Can online book publishing stop the (big) presses?

With today's cybernovel, Stephen King becomes newest self-published author.

For most writers trying to make it online, the hardest part is creating buzz about their work. The exception is Stephen King, who today is scheduled to take another well-publicized "byte" out of the future of publishing.

The bestselling author is taking his words directly to readers, posting the first installment of a novel, "The Plant," on his Web site.

By entirely bypassing the publishing industry, Mr. King hopes to strike a blow for artistic freedom. "My friends, we have the chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare," he writes on his site.

King's high-profile status makes his Internet "experiment" unique. But his latest effort highlights how a growing number of authors - and musicians and filmmakers - are avoiding the stranglehold of media conglomerates and heading straight to consumers via the Web.

The trend, to be sure, doesn't herald the end of traditional publishing. But the development promises to diversify the hidebound book industry - offering more choices for readers and a creative outlet for artists who thought the industry would never let them in the theater door - let alone in front of the spotlight.

"People can live very comfortably self-publishing online themselves if they are willing to do it full time," says Angela Adair-Hoy, an e-book author who makes more than $5,000 a month on her self-help titles (and coincidentally lives down the road from King in Maine).

Following in the footsteps of self-publishing pioneers like Ben Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois, authors are actively pursuing alternative ways of publishing. They are creating their own Web sites and using e-mail and publishing-service sites to get their works to the public more quickly and with less formality than if they went through a traditional publisher.

For example, while she's not as well known as King, author Lynn Thomas is using the Internet in the same way.

Ms. Thomas's "How to Make & Market Gel Candles That Sell Like Wildfire!" has been downloaded by more than 600 readers since she made it available online in February. Those are hardly bestselling numbers, although quite successful by e-book standards. But Thomas is excited at the prospect of having reached readers as far away as China, and with e-business in general. "I feel like I'm more in touch with the reader -it feels more congenial."

For folks who aren't confident they can go it alone, a handful of publishing-service sites, Xlibris.com, iUniverse.com, and Mightywords.com, have sprung up. For as little as an e-mail or as much as several hundred dollars, these sites turn anything from a speech to a novel into an e-book or a title that can be printed on demand. While skeptics deride the sites as the cyberequivalent of vanity presses, a way for the talentless to feel vindicated, they see themselves as equalizers.

"All we're about is trying to provide every author with a decent opportunity to succeed - a fair chance at the well," says John Feldcamp, head of Xlibris in Philadelphia. Mr. Feldcamp estimates that, of the aproximately 1 million authors in the US, about a quarter are dabbling in online activities. He says he has 25 new authors sign up each day, and has corresponded with 20,000 authors about the site in the last few months.

"For someone who is not a professional author, I think that e-publishing is perhaps their best avenue," says Mick Curran, a TV scriptwriter in Pasadena, Calif., who co-wrote an e-novel available at Mightywords.

Spotting a business opportunity (or perhaps unwilling to run the risk of being muscled aside), traditional booksellers are already dipping their toes into the world of online publishing.

Xlibris announced this spring that Random House is now a partner, and iUniverse and Mightywords both have arrangements with Barnes & Noble.com. iUniverse recently announced it will work with IDG Books in an experiment that will allow readers to purchase individual chapters of its "For Dummies" how-to books and Frommer's travel guides.

While e-publishing allows more writers the dream of seeing their words in print, getting their book in the hands of readers is more challenging - and requires rigorous self-promotion. Some, like Thomas, who pens a newsletter for some 840 subscribers, see it as "a new frontier."

A question of profits

Mr. Curran co-wrote a 240-page spy novel "The Woman in the Box," which has been sold in a dozen, $2 installments on Mightywords. "Mightywords has enfranchised the author," he says. "Its royalty payment scheme is much better than what you're going to get from a traditional publisher," he explains. With a major publisher, writers can expect between 5 and 15 percent of royalties; with e-publishers, the average is 30 to 40 percent.

Alternatively, "You can do it all on your own and pocket 100 percent of the royalties," says Ms. Adair-Hoy, who runs an online store, Booklocker.com, and co-authored a book about writing e-books that was bought by St. Martin's Press.

Though new titles stream onto the Web daily, academic and industry observers agree that online publishing has a way to go before it takes off.

"This hype machine is a decade ahead of market reality," says Jim Milliot, business and news editor at Publishers Weekly. Experts say it will take a generation of readers raised with the Internet before e-publishing truly becomes viable.

For example, even though Mightywords sees thousands of items downloaded each day, initial profits have been modest. "Nobody is making a living at this yet," says Judy Kirkpatrick, general manager at Mightywords.

King's experiment

That's where King comes in. The industry, including his own publisher, is watching his experiment today to see how he fares with his honor system. King says he will only continue to post the story if readers send him $1 for each installment.

"We'll watch it with as much interest as everybody else," says Adam Rothberg, spokesman for Simon & Schuster, which helped King market and distribute "Riding the Bullet" online in March. That title exponentially outsold typical e-books, with more than 500,000 copies purchased online.

"Would we like to be the publisher of 'The Plant'? Sure," says Mr. Rothberg. But in the long run, he says, King is "broadening the market for e-books, [increasing] public awareness of the phenomenon."

Publishers say they don't feel threatened by King taking matters into his own hands. Most authors still need the services they provide, they say, not the least of which is marketing.

"Our authors look to us to do what they can't or don't want to do on behalf of their books," says Stuart Applebaum, spokesman for Random House, Inc.

"How do you create a groundswell of interest in a book?" says Frank Romano, professor of digital publishing at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "Publishers have an entire infrastructure ... that creates talk about a book. But the average person doesn't have that."

There's more to it than "posting and praying," says Mr. Rothberg. He adds that publishers help consumers wade through what's worth looking at - no small point with tens of thousands of books published every year in print and on the Web. "The very fact that a publisher has looked at it validates it in the sense that it's been determined to be worth reading."

King says he has no interest in leaving traditional publishing, but writes, "if I could break some trail for all the midlist writers, literary writers, and just plain marginalized writers who see a future outside the mainstream, that's great."

Thomas appreciates the sentiment, but has one concern. "I hope he doesn't start hurting the market for e-books by making it too cheap," she says. "It's good he's getting the word out, but it's a double-edged sword."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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