Best-selling author Stephen King keeps returning to the darkest corners of the soul in his writings. But when it comes to the new world of electronic publishing, he's pioneering virgin territory. In March, the master of the macabre sold more than half a million copies of his 66-page electronic book, Riding the Bullet, through Amazon.com and other Web sites for just $2.50 a pop. Now, King is doing something more radical. Later this month, he will sidestep publisher Simon & Schuster Inc. altogether by releasing installments of his new novel, The Plant, direct to readers from his own Web site (www.stephenking.com) at $1 per episode. "It's the ultimate experiment," says King's agent, Ralph M. Vicinanza.
If the experiment works, it could help ring in a new era for authors of all stripes--from unknowns scribbling in their garrets to the rich and famous who lunch at Elaine's. Electronic books have been talked about for decades, but suddenly they seem to be coming out of the woodwork, not to mention the crypt. A recent joint study by Andersen Consulting and the Association of American Publishers projects that the e-publishing market for consumer books could reach $3.5 billion by 2005. Many feel the market for professional and education books is even riper, because people use them for quick reference. "The e-book will be the paperback of the 21st century," predicts Jack Romanos, president of Simon & Schuster. He shrugs off King's self-publishing move, saying, "we chalk it up to an experiment and not a threat at the moment."
Already, a handful of industries are revamping in anticipation of the switchover. Publishers have digitized thousands of titles and are working to establish standards before the end of the year that ease distribution while preventing the threat of piracy. (Thieves stole copies of King's Riding the Bullet and posted them on Web sites for others to filch.) And tech companies are working to make e-books more palatable to readers--whether on computers or special e-reader devices. E-books have long been available on specialized sites such as MightyWords.com, but now e-commerce giants such as barnesandnoble.com are making them mainstream.
If this new medium takes off, the biggest winners could be the authors. While the publishing industry is quick to coddle and promote stars, it often has little time for those who don't rack up big sales. That's because the economics of publishing are built on narrow margins, high overhead, and mass distribution. The Net turns that equation on its head--allowing niche authors to cater to smaller audiences at low cost. Meanwhile, the Web gives big-name guys such as King a means for going direct to their adoring fans, potentially cutting publishers out of the deal.
Indeed, the Net exposes the flaws of traditional publishing. The business is tough on second-tier and beginning authors--with its lousy advances, slim royalties, and poor publicity. Specialized e-book publishers such as Hard Shell Word Factory of Amherst Junction, Wisc., generally return 30% of sales to their writers, vs. the print norm of 10% on the first 5,000 copies sold. After all, they don't have to pay high production or distribution costs. Fiction author Patricia Lucas White, whose e-books include A Wizard Scorned, found that e-publishers were more willing to look at her unusual blend of styles--such as romantic fantasy. "E-book publishers are willing to take more risks," she says.
Of course, the promise of e-publishing isn't quite fulfilled yet. While it may offer wonderful opportunities for readers to see work that traditional houses would never touch, it also threatens to overwhelm them with unreadable junk--and provides little help in separating the gold from the dross.
Global reach. Still, for authors of all sorts, e-book publishing promises all sorts of new opportunities--starting with instant global reach. Suspense queen Mary Higgins Clark, author of such bestsellers as Where Are the Children?, is one of the first authors to have her backlist made available online--a move that she hopes will attract a new audience. As she puts it: "Some young people don't want to read a book, but they'll do anything online." Well-known mystery writer Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins series, envisions using electronic publishing to reach readers in the smallest villages of Africa--and having them talk back via e-mail and chat groups.
E-publishing also means speed to market. Instead of waiting months for publication, King got Riding the Bullet out mere weeks after penning the last page. With The Plant, he will be able to produce installments before he has finished the whole work. Douglas Clegg, also a horror writer, signed Dorchester Publishing/Leisure Books as a sponsor for a serial novel he e-mailed to readers for free last summer. The higher profile has helped him squeeze the publisher for a bigger advance on his next print books. This year, publishers are competing to sponsor his next serial, Nightmare House, which will begin distribution on July 30 at www.douglasclegg.com. The sponsors get brief tag lines on each e-mail.
