The Business of E-Books

With the release of “Riding the Bullet” March 14, Stephen King fans clogged the Web sites of book e-tailers and Some waited hours to download King’s 66-page horror story.

“I’m curious to see what sort of response there is and whether or not this is the future,” King said in a statement.

The future of publishing may be here

Traditional booksellers are also eager to see if electronic books are the future of publishing.

“I have serious questions as to how receptive readers are going to be receiving text on a computer screen,” said Richard Howorth, president of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent booksellers.

“I think Stephen King has a large audience of completely devoted fans who if he said he wrote a new book in pencil on toilet paper, they’d go find it,” said Howorth, who owns a bookstore in Oxford, Miss. “What if you’re a writer, a so-called mid-list writer who’s written two or three books … when you announce that your new book is available on the Internet, who knows, who cares?”

Reviews of “Riding the Bullet” posted on Simon & Schuster’s Web site showed some mixed reactions.

“Technology is fine, but when it impedes rather than facilitates access, it is not working,” wrote a reader named Kathleen. “The idea is intriguing, but not if you cannot be a constant reader … so I picked up my hard-cover, fat copy of Hearts in Atlantis and curled up in bed with it. Tradition has its virtues.”

But other readers simply saw it as another great story from King.

“I have been mesmerized with every story of [King’s] to the point that I can’t put them down at night, even when I have to get up the next morning at the crack of dawn,” wrote a reader named Carmen.

Technology is worth booksellers’ time

Industry experts said e-books are worth their attention, however.

That’s because any bookseller with a Web site — not just giants Barnes & Noble and — may benefit from digital releases, said Roger Williams, vice president and director of field sales for Simon & Schuster.

Independents can link their Web sites to the Softlock Web site, where customers can purchase King’s book without actually leaving the independent’s site. Booksellers earn a 20 percent commission from Softlock for every e-book sold, Williams said.

“We wanted to make sure that any bookseller would be able to take advantage of this,” he said.

Despite his skepticism, Howorth agrees booksellers should keep up with e-book advancements.

“The one thing we know about the new technology is that it keeps moving faster than anyone expects it to,” Howorth said. “I think its important for independent booksellers to understand all this new technology and be on the lookout for all these changes with regard to digitized text.”

Things to come

One e-bookseller said he thinks the success of King’s all-digital release is a sign of things to come.

“I think this Stephen King phenomenon has proven that e-books will be popular,” said Brian Bell, spokesman for, which sells its 16,000 titles to libraries as well as individuals.

“With e-books the advantage is that the books are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are never lost or stolen or damaged. They are checked in automatically so they’re never overdue,” he said.

NetLibrary began providing electronic titles largely to academic libraries in 1998, and is now adding 100 new titles a day. More than 3,000 books, by authors such as Jane Austen to Mark Twain, are provided free of charge.

“There’s always the notion that if e-books become popular, paper books will go away,” Bell said. “We don’t really see it that way. Video didn’t kill the theater release for movies. People still go to the theater.”