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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2000 / 14 Kislev 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

The 'Net horrifies
Stephen King -- UNLIKE MILLIONS of Americans, I have never read a book by Stephen King, and am not likely to do so. I have no particular grievance against Maine's best-known novelist since Sarah Orne Jewett, or disdain for the kind of novel he produces. I'm just not interested.

As Max Beerbohm once said, for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.

But I did take interest in his latest novella, entitled The Plant , and for exclusively non-literary reasons. Not long ago The Plant was the talk of the publishing world. King intended to produce a chapter a month, in the old serial format. But instead of reading each installment in a magazine, or waiting until the plot was tied together in book form, readers were invited to pay a doller a month to consume The Plant on King's web site.

As you can imagine, this was treated as yet another chapter, so to speak, in the transformation of the human race by the Internet. Because we have repeatedly been told that it is so, we have learned that the old ways of accessing data (otherwise known as reading) are endangered. More and more Americans are getting more and more information online, and finding newspapers, magazines and books superfluous to their busy lives.

Stephen King seems to have come to the same conclusion. Not only was he poised to make himself the first best-selling novelist of the Internet age, he seems also to have adopted the worldview of the World Wide Web: "If you pay, the story rolls," he said. "If you don't, the story folds."

Needless to say, the publishing world was made nervous by The Plant.Oh, they professed to be intrigued by King's interesting experiment, and wished hi well; but in the darkness, late at night, they were obviously concerned. If Stephen King can bypass publishers -- a novelist whose sales keep their businesses respectable -- what was to become of them in the long run?

As it happens, not much. One thing we know about the Internet, and which Stephen King seems to have underestimated, is the extent to which people expect content to be free. That, certainly, explains the success of such pirate operations as, now about to be absorbed by a corporate predator. There have been some noble experiments in demanding that readers pay for gawking at certain web sites --, for example, and many foreign newspapers -- but the rules of the cybermarket are inexorable.

Even Stephen King couldn't stop the tide from rising and falling. The first chapter of The Plant attracted more than 120,000 paying consumers. But as time went on, those numbers shrank dramatically, and by the end of the fifth chapter (with readership down two-thirds), King did as he promised he would, and folded the serial.

Of course, this is primarily a story about economics. We have always known that it is difficult to compel people to pay for something they might otherwise get for free -- payment for the The Plant was on the honor system -- and even the lure of a new Stephen King saga can't bypass human nature. There is another element as well. I am no expert on the business side of King's literary career, but while 120,000 hits would gladden the hearts of many web entrepreneurs, it seems puny by comparison with King's customary sales. Translation: Not only does Stephen King peddle more novels in print-and-paper form, he makes more money the old-fashioned way than on the Internet.

This may change, in time, but I have my doubts.

There is no question that the effect of the Internet on modern life has been substantial.

But how revolutionary it is, and to what extent it transforms the way we live, remains to be seen. On occasion,new inventions upset the world we know: Mass production of the automobile not only doomed the horse, but broadened the horizons of life in America. Television was supposed to change education, which it didn't do; but it has influenced politics, which no one expected. The Internet is diabolically efficient at separating us from our money, but is it destined to lure us away from old habits?

People read for various reasons. But for those who read novels for pleasure -- good, bad or indifferent -- it's hard to see a computer screen supplanting the basic convenience of books.

There is something about the tactile pleasure of opening a volume, turning the pages, filling up space on bookshelves, and returning to books without having to log on and fire up the modem, that seems to be imprinted in our cerebral program.

Maybe it's me, and perhaps it's wishful thinking. But I'll bet thousands of non-paying, non-reading Stephen King fans can't be wrong.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, The Providence Journal