

I've had it with these publishing pundits and their pernicious pronouncements concerning THE PLANT project. Why should *I* care or add to this profusion of opinion? Several reasons, but primarily:

1) Stephen King is a horror homeboy. He may be The Man, but he's still a horror writer and he's gettin' dissed...or at least misinterpreted by people who don't know our turf. He's family.

2) Admit it. Every last one you -- including those of you who know Stephen King -- have at one time or another at least considered what you would do if you were in his position.

3) I have this compulsion about veracity. Call me old-fashioned, but I think journalists and commentators should at least ATTEMPT to get the facts straight.

You know the basics: King decided to try an experiment. Take an old, unfinished story -- THE PLANT -- from the 80s and ask folks via his Web site if they would make an honor-system deal with him to have a chance to read it. If the deal worked well enough, then he'd finish the story and deliver it chunk by chunk, a buck at a time, in unencrypted format.

The resulting *facts* as related by various news sources: As of 3 p.m. Monday, the first day of release, there had been 41,000 downloads from Amazon.com; 25,000 people kept up their end of the deal immediately by paying by credit card and another 7,000 promised to send cash or a check. Other accounts stated 78% paid up front.

The problem? King says they haven't given any figures out. Maybe Amazon has, but still...Tuesday, King thanked fans for their response to THE PLANT saying the numbers "aren't equal to RIDING THE BULLET -- at least not yet- - but our publicity campaign was almost non-existent...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...[We}are hoping-quite reasonably, we think-for a pay-through rate of 85-90%...[A] good many non-payers appear to have been not readers but browsers..." King goes on to say the press has deluged them with questions about how they 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."

In other words: there may or may not be any reliable figures. This did not stop the media from headlining:
- KING E-NOVEL SHORT OF EXPECTED DEMAND (NYTimes): One of my favorites, since they ever stated what the expected demand was.
- SLOW START FOR STEPHEN KING'S BUCK-A-BOOK (E! Online): Really tacky. Also used the adjective "sluggish" to describe sales -- without even wordplaying about slugs and plants and...oh nevermind.
- SALES OF 'PLANT' WILT ON KING'S WEB SITE (Reuters): Okay, so at least they punned.

Let's accept that 40K+ in 24 hours with 80% figure for a minute. Seems to me that's about $32,000 SO FAR. Even Stephen King can't sell a story for more than $15,000 (a figure he supplied himself when comparing how much he made on RIDING THE BULLET in e-form.) He just made $32,000 on the first 5000 words of an unfinished bottom-drawer story? Even if there's not another download -- this is failure? This is America, How else is success measured but in dollars?

To be fair, King's comment that their "publicity campaign was almost non-existent" may have been true in Kingly terms, but most authors would die for such non-existence: full-page support from Amazon.com, Simon & Schuster's email King newsletter, morning talk shows including "Today" and "Good Morning America," a full-page ad in the July 10 issue of "Publishers Weekly", and more free ink and pixels than Pamela Anderson Lee's breast reduction.

About all that coverage and commentary -- most of it is about as valid as your average alien abduction. I've lost count of the articles that speculated RIDING THE BULLET foretold The End of Traditional Publishing before this latest round of doomsaying. Many of them quoted King's Web site comment, "My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare." Only Jeff Zaleski of "Publishers Weekly" *got it*: "It also seems a bit of a lark. King is one of the more playful writers around, and sometimes he likes to play as a cat plays with a mouse. Hence his comment on his site that 'we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare' and his challenge...to 'kick some Internet ass' ...We can all bet that King will be chortling as he watches tens of thousands of payments roll in from Amazon..."

Okay, so maybe horror writers have a weird since of humor and Zaleski should maybe worry he understands it, but don't these other journalists have ANY? (They also don't appear to be big horror fans -- or readers -- Reuters called THE PLANT "gruesome". The first part is more giggle than grue.) Great tentacles! Here's one of perhaps two dozen writers in the world with the power to do whatever he wants. He wants to conduct a personal sociological experiment about trust and wants to pull Big Publishing's chain a little. Who wouldn't? He's not storming the walls of publishing's Bastille and starting a revolution. He's having fun.

Even his choice of this particular story plays this up. THE PLANT pokes fun at publishing, writers, editors, and what used to be genre horror; so far it's a parody in epistolary form. And why not? It was a private in-joke Christmas card story for friends. The whole supposedly "great revolution" is based around an unfinished, far from serious novel he started writing as a lark almost twenty years ago. He didn't even update it -- it's still set in the pre-electronic days of paper memos and snail-mail letters.

