Stephen King Ran The First Patreon, And It Failed
In 2000, Stephen King's story "Riding The Bullet" came out as an ebook. Scribes call it the first mass market ebook—it sold some half a million copies within the first day, and though short, it was easily worth the $2.50. Then its success got Stephen King asking a question that a lot of people would ask in the years to come: If the book released digitally, why exactly was the publisher getting a cut?
The publisher wasn't printing and binding the books. They weren't transporting the books to various locations. They did manage sales and secure the book in an encrypted format, but they didn't do a terribly good job at that. The encryption on "Riding The Bullet" crashed people's computers, and of course, as with all forms of media, pirates still managed to break the encryption and share it anyway.
So for his next book, The Plant, King came up with an idea. He'd release the text directly on his website. Anyone could download part one. He'd ask people to pay $1 for each download, and he'd release the next part after some time—assuming that enough people who downloaded the earlier part really did pay.
He wasn't packaging the text in any format that you could easily open with an app on your smartphone, but that was fine, because this was the year 2000, and no one had apps or smartphones. Without any encryption, you could easily copy the text and send it to all your friends, and King was cool with that too. He was only going to track how many copies were directly downloaded from his site and count how much money came in. "Pay and the story rolls," he said. "Steal and the story folds. No stealing from the blind newsboy!"
So long as 75 percent of downloaders paid, he'd continue the project, he said. And that many did pay ... at first. By part four, however, the number dropped to 46 percent, so he kept his word and stopped writing, while putting the remainder he'd already written up for free for everyone.
Considering how today, talented nobodies are able to launch Patreons and get fans showering them with money, it's kind of funny that megaselling author King couldn't make this work back then. On the other hand, this did foreshadow one common aspect of crowdfunding: all the thousands of people who did pay and then were disappointed when the project never finished.
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