Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An Open Letter to Stephen King

The Wall Street Journal published an article (link may expire) yesterday in which Stephen King announced that his next novel, Joyland from Hard Case Crime, won't have an electronic edition.  As you can imagine, there's been no end of comment on the web.  After reading some of the remarks, both supportive and not so supportive, I thought I'd put my two cents in, specifically where he said "...let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one."

Dear Mr. King,

While I doubt you'll ever read these words, or care very much if you did, I still would like to go on record responding to the comments you made recently regarding Joyland not having an electronic edition. 

I've read a number of your books over the years, and I've enjoyed most of them.  I particularly appreciate your publishing Joyland through Hard Case Crime as Hard Case is one of my favorite publishers.  Your association with them is sure to strengthen their sales, helping to insure they continue to publish more books.  And for the record, I've been intending to buy a print copy of Joyland, if for no other reason than I like they way the look on the shelf and have an almost complete set.

I'm not going to chastise you for holding onto the digital rights to your book.  More power to you for doing so.  I only wish all authors had that choice.  Nor do I wish to take you to task for taking control of your career.  I only wish more authors would.  Then maybe publishers wouldn't try to slip so many draconian terms into their contracts.

Over what I do wish to take issue with you, sir, is the statement you made in which you said "...let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one."  I find that to be highly insulting.  The are multiple reasons why I feel this way.  Please allow me to explain. 

First, being able to buy books without having to go to a bookstore is a huge advantage to many, I would even say most, readers.  Many people can't simply "stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore" because there aren't any within driving distance.  While there may be bookstores in every community on the coasts, I can assure you that is not the case in flyover country.  When I was in high school the nearest book store was over an hour's drive away.  And I didn't live in an isolated part of the country.  Furthermore, not everyone who lives near a bookstore is physically able to go.  A number of elderly and invalid persons have been able to enjoy reading through either electronic books or ordering books online who would otherwise not be able to buy new books.

And speaking of online bookstores, will Joyland be sold online through venues such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble?  We both know it will.  As well as in Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and other large discount box stores.  If you wish to support bookstores, have you tried to keep your books from being sold there as well?  I realize you probably can't prevent your titles from being sold in those venues.  But the big discounts those stores force on publishers have hurt authors and traditional bookstores.

The second, and more controversial, reason I take offense at your words, Mr. King, is that I'm beginning to question to what extent bookstores should be supported.  I love browsing, but the experience is becoming less and less enjoyable.  There are three stores in the city where I live that could be considered general interest bookstores that are not second-hand, religious, or university bookstores.  One is Barnes and Noble. The other two are Hastings, which is a chain based here in Texas. 

Hastings isn't much of a bookstore.  Most of its sales are from music, movies, and video games.  The small portion of its floorspace devoted to books is a mix of new and used.  The selection is poor, and many of the bottom shelves are empty.  My experiences with what passes for customer service there have been so bad (to the point that I was treated as though I was a thief when my five year old son had to got to the bathroom, charging more than cover price for books, etc.) that I won't spend my time or money there.

Barnes and Noble has been on a downward spiral since I moved to this city three and a half years ago.  The space devoted to books has continued to diminish to make room for toys, games, puzzles, Nook accessories, and assorted doodads.  The selection has diminished in quality and variety.  Last summer I went in looking for two new hardcover releases, one mystery and the other science fiction.  The computer said they were in stock, but they weren't on the shelves.  I assumed the store had only ordered a single copy of each that had sold out.  Two weeks later I found out what was really going on.  Multiple copies of the books had been ordered.  They simply hadn't been taken out of the boxes and were still in the stockroom after two weeks.  This is typical of the customer service I'm finding at every B&N I've visited in the last year.

Tell me, Mr. King, why should I support that business model when I can order just about any book from my home, in either electronic or print edition, with only a few clicks?  Why should I get out in the heat, put up with the traffic, endure a store full of unsupervised children whose parents have left them at the mall for the evening, and try to tune out the music blaring from the PA system only to find there's next to nothing that interests me or that the recent release I'm looking for was never stocked? 

I love bookstores and very much want them to stay.  But the bookstores are going to need to rediscover who they're truly in business for, the customer.  Not the sales reps.  Not the major publishing houses.  Not even the authors.  Bookstores which don't have customers don't stay in business.  You speak and people listen, Mr. King.  Rather than insulting your readers, next time please encourage the bookstores to be more reader oriented.

Thank you.


  1. Particularly interesting to me is how he at one point was quick to come out with a digital edition, before everyone was doing it, and was saying something kind of opposite, about how that book was only going to be online.

    1. Yes, Riding the Bullet. A good little book. I think a print edition was eventually published, maybe in one of his collections. I'm wondering if he's seeing a dip in his income like some of the big names reportedly are.

  2. As Charles noted, that is quite the flip for King who embraced e'publishing early on. I suppose he might have changed his mind. Or, maybe it depends on the day-of-the-week you ask him.

    Keith, you have entirely valid points about mega-store undercuts and poor service at chain bookstores.

    Like many other things, e'books are not a fad, and they are here to stay until that great EMP from aliens or North Korea or whatever. Everyone needs to get over it and start figuring out the new model. King included.

  3. I think there's one other reason that epublishing is important. It's one that people seem to care about less and less over the years, but I think it's relevant.

    At this point, we are deforesting much of the planet. That's not an exagerration. Every year we have fewer and fewer trees, and once they are chopped down into pulp and turned into books, we then have to spend a great deal of money hauling them around in trucks.

    Ebooks avoid all of that, and I think it's probably time that we started to think more about conservation and less about how much we like having a book store around.

    1. You raise some good points, Micheal. The whole returns system needs to be done away with for those very reasons. The wastefulness of stripping the cover from a paperback and sending it to the publisher for credit while pulping the book is just insane. I'm surprised some environmental group hasn't made more noise about this.