Stephen King, the best-selling horror author, has clinched a unique publishing deal that will result in his next novel being released in six monthly instalments.
The novel will have the overall title of The Green Mile and will be published by Penguin, beginning in March next year. Each instalment will be a mass-market paperback of 96 pages, priced at pounds 1.99.
To add to the novelty - and the publicity - King says he is writing the book as a serial novel, so that readers will begin reading it before he has finished writing it. The first two parts are thought to be complete.
The idea was popularised in the 19th century when authors such as Dickens and Dostoevsky published in serial form but in magazines rather than self- contained books.
The first instalment, The Two Dead Girls, will be published in March, with the rest following at monthly intervals. The novel is set in America's Deep South in the 1930s and focuses on a man condemned to the electric chair.
"It's very exciting for us. Everybody is enormously energised by this. We will publish 2 million copies of the first instalment," Peter Mayer, chief executive of the Penguin Group, said from New York yesterday.
Some observers said King's decision to sell the world rights to the project to Penguin rather than his usual UK publisher, Hodder, was a slap in the face. But the British company roundly denied that was the case. "We are publishing three Stephen King novels next year, two in hardback and one in paperback. We would have felt it was a bit much to take on a further one," said Tim Hely Hutchinson, Hodder's chief executive.
Either way, Hodder had little choice. King is understood to have personally approached Mr Mayer with the idea of a serial novel because he was so impressed with Penguin's 60p mini-books. Penguin publishes King in the US and has a big Commonwealth operation.
The author says in the foreword to his first instalment that he was drawn to the project because he wanted to try something different. "I like the high-wire aspect of it. Fall down on the job, fail to carry it through, and all at once about a million readers are howling for your blood."
It is not clear how much Penguin stands to gain. Although King is one of the world's best-selling writers, averaging UK sales of more than half a million a paperback, sales of the instalments are unlikely to be consistent and the author's advance will have been high. The company stands, however, to make pounds 4 more for the entire novel than the usual pounds 5.99 price for a King paperback.
Trade reaction was interested but sceptical. "I think this is something King wants to do for fun, but I think people would rather have the whole book at once," one senior publisher said. Another was more optimistic: "A lot of extra people will probably buy the books. I think it's possibly a good idea."