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Of Hype and Honesty on the Web

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With Stephen King's entrance into direct marketing and publishing of his new novel "The Plant" last week, we are witnessing another attempt to rip the fabric of traditional business using the net.

In case you haven't heard, King's new novel is being distributed directly to consumers on his web site. The novelty is in the way he is marketing and pricing the book. It is essentially based on marketing hype and an honor system.

Here's how it works. King has the first two chapters on his server and asks readers to pay for them. Readers can pay before they download the chapters, or agree to download first and pay later. Obviously some people will be dishonest and won't pay at all, and King promises that the story will continue only if 75% of the downloads are by customers who pay one way or another.

As of this writing, King states that the pay-through-rate may be closer to 85-90%.


What's made this an interesting story is King's overt challenge to the entire publishing industry, and this where the hype comes in. In effect, he's rallying his troops in a fervent battle cry of toppling an industry.

For example, here is the message you receive when paying for the first installment. "Thanks for reading my story, thanks for your honesty, and thanks for helping us change the face of publishing! Stephen King."

I assume he's betting that most people care that deeply about changing the face of publishing!

Of course, the upshot is whether the face of publishing will indeed change with this type of direct approach. I don't think so, and apparently neither does Simon and Schuster who explicitly tells visitors to their web site to visit King's web site for more information and updates about The Plant.


For one thing, as I've written before, I don't think most people want to read books for enjoyment on their computers or other digital devices like e-books, or even hard copy computer printouts. I made this comment once before when I wrote about the problems of e-books, and I received a lot of email violently disagreeing me. But I still haven't seen evidence to the contrary - and yes, I have personally tried out the e-book!

Second, this novel is indeed a novelty. King himself is fanning the flames of rebellion against all traditional media, including the news outlets that are trying to report the story. Would this work a second or third time? Certainly not at this level of interest, nor would it work for authors without the stature or clout of a Stephen King.

More importantly, the pricing model for The Plant asks people to think about a book in terms of the individual chapters. This might be fine for books with a series of short stories, but a novel is a total experience. I would imagine that most people don't want to shell out money for each individual installment, especially when you really don't know how much the entire book will cost until the very last chapter is available.

In fact, academic research indicates that people would rather pay a lump sum for a set of inter-related items - like the chapters of a book - than pay individual installments.

But I must say I like the buy now and pay later aspect of the pricing scheme that lets you more easily purchase a book or other things for that matter. Considering how difficult it often is to find my credit card at the point of purchase, wouldn't it be nice to just be able to buy it and return later to purchase it? But of course, that requires honesty, and that's another part of this story.


King is essentially testing out a hypothesis that people are fundamentally honest, even on the web where it is difficult to track their behavior. In a sense, this question lies at the core of intellectual property concerns on the web.

So at a time when we are deep in the ongoing saga of Napster and the entire recording industry, and faced with companies like that shamelessly broke a privacy promise to its customers not to sell their names - it has since backed down from this - wouldn't it be nice to see some evidence in support of honesty on the web?

Personally, I hope King hits a high pay-through-rate, and that others who try this honor scheme meet with equal success. For I agree with King when he says "No stealing from the blind newsboy!"

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Allen Weiss is the founder and publisher of He can be reached at

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