TERENCE SMITH: It's a scary prospect for hard-core bookworms: Instead of leafing through the well-worn pages of an old friend, they might be downloading the next chapter of a digital companion.
This week, for the first time, a best-selling author released a new work exclusively on the Internet. Stephen King, who has published some 30 bestsellers on paper, chose to release his latest, a 66-page novella entitled Riding the Bullet, in cyberspace alone.
Here's how it works: Readers sign on and pay a modest fee-- in this case, $2.50-- to download King's 16,000-word work, which he describes as a "ghost story in the grand manner." The manuscript can be read on a computer, but to protect the copyright, readers cannot print, duplicate or e-mail the document to others.
If reading on a desktop computer seems confining and even tiring, the story can be downloaded into specially-designed devices known as e-books that can contain a number of works. This one is called the Rocket e-book. It's about the size of an average paperback. It sells for $199. [Another] is the soft book, which has an elegant leather cover; it costs $599.
Barnes & Noble offered the King story to its Web site browsers for free on Tuesday, creating the cyber equivalent of a traffic jam for hours. Those who logged on to Amazon.com experienced the same congestion.
But are readers really ready to shed their traditional habits and turn the page on the electronic future? NetLibrary, a company based in Boulder, Colorado, is betting yes. A leading provider of electronic books, NetLibrary is retrofitting hard covers by scanning them into their computers or retyping them. Their current library houses 15,000-plus titles, converted from Gutenberg to gigabytes. King's e-foray should provide a good guide as to the future of electronic authorship: In the first 24 hours, 400,000 people ordered or downloaded Riding the Bullet.
TERENCE SMITH: To discuss the significance of this e-book experiment, we're joined by Jack Romanos, the president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster, Stephen King's publisher; and by Linton Weeks, who was once one of that dying breed, the independent bookseller himself, and who now covers publishing for the Washington Post. Welcome to you both.
Jack Romanos, update us, if you will: There have been a few more hours to sell the book. What's the latest?
JACK ROMANOS, Simon & Schuster: Yeah, late this afternoon, the total we got was approximately 500,000 downloads in roughly two days.
TERENCE SMITH: So it seems like an extraordinary number.
JACK ROMANOS: It's phenomenal. Beyond anybody's expectation.
TERENCE SMITH: Why did you do this book this way, and why now?
JACK ROMANOS: Two reasons: One, probably the main reason is that Stephen King wanted to. And the second reason, as his publisher, we were more than happy to take the trip, but equally as important, we were ready to take the trip. We'd been spending a lot of time working in this new arena, and we had the people and the expertise in place to actually put the publication into effect.
TERENCE SMITH: And why did you not do it in print as well?
JACK ROMANOS: It didn't really lend itself to print. I think if it's ever done in print, it will be done as part of a bigger collection of Stephen's work.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, Linton Weeks, how does all this strike you? Is this the brave new world, or the end of the book as we know it? What is it?
LINTON WEEKS, Washington Post: Well, I'm not sure. It is an interesting new world. It's an intriguing new world. Simon & Schuster got there first, and I think that was part of their reasoning behind it. It is high time that somebody tried this on a grand scale, and that is part of the difference here, as Stephen King commands attention. In a way, there are hundreds and hundreds of novels that have already been put on the Internet or were written for the Internet, just for electronic reading. But this is the first sort of "super-scribe" to do such a thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. So it has elevated it to a whole other level.
LINTON WEEKS: Well, it certainly elevated the attention, the popular attention.
TERENCE SMITH: Jack Romanos, how frequent is this going to become? I mean, paint the future for us. How many authors do you think will be doing this sort of thing?
JACK ROMANOS: It's hard to say at this stage. Let me just go back to something that Linton said. I think what we've learned here this week is two things: One, that Stephen King is an incredible brand in the world we live in. And I don't know that anybody's surprised to find that out, but what I think we're all surprised to find out is how many people appear to be willing to read in a paper-less environment. I mean, half a million people is -- it just shocks us. We would have been amazed if we had hit 100,000. So what we learned there is that there is the foundation for some kind of a publishing business, and you know, we're not finished yet. This half-million could be a million by the end of the week.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Do you have any sense of how many of those people paid for it, and how many simply saw something that was for free and took it -- even a proportion?
JACK ROMANOS: I don't have a sense of it now, but I think at a $2.50 price point, price wasn't really a factor in the response here.
TERENCE SMITH: Linton, what do you think this does to readers and to reading -- to the act of reading?
LINTON WEEKS: Well, I think that the interesting thing -- I wonder if -- I know that Jack knows what he's talking about. I do think that it would have been more interesting if it had -- if Amazon.com and bn.com had not given it for free.
TERENCE SMITH: Be a greater measure, you mean, of just how ready people are for this technology?
