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Stephen King’s Paperback-Only Crime Novel: Back to the Future?

Anyone who has been around publishing long enough to remember the events of 2000 may feel a bit nostalgic reading the stories about Stephen King’s decision to publish his next book, Joyland, in print only. He’s jolted the industry before.

Thirteen years ago — pre-iPad, Nook, and Kindle — he rocked the book world by releasing Riding the Bullet as the first mass ebook, attracting so many downloads that servers crashed. He followed that success with The Plant, selling it directly from his website in installments. Readers paid by the honor system (and many chose to download it for free).

In 2000 King was quoted in the New York Times:

“I’ve continued to say yes to these things rather than kind of pulling back and saying, Well, I’m going to write a book a year, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I dislike writers who behave like old cart horses, dozing their way back to the stable.”

Now, in this age of accelerating ebook sales, King’s focus on print looks almost radical. But it wasn’t long ago that publishers held back digital versions to avoid cannibalizing sales of more expensive hardcovers. In this case, that’s not the motivation; Joyland is a $12.95 paperback. King told the Wall Street Journal he wanted to send consumers back to bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

“I have no plans for a digital version,” King said. “Maybe at some point, but in the meantime, let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”

If this seems to have a back-to-the-future ring to it, so does King’s publisher.  Hard Case Crime has been publishing hard-boiled crime fiction in a determinedly retro style (have a look at the covers) since 2004, when it launched with books by Lawrence Block, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Max Phillips. Hard Case, owned by UK’s Titan Publishing Group, has no aversion to e-publishing, however: most of its titles are available as ebooks, including King’s 2005 book with the publisher, The Colorado Kid.

Will other A-list authors follow King’s lead and hold back digital versions to give bookstores a head start? Perhaps. Shed no tears for online bookstores if that should come to pass: as of this morning,  Joyland was number 19 on Amazon’s list of top sellers.

Update 5/23: Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, still owns it (see the comments). We should’ve guessed. Time Magazine wrote five years ago that Ardai was especially thrilled by emails reporting that truck stops were prominently displaying Hard Case’s books. “Nothing makes me happier,” said Ardai. “I love bookstores — but being in a truck stop? It’s part of the tradition.”

That sounds like a person on a mission, not someone getting ready to sell his company. Ardai didn’t sell: Titan publishes; Ardai owns.