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King of the Bookshelves Releases Online-Only Novella

Forward-thinking horrormeister's 'Riding the Bullet' is available only on the Internet. Publisher cites 'incredible response,' calls the experiment a success.

March 15, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a bibliophile's worst nightmare--fiction available only online.

The frightening scenario for book lovers played out Tuesday, courtesy of master of horror Stephen King. The Maine author released his 16,000-word story "Riding the Bullet" exclusively over the Internet for $2.50.

The tale, which would be 66 pages in traditional book form, is described by King as "a ghost story in the grand manner," recounting the experience of a young man who hitches a ride with a driver from "the other side."

While thousands of fiction and nonfiction pieces have been offered exclusively online for years, the King publication marks the first time a major author has opted to market work this way and the first time a traditional publishing house, Simon & Schuster, has been involved.

Exact numbers weren't available on sales or hits to the various Web sites where the story is available, but Internet traffic Tuesday afternoon was extremely heavy and, at times, overloaded the King destination sites.

The idea originated with Ralph Vicinanza, King's longtime agent for foreign rights.

"I'm curious to see what sort of response there is and whether or not this is the future," said King, who wrote "Riding the Bullet" shortly after his near-fatal car accident in June 1999.

If first-day reactions are any indication, the world may soon be ready to close the book on the traditional book.

"It has been an incredible response," said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster. "We looked at this as an experiment and we didn't set our expectations too high, but we weren't ready for this response."

Reviews by readers online seemed generally enthusiastic. One applauded King for writing another "shining example" of the psychological thriller. Another found it "weird but cool."

The online novella uses a technology that allows the work to be downloaded but prevents it from being printed out or forwarded. Readers can view the work on a personal computer, a portable computer device or dedicated e-book viewer. Bad news, however, for Macintosh users. The technology is incompatible with Mac systems.

Internet vendors where the King novella can be purchased include Glassbook Inc., Netlibrary, NuvoMedia Inc.'s Rocket eBook, PeanutPress.com, SoftBook Press and SoftLock.com Inc. Also, an excerpt can be viewed for free at http://www.simonsays.com, the New York publishing house's Web site.

King, the wildly successful author of more than 30 bestselling books, is known for his fierce independence and marketing innovation. To expose the difficulty new writers face in breaking into the publishing world, King once tried to sell one of his novels under an assumed name. The book was initially rejected, but was scooped up after publishers learned King had penned the work.

More recently, King sold "Blood and Smoke" only on audio and sold "The Green Mile" as a six-part series of novellas, although the story--the basis for the Oscar-nominated film--now is available as a single volume.

King's online book venture highlights the advantages of new technology. The time between an author completing the work and its availability to the public may be months, even years, in traditional publishing. Now, that turnaround can be shortened dramatically. For example, King gave "Riding the Bullet" to the publisher only two weeks ago.

The new technology also made publishing the King novella economically viable, according to Rothberg. Without the Internet, marketing a 66-page book simply would not be "practical," he said.

For these reasons and the expansion of personal-computer use, some observers view King's online book as the harbinger of doom for the printed volume.

"This is definitely a threat to bookstores and the printed book," said Frank Cost of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who studies online publishing. "In 10 years we may all read Stephen King books online.

"But by that time, there will also be all kinds of print products and services available that we can't imagine now," added Cost, an associate dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.

Others, however, say it's too early to write an obituary for the printed book.

"An electronic book is not a book," said Richard Eder, The Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer in an interview last year. "A book is a piece of writing on bark or papyrus or cellophane or paper. That's the history of it. It is possible that something called a blubbitch might be as interesting as a book, but it would not be a book. If Shakespeare had hired a skywriter to write 'Hamlet' in smoke, would that be a book?"

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