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Bestselling horror writer Stephen King is following up on his e-book experiment of earlier this year by asking readers to support an honor-system version of retailing a King story online. King made publishing history earlier this year when he offered an e-book novella, “Riding the Bullet,” to readers through various e-commerce venues. The book was issued in an electronic format that prevented copying and printing, although hackers later extracted a plaintext version of the story that was soon available online. In spite of the extracted versions of the story, and in spite of the authorized free versions that were available at some sites, King’s experiment turned out to be quite profitable. Since the release of “Riding the Bullet” in online venues on March 14, more than a half million users have downloaded the e-book. Not all of them paid the $2.50 asking price, but a good percentage of them did. King has estimated he will make at least $450,000 from his e-book project — a long short story that might have earned its author only $10,000 in traditional short-story markets. King made his prospective honor-system for his upcoming release known in a June 7 letter posted prominently on the official Stephen King Web site. In the letter, King explains that he began a novel called “The Plant” in the early 1980s but later abandoned it “because other projects intervened.” According to King, “it has occurred to me that it might be amusing to put ["The Plant"] up on this web-site, in installments of 5000 words each — something like that, anyway. If this idea interests you, will you e-mail the website and say so?” King’s site provided a mechanism by which visitors could participate in a survey as to whether King should go forward with his honor-system project, and as to whether King can expect readers to pay for something they can download for free. King says he offered “The Plant” to “friends and relatives” in the 1980s in three volumes — “as funky Christmas cards” — and adds that in his view the story, about a “vampire vine” that takes over a paperback publishing house and demands human sacrifices in return for providing financial success, is “both scary and funny.” But in addition to offering the public a chance to read something only his friends and relatives have seen so far, King says he has “another agenda” — testing whether e-commerce distribution of fiction can work without the technological guarantees of copyright-management systems. “I was intrigued by the success of “Riding the Bullet” (stunned would probably be a more accurate word), and since then have been anxious to try something similar, but I’ve also been puzzling over issues of ownership when it comes to creative work,” King says in his open letter. “On one hand I applaud Metallica’s decision to try and put a few spikes into the big, cushy radial tire that is Napster, because creative people should be paid for their work just as plumbers and carpenters and accountants are paid for theirs,” he says. “On the other hand, I think that the current technology is rapidly turning the whole idea of copyright into a risky proposition � not quite a joke, but something close to it,” King says. “It took hackers only forty-eight to seventy-two hours to bust the encryption on ‘Bullet,’” King says, noting that the hackers spent many hours bypassing the encryption-based content-management system on a story that could be had for free at many online venues. “Being something of an optimist about my fellow creatures, I have the idea that most people are honest and will pay for what they get,” King says. “I’m therefore willing to try selling ‘The Plant’ on an honor system,” he says. Episodes of “The Plant” would not be encrypted, King says, so that if users want to print their own copies or share digital or online versions with a friend, they can do so. King’s proposal is to divide up “The Plant” into 5,000-word episodes and to make each episode available for one dollar. He says he will keep track of the downloads and that he can “live with a ratio of nine honest folks for every chiseler” or “[m]aybe even eight.” He says that although he believes readers should be able to print their copies of the story, and share the printed or digital versions, they’ll be barred from selling copies. The author says he is hopeful that this experiment will prove that the honor system version of e-commerce fiction can work. King says: “I reserve the right to cease publication if a lot of people steal the story � but I just don’t believe that will happen. I mean, we’re talking a buck a pop here, right?”

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