CYBERPUNK: Online Readers Freeload in Real World Too

When Stephen King pulled the plug on his online serial The Plant, was it really because he was shortchanged by a cheapskate Internet audience? Or did he just not foresee how people's ingrained book-buying and reading habits would doom his project from the start?

From its appearance in July, The Plant was an admirable experiment. By releasing a book online as he wrote it, King was cutting out the middleman, the publishing industry, which largely decides which books are distributed and which aren't. This is the kind of empowerment the Internet has long promised and the middlemen have long feared. Payment was on the honor system. Readers downloaded installments as they appeared on King's Web site; the author promised that if 75 percent of downloaders found the book worthy enough to pay the dollar or two requested for each installment, he would finish it. "If you pay," he wrote on his site, "the story rolls. If you don't, the story folds."

Well, at the halfway point, the story folded -- or was suspended, at least, ostensibly for King to work on other projects. Whatever the reason, interest in the serial -- a tale about a plant that slowly grows over a small publishing house -- declined sharply after an impressive start. In the week after its appearance, the first installment was grabbed 120,000 times, but by last month's fifth installment there were only 41,000 downloads. Payments fell precipitously too, from 75 percent to 80 percent of downloaders at first to 46 percent by installment 4.

On his site, King called the experiment a success (albeit one apparently not worth continuing), but also articulated a few sore lessons. "One is that most Internet users seem to have the attention span of grasshoppers," he wrote. "Another is that Internet users have gotten used to the idea that most of what's available to them on the Net is either free or should be."

I enjoy Stephen King's books. He may be a bit verbose, but he really gets Middle America -- the voices, the concerns, how much cursing we do -- in a way most big-time writers don't. So I was surprised that he was disappointed by the results of his experiment. Duh! I thought. Of course later chapters were less popular. Of course not everyone paid. That's not the Internet talking; that's simple human nature -- the very thing you write about, Mr. King!

Think about this for a second. How many books that you started have you actually finished? I don't have any scientific data, but I would guess that most people don't get to the last page of many volumes they purchase. Sure, when they buy something they fully intend to see it through to the end, but sometimes they don't. We charge through the first few chapters, but our interest is inevitably diverted elsewhere in this big colorful world. So the volume is placed on the shelf "for now," or inadvertently left at the vacation beach house, or whatever. Even cliff-hangers such as King's often get tossed aside long before their denouements.

Maybe I'm generalizing based on my own grasshopperlike attention span, but I've observed this behavior in almost everyone I know. My last girlfriend kept a copy of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to Present by her bed for the entire four months we went out. In that time, her bookmark moved maybe 50 pages. At that rate, it will take her until the next golden age of humanity to finish the thing.

So the fact that only a third of those who started reading The Plant made it to the halfway point seems to me to be par for the course -- perhaps even better than par, given the staggered nature of the book's release (which gave readers a lot of time between chapters to find something else to get interested in). And King is disappointed by the results?

The ratio of freeloaders to paying customers strikes me as about right as well. I'm sure King knows that, back out in the real world, not everyone who reads his books buys them. We borrow from friends or libraries, or find abandoned copies at beach houses. Do we send the author a $5 contribution?

I have no hard figures on how many different readers a book enjoys, but I do know, from working in the circulation department of an alternative weekly newspaper, that on average 2.5 people read each copy of a newspaper. I don't know how this number was derived, but it seems to be an industry standard of sorts. Now say, for instance, that the borrowing behaviors of alt-weekly readers applies to book lovers as well -- that every Stephen King book is read by 2.5 people. That means about 40 percent of a book's readers actually paid for the privilege -- in the same statistical ballpark as King's 46-percent club. OK, rather than borrowing copies from friends, they downloaded the book from the author himself; it's still the same proportion of freeloaders to buyers.

So what is there to gripe about? Online, it seems, people act no differently than they do in bookstores. Their thresholds of guilt and frugality are about the same. They may buy a book, or just borrow it. They may finish it, or not. Just like in real life. Far from the experiment failing, by my lights King got the readership, and the payership, he should have expected. Maybe he shortchanged the idea by setting the bar too high with his 75-percent-payment rule. Even revolutionary ideas have to take into account age-old habits.

E-mail Joab Jackson at cpunk@joabj.com

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