The e-publishing push is reshaping literary culture by allowing writers to be more innovative, too. Douglas Anthony Cooper, who serialized his novel, Delirium, on the Net six years ago before it was released in print, said that writing for the Web changed the form of his book. He created four parallel story strands, allowing readers to chose from alternative plot twists and shape the narrative to their own liking. The experiment inspired Cooper to create a new hybrid of online gaming and chat that he's planning to bring to market.
Because of the low cost of electronic distribution, the Net allows authors to cater to smaller markets than is generally possible in print. John Feldcamp, the CEO of Xlibris, proudly calls his site "vanity publishing that's available to everyone" at a low cost. Xlibris converts manuscripts into finished books for electronic or print-on-demand distribution. The work is then distributed through other e-tailing sites, and authors get a cut of between 10% and 25% of sales. It has published more than 1,700 titles so far, ranging in length from 100 to 600 pages. Everyone gets a shot at success, even if few get rich off the exercise. "Life already sucks for authors in general," says Feldcamp, noting that until now, "there's been no way to test-market books."
Still, with the exception of heavyweights such as King, even bestsellers on the Web now draw only several thousand customers at best. Ever hear of Leta Nolan Childers? Her romantic comedies hold the top two spots on the e-book bestseller list compiled by a small site called eBook Connections Inc. The Fort Pierre (S.D.) writer says mainstream publishers rejected her initial book, The Best Laid Plans, because "they didn't know how to categorize and market it." For mass-market distribution, easy labels are crucial for pitching books to the mass-market audience that shops in bookstores. Her e-published version sold 20,000 copies at $3.50 each, with a sequel selling another 7,500.
Some writers have even found that the Internet leads to print deals. Melisse Shapiro, who writes as M.J. Rose, tried for years to get publishers interested in an erotic suspense novel called Lip Service. Frustrated, in early 1998 she sold it over her own Web site, mjrose.com, for $9.95. She then marketed it through 200 other sites. By February of 1999, the work caught the attention of a traditional book club and then a publisher picked it up. Pocket Books released the hardcover last August and came out with an e-book version in May, which Rose digitally autographed. The publisher also will release her next work, In Fidelity, in both forms in January. And St. Martin's Press will release another work, co-written with Angela Adair-Hoy, in both cyberspace and print in January. The title: How to Publish and Promote Online.
While e-books open the floodgates for new authors, some established writers are concerned about a decline in quality. Mystery writer Mosley shares the enthusiasm for e-books and is publishing some short stories on the Net, but he worries that adding sound and images to text could change reading from an active intellectual exercise to something more passive, like TV. "Reading forces you to imagine, think, create, and question," says Mosley, adding that too many bells and whistles "will degrade the amount of thinking on the part of the reader."
One snub. The literary Establishment isn't sure yet whether to welcome or spurn e-books. The International eBook Awards Foundation, headed by former Random House Inc. Chairman Alberto Vitale, is sponsoring a first-ever series of prizes at this fall's Frankfurt Book Fair. Grand prize: $100,000. But the National Book Foundation, which gives out the prestigious National Book Awards, won't add an e-book category. Says NBF Executive Director Neil Baldwin: "There are fewer instances of important literary work being done in an e-book format."
One reason for the paucity of high-brow e-books may be that piracy issues have yet to be fully addressed. Nobody in publishing wants to relive the music industry's run-in with unauthorized Net distribution. Amanda "Binky" Urban, a prominent literary agent with International Creative Management Inc., warns writers from rushing off into cyberspace. "I can't tell my clients to spend 24 months on a book and then turn it over to be e-published without encryption software," she says.
As technology improves and a new generation of readers gets comfortable with e-books, more writers will surely follow King and Clark down the cyberhighway. Important work will get published online. And someday, traditional book publishers may go the way of the medieval illuminators. Now, that's a macabre thought worthy of Stephen King.