Ty Burr
March 22, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Stephen King proves that e-publishing’s future is now

Isn’t it fun when the Internet bamboozles the conventional media world? First, ”The Blair Witch Project” upended Hollywood’s traditional way of movie marketing with the website that was accessed around the world. Then MP3 and Napster stood the music industry on its ear. And now it’s the publishing business’ turn.

When Stephen King’s new short story, ”Riding the Bullet,” was made available exclusively to the Internet audience early last week, it’s a safe bet that the folks at Simon & Schuster Online felt they were gingerly testing the waters of e-publishing — that downloads would be limited to those weird, wired propellerheads who actually GET the Net, but that mainstream audiences weren’t ready to give up their creased paperbacks. Or as an executive at the company said, wringing her hands in apology, ”We hope people will forget the electronic-ness of all this.”

What the oddly naive elitists in Manhattan’s Book Valley don’t get is that the propellerheads and the mainstream are pretty much one and the same by now. Or rather, they didn’t get it until the servers at the various e-bookshops where ”Riding the Bullet” was available for downloading jammed with more traffic than the Long Island Expressway on a Friday night in June. Over 500,000 people bought the story (or got it for free from loss-leader sites like Amazon) on the very first day — great numbers for a music CD, astounding for a short story. And when you consider that you can read ”Bullet” on your PC, RocketBook, or Palm Pilot but that you can’t print it out, it’s difficult to deny that e-publishing as a profitable medium has arrived. Much to the shock of the publishing community.

Well, of course, it’s Stephen King we’re talking about, but who better to test out the mass appeal of online books? And, yes, it’s nice that ”Riding the Bullet” is top-drawer King (as a tale of the dangers that can come from walking along a highway, it’s particularly apt), but its narrative excellence is gravy. The message has been heard loud and clear: If you put it online, they will come. And now it’s time for publishers to find out exactly what that means — to test out what works and what doesn’t, to play printable formats against hardware gizmos like RocketBook. In short, to start taking the field seriously as a major new distribution mechanism.

The only thing I can’t figure out is what took them so long?

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