Stephen King’s Novel Idea: Will It Change the Publishing Industry?

"Gentlemen: I have written a book that you might want to publish. It is very good," reads the beginning of The Plant, horror writer Stephen King’s latest novel. "I am offering this book for publication now. I am willing to sell all rights."

But that scenario is clearly fictional. In real life, King is selling no rights to The Plant, not even to his long-time publishers at Simon & Schuster. King is publishing The Plant himself, pulp-and-paperless, on the world wide web.

King is offering two installments of The Plant — one immediately and one by the end of August — to anyone who registers. Readers can download those installments for free or pay King a dollar through check, money order or credit card. King states that if 75% of those who download The Plant pay him, he will continue doing installments until the novel is complete.

Publishing is obviously coming to the Internet, but the question is what the paradigm will be. While experts say The Plant is a test, they doubt it is the harbinger of an earth-shattering shift in the way people will sell and buy books.

"The King example is an interesting one, but I’m not sure whether it is likely to change, except in limited circumstances, the information-business model we’ve seen emerging on the web," says Wharton legal studies professor Dan Hunter. "There are a few information providers who operate in an environment of price insensitivity for their product. The Wall Street Journal is one and many porn providers are another. These providers are, however, the exception."

Hunter thinks King is another of these exceptions. "Outside of Stephen King, who is going to have the brand recognition and drawing power of this type?" asks Hunter. "Who really would read one of the 100,000 unpublished books that authors might self-publish on the web each year?"

Wharton management professor Stephen J. Kobrin has a different view. "Books will be distributed on the web," he says, although "it won’t drive paper books out of business. A lot of stuff will be available in both forms. But a huge part of the reading public has access to the web. You could have retail outlets that have high-speed printers and computer screens. You could order one chapter from a cookbook or a travel book or put chapters from eight volumes together."

Kobrin sees all this electronic publishing feasible through electronic credit systems. However, that is somewhat "off in the future," says Penn law professor and technology law expert Edward Rubin. "Right now, the credit card system we have is unwieldy for small amounts. You talk about downloading a page of a book, but that would be in fractions of pennies. You really can’t use a credit card for mills. So that is where the frontier lies. It will take someone to invent something that is reliable and inexpensive for those types of payments."

Kobrin, while bullish on the eventual use of the Internet for at least a portion of the publishing world, says that there is no real consumer demand for this sort of service just yet. "Stephen King can go around publishers and take the chance that it won’t work," he notes. "And there are some sites devoted to self-publishing. But I’m not sure they will ever evolve into something that has credibility.

"Just like now, you’re going to want to know whether the person publishing the book on the web is credible," Kobrin adds. "You need quality control. You need editors. You need someone to be doing all the things publishers do, like vet for libel, fact-check and publicize the books. But that will come and it will be exciting."

R. Polk Wagner, a Penn law school professor and expert on intellectual property law, says that the King novel may well change the way all sorts of intellectual property are marketed. "Traditional intellectual property theory holds that producers (that is, King) won’t produce unless they have the ability to restrict the access of others to their goods," he notes. "Here King is doing two significant things: First, he’s only asking 75% of the people to pay him, thereby engaging in an unusual form of price discrimination where only those who feel the moral pressure to contribute will do so. That is, King acknowledges that not everyone will pay.

"Second, he’s explicitly asking people to pay for his future services. The traditional theory of intellectual property would not consider this possibility. Classic intellectual property theory holds that producers must get paid for the works they’ve already created, not works they’ve yet to produce."

Thus, according to Wagner, King may be opening a Pandora’s box for publishers, who depend on the sacredness of intellectual property to continue making profits under copyright laws. "If Stephen King, one of the ‘poster boys’ of the intellectual property industry, doesn’t need intellectual property (protection) any more, what does that mean for intellectual property generally?" he asks.

Wagner also thinks King is selling himself short, only charging a dollar a download. But Hunter says that may be what is necessary to make this a viable experiment of self-publishing and self-selling on the Web. "The reality might be that everyone who reads it forwards it to one friend," Hunter suggests, noting this may mean that only about 20% of the people really pay for the novel. "Perhaps this is not the best result for Stephen King, when he could just publish the work through his usual channels.

"But then, nothing really rides on this for King since, one, he’s prolific, and, two, he’s not exactly on Skid Row," Hunter adds. "Which is wonderful, because without experiments by people like him, we’d never get an idea of workable information-business models."

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