As King also revealed on his site Tuesday, "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." And he asks readers to give him opinions about larger chunks at a higher price. He may find himself a mite trapped in his own experiment, but basically he has very little -- if anything -- to lose. He's already gained a lot: buckets of chortles at media and publishing industry reaction, a somewhat renewed faith in humankind, tons of free publicity. (He DOES have a new book coming out. Heck, he always has a book coming out...).

Then there is the booksellers' whine: Ed Morrow, owner of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., and the former president of the American Booksellers Association was quoted as saying: "It is a shame," noting that Mr. King could have elected to send customers to the association's Booksense Web site or to another store, including his own.

With reasoning like this we can see why independent booksellers are an endangered breed. (Thank goodness for you horror-sf-fantasy specialty booksellers out there who have worked your tails off with creative merchandising and service. Your inclusion in this group raises their overall IQ considerably.) Wake up, Mr. Morrow. Amazon.com approached King with an easily executable business proposition. You or Booksense (the ABA Web site that took seemingly forever to get running) could have done the same.

Salon's Laura Miller is afraid King's move will unleash a "vast quantity of truly execrable writing" upon the reading public. I don't think we can blame King for that-- iUniverse, Xlibris and a ton of e-publishers seem to be doing that job without him. And Big Publishing itself is pouring millions of ill-considered dollars into these ventures. Andrew Essex, also of Salon, wags his effete finger with, "There's a certain irony in changing a system from which you made millions of dollars. Do readers hate Big Publishing? They may thank Big Publishing for shielding them from the horror of an e-publishing free-for-all." The only irony here is that this business writer (1) doesn't recognize the fact that megasellers like King do more for the system than the system does for them; and (2) isn't chastising -- oh, Barnes & Noble? Random House? Time Warner? -- for encouraging "the horror of an e-publishing free-for-all."

Even the relatively accurate Associated Press insisted on perpetuating the media hype about King's intentions: "King's latest venture has caused a ruckus in the publishing industry, which is still coming to terms with the implications brought to their business by the Internet...Simon & Schuster says it doesn't expect to lose its business with King, and for his part King says he still loves writing and reading books. Nonetheless, many publishers are waiting to see if King can successfully eliminate his publisher as an interface between himself and his readers - and still make money in the process."

Oh puhleeez -- the publishing industry is certainly confused, possibly misguided, and mostly clueless about the future, but are they REALLY holding their collective breaths over this? Exhale, you guys. Think about this: In the last decade, what book business innovations have publishers had any real role in? Superstores, online bookselling, Oprah Winfrey, discounting, e-anything?

Even King admitted to Diane Sawyer, "I think the publishers might heave a sigh of relief if it doesn't work. But I think we've got a chance here to change the way people think about stories."

Change the way people think about stories...maybe make reading a slick, sexy, exciting thing? Maybe get people revved up about reading and buying books? Maybe try something different just for the hell of it that might turn the public on? Like doing a novel in serial form -- wait a minute, wasn't it King who already did that with phenomenal success?

Is King serious about "changing publishing"? Well, sure, in some sense or another, but King's always been one for experimentation. Other than THE GREEN MILE serial and the RIDING THE BULLET experiment, he's published under a pseudonym, done audio tapes, and, no doubt, gleefully leapt from manual to electric to electronic typewriters then embraced higher technology with his Macs.

My bet is that King is having a lot of fun and is, at the same time, quite sincere about seeing what will happen. But he's not striking a "blow for artistic freedom" (The Christian Science Monitor) or making "a Cujo-size bite into the hand that has fed him so far." (Time) He's a writer and writers love to observe. He's a horror writer and horror writers love to find out what makes people (and monstrous entities) tick.

The horror community has plenty of quiet anecdotes about King's kindnesses to other writers, so, yeah, he's probably sincere about hoping other authors might benefit eventually from his little experiment. Plus, as he mentioned in a TV interview he's interested in reeducating people "to the idea that the fruits of talent cost you money" or as he mentioned in his "deal" -- "Respect my copyright. As a writer, it's all I've got."

Okay, so maybe he has a smidgen more than that. He's got a sense of who he is in the universe and a damned fine sense of humor. He's keeping whatever strange fruit THE PLANT might bear in context.

That's a lot more than a lot of these folks writing about him have.


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