Riding With the King, or Ain’t He a Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote his earliest books in serial form.

Edward Chapman and William Hall hired Dickens in 1836 to produce a series to be sold at one shilling for each chapter. That series became “The Pickwick Papers.” The first payment Dickens received was 29 shillings, and the first chapter sold 400 copies. The last chapter sold 40,000 copies, setting up big sales on the finished product and other books, such as “Oliver Twist,” which debuted in the same form.

It’s important to recount this record because a few days ago, word came that Stephen King has abandoned “The Plant”, his attempt at a web serial. King was selling chapters at $1 each on an honor system. He said he would continue to write as long as people paid. By Chapter 7, only 46 percent were paying, so he went on to other projects with more guaranteed income. He says he may go back to “The Plant” later.

Now, class, where will you find a better business model for web serial publishing: in the story of Charles Dickens or in Stephen King’s? That’s right, the answer is Dickens.

Let’s take a look at the Dickens contract again. First, the publisher guaranteed the author some income during the run of the serial. The business risk was taken by a businessperson, not a writer. Second, interest grew during the run of the serial, creating a profitable after-market for the finished product.

Here is how I would take what I learned from Dickens and apply it to the web.

I have a little novel called “The Time Mirror“, which I’ve been working on (well, off and on) since resuming my freelance career in 1997. I’m presently rewriting the whole thing, taking out contradictions in tense, character, and action that a column writer is bound to create when he tries something this long in his spare time.

I’d happily hand the whole thing to a publisher in exchange for a small guarantee, a cut of future revenues, and the following business plan.

We’ll “Napster” the first chapter. That means it’s freeware, and we’ll do everything possible to encourage people to pass it around. The file links to a secure server, however, where you can buy additional chapters at $1 each or “subscribe” to the whole book for $10 with a credit card. (There are 20 chapters, so you have an incentive to subscribe.) If we can just get 1,000 subscribers (not a lot), I can make money on a $10,000 advance, especially since we’ll be selling the paperback and e-book once the serial is complete and we’ve prebuilt the market.

The model for publishers here should be ARTISTdirect or MP3.com. You’ve got something to give away, an incentive to push the writer (or “artist,” if you prefer) and ample up-sells. I guarantee you publishers can do better for midlist authors with this model than with the present business model, which requires that whole books be sold before brand names are established.

Stephen King is a fine writer, but he’s no businessman. Neither was Charles Dickens, and neither am I. But if your last dot-com went bust or you’re looking for a new opportunity, here’s a business plan you can try that has a 164-year history.

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