Net Prophet: An Open Letter to a 'King'

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - Like most people, I've been delightfully appalled by your books -- thanks for the sleepless nights! So imagine my excitement with your forays into Internet entrepreneurship. It's like having the Rolling Stones drop by the office (only with less booze and sex).

First you released the novella Riding the Bullet online. Now you're striking off into new territory with The Plant. It takes a lot of guts to release your book without any copyright protection, asking people to pay on the honor system. Of course, as with all good authors, you've got some clever twists in store. You've said this trilogy hinges on people's honesty. If 75 percent of downloaders pay a buck, then you'll write the next part. If not, then the project dies.

It's great that you're taking the lead. We won't sort out the whole mess of the Internet and intellectual property until top authors, musicians, and filmmakers take some risks and experiment. So far more than 75 percent have paid for The Plant. But even if that percentage falls, I urge you to consider further experiments.

I hear you comparing your efforts to those of a street musician. If nobody's paying on one corner, then you'll throw your guitar over your shoulder and find a corner that does pay.

With the Net, musicians can play on every street corner simultaneously. If you can play on every corner at the same time, maybe a tiny percentage is all you need.

Don't get me wrong; I want you to make as much money as you can -- it's your blood, sweat, and tears that go into each word.

But the troubadour of old, no matter how great his talent, didn't have nearly the earning potential as someone born into an age of mass media. Mass media, as we knew it, might merely have been a passing historical fad. Believe me, I want you to make lots of money -- writing well is damn hard.

But you really have to consider that the window of opportunity on being a mass-media superstar, with complete control over your work, might be over.

Getting a specific percentage of readers to pay for a work might not be the point -- after all, today's freeloaders might be tomorrow's customers. Your effort was the same, no matter how many people buy it. Because there's no printing press and no money comes out of your pocket with each additional copy, maybe you shouldn't get hung up on the percentages? Wait -- every freebie copy out there is taking money out of my pocket, you say? Maybe, but maybe not. Can we really assume everyone would have bought the book if it were a paperback at the local Barnes and Noble? And, forgive me the indelicacy, but what about the people that didn't like a particular book -- not yours, of course. But if a book is just awful and you regret having let an author's words into your skull, should the reader still pay?

These are tough questions; nobody has the Big Answer yet. But here's a friendly challenge. I know you want to make a certain amount of money off of your work.

How about deciding on the minimum you need to make them start taking the preorders at $1 a pop. Give away a few pages and ask readers to preorder copies. Once you've hit your magic number, the floodgates open and everybody gets a copy. Those that didn't sign up can download copies, too (maybe they'll throw a couple bucks in the coffers, maybe not). But it's all gravy because you've already hit the target you can live with.

Finally, try this: Integrate traditional and online publishing. People pay for immediacy with the traditional hardback instead of waiting for the paperback.

Take that a step further by following up the paperback with the online version for a few bucks. Eventually move your works to an archive and offer access to the whole schmear for a pittance.

I can't say if you'll make more or less -- I think the potential exists for reaching even more readers. So forgive the hubris of a young writer and fan (not in the leg-amputating kind of way) of telling you how to do your job.

PS: Any chance of a new book in The Dark Tower series? No pressure or anything ...

Sean Dugan (sean_dugan@infoworld.com) is senior research editor at InfoWorld.

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