Stephen, King of Business

UPDATED: January 11, 2012
PUBLISHED: January 11, 2012

Stephen King is, first and foremost, a writer. Everyone has a favorite Stephen King book or story: maybe it’s The Shining or It or the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. As readers, we have hundreds of his works to choose from. Now in his 60s, King’s still massively prolific—the 1,000-page 11/22/63 came out last November and another Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, arrives this spring.

An interesting fact gets lost in all of that, however. The guy is a terrific businessman who leverages his success to broker creative and unusual deals in an industry not known for its flexibility, speed or inventiveness. The ebook revolution, currently in full swing, has the entire book publishing world scrambling to figure out new business models and how, if possible, to preserve the now-ancient art of printing words on paper. (It’s interesting to note that Simon & Schuster, King’s publisher, recently reported rising profits due largely to increases in ebook sales. So paper may be quickly becoming as quaint as LPs).

Over the years, King has always been forward-thinking and daring in his dealings with publishers. He experimented with an online-only ebook, The Plant, way back in 2000 when Kindle was but a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ hard drive. And 14 years ago, when he left Viking to go to S&S, he structured his deal in an unheard-of way, ditching the big advance for a smaller one, but splitting the profits 50/50.

Another bold move, according to The Wall Street Journal, was orchestrated by King’s then-agent Kirby McCauley: Instead of a publisher licensing rights to King’s books for a period lasting up until 70 years beyond the author’s death (the usual publishing boilerplate, assuming the books stay in print), King leases his books to the publisher for a period of 15 years. This approach guarantees one very important thing: His publisher is supremely motivated to sell as many of his books as possible, more so than with an author in a traditional deal. If his books are mishandled, he’ll take them elsewhere soon enough.

King uses his success to guarantee further success. That sounds obvious, but how many creative types are that business savvy? Artists starve not because they aren’t talented but because they often have no idea how to make money.

The lesson for all of us, no matter what fields we toil in? It’s not just about thinking outside a given box. That’s easy. But how often do we actually implement the interesting thoughts or risky ideas we have? How much do we leverage our success to motivate folks to take a gamble with us? And most important, do we know our industry well enough to know when one of those ideas could generate cash? After all, Stephen King, the writer, doesn’t get to make any of these deals if he isn’t Stephen King, the brand.