The best-selling author said on his Web site that he will temporarily suspend the serial novel after the sixth installment, due Dec. 18, to pursue other work.
King posted the first installment of the novel on the Internet this summer as an experiment, saying he would continue the story if 75 percent of readers voluntarily paid for it. But with the fourth installment, for example, less than half the readers were paying for the story, according to his assistant.
To thank loyal readers, King said the upcoming installment would be free. He promised to resume the story in the future.
"Don't despair," King wrote. "The last time 'The Plant' furled its leaves, the story remained dormant for 19 years. If it could survive that, I'm sure it can survive a year or two while I work on other projects."
The little-noticed decision, posted Nov. 9, temporarily ends a novel experiment in online publishing that tested the honor system as a way to thwart Internet piracy--a problem that reared its head in King's first Internet foray, "Riding the Bullet." Although readers downloaded some 400,000 free copies of the 66-page novella, hackers broke through the book's anti-copying technology the day it was made available and posted unauthorized versions on the Internet.
In an effort to win sales without resorting to fallible encryption technology, King revived the serial format for "The Plant."
For the first few installments, enough readers paid a voluntary download fee. But by the fourth installment, paid readers had dipped to 46 percent of all downloads, according to King's assistant, Marsha DeFilippo. She added, however, that King had decided to put "The Plant" aside before he had the final figures for his fourth installment. Those figures became available last week.
King said that he will turn his attention to other work, including his novels "Dreamcatcher," "The Dark Tower" and "Black House," a sequel to "The Talisman."
Some readers are unhappy with King's announcement.
"Some people have been supportive," DeFilippo said. "(But) more people have been upset."
Although "The Plant" was a significant experiment within the publishing industry, analysts said the test was not earth shattering.
"I think that whole motto of sort of nickel-and-diming people of this per chapter basis was a mistake," said Forrester analyst Dan O'Brien. "Every chapter was another test of whether people would pay the threshold that (King) determined. I thought it got in the way of the relationship between the writer and audience--it was too mercantile."
O'Brien said that an alternative model could have been used, such as one similar to a magazine subscription. Readers would pay up front and receive 12 issues or 24 issues through a contract between the publisher and reader.
"I think a writer who had a track record and reputation and a fan base could reasonable try that," O'Brien said. "Give me $15, and I will write a book in chapters--but that's not what Stephen King did."
DeFilippo said that King's intent, however, was to prevent piracy. She said that after people broke the code "Riding the Bullet," King thought "The Plant" would circumvent those problems because it wasn't encrypted.
"One of the reasons he wanted to do this himself was so that those restrictions could be removed," DeFilippo said. "He has no problem with someone sharing as long as they're not charging for it."
King said on his site that if people printed copies and gave them away, he wouldn't be able to stop them.
"I can't stop you from doing anything, which is the beauty of this thing--think of it as Web-moshing," King writes. "But don't sell them. Two reasons: First, it's against the law, and second, it's nasty behavior. Respect my copyright. As a writer, it's all I've got."