Stephen King is a rare writer. He’s prolific, critically acclaimed and can sell a boatload of books. Noted for his range, gift with plot and fertile imagination, he’s sold more than 350 million copies, which range from apocalyptic epics like “The Stand” to horror classics like “The Shining,” “Misery” and “Carrie.”
In an industry grappling with digital transformation, publishers know a King title is a sure thing: it will sell. But since Amazon’s rise to power and the arrival of tablets, book sales have shifted to the Kindle, Nook and iPad, leaving booksellers in the lurch and struggling to stay relevant.
This June, though, he’ll release “Joyland” — a thriller set at a North Carolina amusement park in 1973 — only in print. That move goes against the grain of technology to help his independent publisher, Hard Case.
“Part of the reason he publishes with us is to support our authors,” Charles Ardai, owner of Hard Case, told the Wall Street Journal. “But I also think he enjoys the pulp presentation.” King, which holds the digital rights to the book, explained that he won’t create an e-book. “Maybe at some point,” he said. “But in the meantime, let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”
King was actually one of the first mainstream authors to explore e-publishing. In 2000, he stirred the industry by self-releasing an epistolary serial novel, called “The Plant,” for $1 through his website. Later that year, his novella, “Riding the Bullet,” was the first book by a major writer to be published solely as a digital offering. At $2.50 apiece, it sold 500,000 units in the first 24 hours alone.
In 2009, he released “Ur,” for Amazon to celebrate the second generation of the Kindle.
In fact, most of his books are available in multiple digital formats, which he credits to his changing reading habits. “I downloaded a 700-page book onto my Kindle,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “It didn’t have an index, but I was able to search by key words. And that’s something no physical book can do.”
King isn’t a Luddite; even as he withholds Joyland to support independent publishing, he knows people are reading more books on smartphones, tablets and dedicated e-reading devices. “You’re seeing an evolution in terms of the way that people are accessing content,” Dominique Raccah, former chairwoman of the Book Industry Study Group and the publisher of Sourcebooks, told the New York Times. “Audio downloads are up, e-books are up. There’s a migration in format clearly occurring. Customers can now access books in a lot of different ways.”
In the 13 years since his first foray into digital publishing, e-books have exploded. In 2012, they generated $3 billion in revenue, up nearly 50 percent from a year earlier, according to BookStats, which tracks nearly 1,500 publishers. And while e-books only account for 20 percent of publisher revenues, that number surged from 15 percent in 2011. Sales at physical stores, meanwhile, are still slipping, down about seven percent this year.
But who are the real winners?
Not surprisingly, online retailers like Amazon saw book revenues rose 20 percent to $7 billion. But the problem, according to King, is that authors don’t benefit from the changes in publishing. And his reversal comes as writers speak out against e-books and digital publishing. Authors Guild president Scott Turow, for example, wrote a heated editorial about the slow death of the American author at the hands of the digital marketplace, even as e-books line the coffers of everyone else involved.
“It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense,” he wrote in the New York Times, singling out publishers for withholding the bulk of digital royalties and Google for its reckless disregard of copyright and piracy.
Legal and business changes make the industry incredibly complex, as well. Even e-book prices are a point of contention, as the Justice Department investigates claims of price-fixing between Apple and publishers. To complicate matters, Amazon also claims it owns a patent, saying it’s allowed to resell e-books. All those currents make digital publishing difficult to navigate for everyone involved.
King’s print-only move supports an indie imprint whose artistic goals are simpatico with his creative vision, but it also proves a bit of a litmus test.
Will his devoted fan base flock back to stores to buy hardcovers and paperbacks? And if they do, will other authors follow suit, particularly those with the clout to negotiate their digital rights deals?
Authors and publishers may go the way of the film industry and experiment with different release “windows” — withholding e-books until sales of hardbacks have completed. Publishers often refuse to sell e-books to public libraries, stifling their need to keep up with demands, but they’re mulling over a delayed window to capitalize on new revenue streams without cannibalizing existing hardback sales.
Meanwhile, smart, marketable authors like King know that demand will ultimately feed the marketplace — and readers want what they want, when they want and in every format. He plans to release another novel, “Doctor Sleep,” the sequel to the hugely successful hit, “The Shining,” during publishing’s big season in the fall.
It’s the main event, and King and his team have their bases covered: they’ll re-release The Shining with excerpts from Doctor Sleep in paperback and e-book formats. “We’re interested in promoting ‘The Shining’ first and foremost, but we thought this represented an additional value for people,” Edward Kastenmeier, executive editor at Vintage and Anchor Books, publisher of the novel, told the Wall Street Journal. “Any attention we can bring to either book will be good for both books.”
In the end, digital or otherwise, a sale is the sale, but dividing up that pie will be a battle between authors and publishers for years to come. ♦