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Stephen King was a digital publisher before the Kindle

By Carol Eisenberg

February 10, 2009 at 2:00pm

Years before he agreed to write a novella just for Amazon’s newest digital reading device, best-selling writer Stephen King had been a digital publishing pioneer.

Almost nine years ago, the prince of horror released the first ever, mass-market e-book, Riding the Bullet, which was downloaded by half a million readers in just a few days.

That success delighted him so much that King followed up with the serialized story of a supernatural vine, The Plant, which he published in e-book format, using an honor system asking readers to pay $1 for each installment. “My friends,” he wrote on his Website, ”we have the chance to become Big Publishing’s worst nightmare.”

As if to drive home that point, the plot involves a writer who sends a man-eating plant to a publishing house that rejected his manuscript.

But Big Publishing managed to soldier on, even though King warned followers that he would drop his experiment if the percentage of paying readers fell below 75 percent. (The book received over that for its first installment, but slightly less for the second and fourth chapters, after which he suspended the story, saying he had simply run out of ideas.)

For the much-ballyhooed launch of the Kindle 2.0 yesterday, King took the stage to read from Ur, the novella he wrote exclusively for Amazon, slated to be released Feb. 24 along with the updated Kindle.

The novella is the story of English teacher Wesley Smith who, following a nasty break-up, can’t stop thinking about his former girlfriend’s taunt: “Why can’t you just read off the computer like the rest of us?” So Smith buys a Kindle, which arrives “via one-day delivery that he hadn’t requested” and “unlocks a literary world that even the most avid of book lovers could never imagine … once the door is open, there are those things that one hopes we’ll never read or live through.”

In an interview with paidContent.org after the release, King said that it had been his own idea, not Amazon’s, to make the Kindle part of the plot

“I don’t think I would have written just any story for the Kindle – because it’s Kindle specific, it makes it more interesting. It gave me a chance to confront some of these questions of books versus electronics.”

He says he is partial to his own updated Kindle (which he got as part of his remuneration from Amazon), but doesn’t think it will ever replace print and ink.

“Yes, MP3s and iTunes destroyed the CD industry,” he said. “Nobody’s going to buy the whole if you can just buy a slice. But that doesn’t apply to books.”

This may be one instance where publishers are telling much scarier stories.

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