LINTON WEEKS: I think so. I think so. But having said that, you know, there are a lot of people out there using the Internet for a lot of different things, and these numbers are phenomenal. No question about it. If you take something, though, like Bikini.com, which basically shows scantily clad supermodels, they get about three million hits a day, you know, and people are downloading pictures of those folks. And the numbers are incredible. And that is, of course, why Simon & Schuster and other publishing companies are intensely interested in this, and there are many more reasons than that. But it is a very quick way to get to the reader.
TERENCE SMITH: And does it affect the act of reading, do you think -- to see it done on a screen, rather than on a piece of paper?
LINTON WEEKS: Well, we're already reading an awful lot on the screen. A lot of us who work with word processors are reading a lot. We'll see -- ultimately, I think it's a little early to call about that. I do think that books are going to go through a grand metamorphosis, what we think of as books. And once we are reading on devices, or reading on laptops, or reading on personal digital assistants, or the refrigerator, or whatever we're reading on, I think that when writers begin to write for those devices, it'll be a lot different than writing -- different from writing for a book.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Jack, do you agree with that? Are books undergoing a fundamental change?
JACK ROMANOS: I think so. I think -- you know, you asked me earlier to paint the future. I'm not sure anybody's ready to do that now, but there are certainly a lot of options that are suggested by what's going on right now. It's possible that we've just gone through something equivalent to the paperback revolution back in the '60s, where we have discovered a format -- for the content we create and now publish in a traditional way -- which is going to appeal to an audience that hasn't been showing up to read books in the paper environment. I think the kids, the teenagers, who we've been struggling to bring into our world -- and I believe we've been losing to the computer screen in a lot of shapes and sizes. I think Linton's right, the idea that we have already embraced reading on a screen is a reality in most of our lives. What this tells you is that people are willing to extend into reading for pleasure and for length on a computer screen or on a handheld reader.
So whether or not this is just an incremental format for us, to take what we do now and broaden the audience, or in fact, it's a whole new way to publish -- for example, nonfiction that is topical may be best published in an electronic book format first, and in then a hardcover, and then subsequent paperback edition second and third, because we can bring it to market so much more quickly. Certainly the short book is now much more possible than it was in the traditional sense. There's a whole lot of options that we've really got to sit down, digest, and basically come up with a business model for.
TERENCE SMITH: So this sounds like a real revolution. It's an incremental one, but a revolution nonetheless.
LINTON WEEKS: Yes. Yeah, I agree with Jack. It's probably -- you know, a lot of folks -- in your introduction, you mentioned Gutenberg, and a lot of people draw comparison to that. It's probably not an unfair comparison, when all is said and done. Jack's right that certain books -- if Simon & Schuster has said, you know, and other publishers have said, if a sports figure dies, or a political figure dies, and they want to do a quickie book, this is the ideal way to do it. Of course, it affects a whole range of people in the economy. Speaking as a former bookseller, I wonder about this. It affects distributors, it affects -- you know -- warehouse people, it affects all kinds of folks, including Simon & Schuster. I imagine Simon & Schuster's going to have to do some soul-searching about how they're organized if this takes off.
TERENCE SMITH: Jack Romanos, is that right? And let me ask you this, could an author as popular as Stephen King essentially cut you out? Could he offer his work directly to the reader on the Internet, charge a price and receive it?
JACK ROMANOS: I'm sure they could, and in fact, as was mentioned earlier, many authors who are not Stephen King are doing that now. My question would be why they would want to do that, if they also then expected to work to be published in a traditional sense? And you know, as I said earlier, our job, in addition to helping them create the best product possible, is to create a market, take it to the widest possible audience -- and you know, the sheer number of people that we'll be able to reach -- and we should mention, on a global basis, because right now our business is pretty much a domestic business with language being the largest restriction. But we're selling books all over the world today as a result of this e-book test.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think you're eating your own young, in a sense, in terms of the printed book?
JACK ROMANOS: No, not at all. I mean, in no way do I see this as a replacement in our lifetime to the printed book. It's a complement. I believe the sales we will get will be incremental. If word of mouth, which is a huge driver in our business, is as important as we think it is, it should make the incremental sales on the subsequent publications even greater. I see it as a situation where everybody wins.
TERENCE SMITH: OK, Linton, final word. Is there a -- is there a loss here? Is something lost in the process?
LINTON WEEKS: Well, yeah, I think something is lost. I'm not a sentimentalist about the book, but there is a sense, when you read a book, that you're basically taking a chaotic world, a chaotic life, and bringing some order to it. If indeed this evolves into something else that's full of video images and sounds and who knows what, it could be an -- we begin to render chaos chaotically.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. I'm not sure then whether it would be a book or television. Anyway, thank you, thank you both very much.
JACK ROMANOS: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: Linton, Jack Romanos, thanks very much.
LINTON WEEKS: Thank you.