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Interview: September 15, 2000

September 15, 2000

While Stephen King has been grabbing all of the headlines recently for using the Internet to distribute his work, he is by no means the only established author who is utilizing cyberspace in new ways to distribute --- and market --- their work. Douglas Clegg, the acclaimed author of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES and YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU, as well as last year's e-serialized NAOMI, recently inaugurated a website as part of a unique multimedia introduction to his trilogy THE HARROW HAUNTING, a very ambitious effort to combine conventional publishing and eBooks with other media. Clegg recently took time from his extremely busy schedule to discuss this groundbreaking project.

TBR: You recently launched a website for your dark fantasy trilogy THE HARROW HAUNTING, which consists of three novels: NIGHTMARE HOUSE, which you are giving away via serialized e-mail; and THE INFINITE, which will be published in hardcover in September 2001. How can interested readers receive the installments of NIGHTMARE HOUSE? And will they need any special software to receive them?

DC: The site at --- The Harrow Haunting site --- is the only place for the multimedia with regard to NIGHTMARE HOUSE, my e-serial novel. I want the emails to be able to reach anyone with any kind of computer -- be it desktop or handheld -- and not have to worry about any technical wizardry or sound. The website is there for those who want a more multimedia experience -- but I've kept the gadgetry low there, too. I want the music and visuals and supplemental text to engage a visitor's mind and imagination, not crash a computer system with enormous downloads. With the, I'm the writer-director, and I have a score and scenes from the movie, but not the movie itself.

TBR: I must confess, and warn your readers: I found the Harrow Haunting site addictive. My reflexes are well past the point where I am capable of rescuing computer princesses or wiping out nests of vampires; your site, however, combines the best features of role playing games with reading and graphics, without leaving us old folks in the dust. What was the impetus behind launching the site?

DC: With NIGHTMARE HOUSE, sponsored by Cemetery Dance Publications, I wanted to do something more with the subscribers than just send out the email episodes of the novel. So I decided to create an interactive website, a virtual haunting, with pictures and music. I also wanted to keep it fairly low-tech for now -- I can create Flash movies and I have all kinds of software at my disposal, but I wanted this to be something simple and nearly old-fashioned. When I conceived of the site, I wanted images that were somewhere between scenes in a movie, a real place, a CD-Rom game, and a puzzle.

TBR: Did you do all the work on the site yourself?

DC: No. Gail Cross at Desert Isle Design took my ideas and ran with them -- she created these stunning and mysterious images and notions in the graphics. Jim Farris, a novelist who has primarily written in electronic format, had become well known for his short soundtracks in midi. He began creating a few for me last spring for a rudimentary version of the site; then I asked him if he wanted to create more. He really went to town. I'd say things to him like: all right, this woman's going mad, but she's going mad in a really beautiful way, and he'd come up with a gorgeous piece that was just right. A couple of the pieces are classical --- Saint-Saen's Danse Macabre and Beethoven's Fure Elise --- and the rest are his compositions. He created a Nightmare House Lullaby, a Nightmare House Waltz, and more. It really adds to the atmosphere of going to the various aspects of the virtual haunting at And all of these fine people can be reached via links on the site.

All this is, I hope, helpful in creating a larger sense of the story in the minds of the readers of the serial novel -- I'm hoping it's like looking through a keyhole into images and moods of the setting of the novel, while still re-creating the novel in the reader's mind as one reads each installment.

TBR: How long has the site been up? And will you be adding to it from time to time?

DC: The official launch for the site was Sunday, July 30th, and there are about a dozen different midi files of Jim's music, and more than twenty rooms and aspects of the haunting. On August 20th, an additional set of "Forbidden Rooms" went up -- I don't want to spoil the story for anyone reading along by revealing some of the visual secrets too early. And as each novel in the Harrow Haunting trilogy continues (the conventional paperback of Mischief comes out on September 17th in stores everywhere), more of the virtual haunting will be revealed.

TBR: At this point, the Harrow Haunting site has been up for less than a month. What sort of response have you received so far? And how does that compare with the numbers for NAOMI, which you published via e-mail serialization last year?

DC: Regarding subscribers, just over 2,100 people are subscribed right now -- I would predict, safely, that 2,300 will have signed up by Sunday night's launch; and were I a betting man, I'd guess that 4,000 will be signed up within two weeks, and 6,000 by the end of the run of NIGHTMARE HOUSE. To compare it with NAOMI -- 1,000 had subscribed by launch date, 4,000 at its peak. Then about a month after NAOMI ran, the number dropped to under 1,000 and fluctuated at between 1,000 - 1,200 during the year when there was no email serial.

TBR: Are you satisfied with the reader response so far?

DC: I know this is not a high number with the King numbers being thrown around, but I think this is still a curiosity (what I'm doing) and what I've learned about the readership on the list is: they are serious readers and they don't just want Douglas Clegg's next novel, they want a good novel to read in serial installments. that's the challenge of being a writer: living up to that. It takes the best of everything I have within me to create a story for readers, and I'm happy to step up to that plate. They're not here for a phenomenon or an event, necessarily, but to actually get a book they will read and either enjoy or hate -- and I'll hear soon enough which way the pendulum goes. It's a little like walking a high wire as a novelist, and I love this aspect. I believed it last year with NAOMI --- the Internet is a broadcast medium and giving away a novel on the Internet is the way to go. Plus, by establishing the sponsorships, first with Leisure Books in 1999, then with Cemetery Dance Publications in 2000, I pioneered a way for a novelist to get paid while still giving the novel free over the Internet.

TBR: Do you see a lot of authors broadening their readership in this manner?

DC: I see few writers trying this -- instead, they're going to the "pay 5 - 20 dollars" for a download of the book without revealing much about the book. What writer can make a living that way? The sponsorship I received was in the five-figure range -- healthy enough for the sponsorship, and, assuming 6,000 people sign up for the book, the amount I've been paid is more than what I'd make on royalties from 10% of a hardcover price. Admittedly, if 100,000 people signed up, it would be less of a good equation regarding the sponsorship money, but you would not hear me complaining!

TBR: This is your second eBook project. Do you have any advice for authors who are looking at e-publishing as a way to get their work in front of an audience?

DC: I know this flies in the face of what all the independent e-publishers are attempting, but I do think the writers on the Internet need to create publicity and marketing budgets for their own books. I think they need to seek out sponsorships or set up "contributions welcome" -type setups rather than charge per-book, and I firmly believe that they need to work hard to crossover into print, because right now the focus of the largest readership is still on print. This may not be true next year or the year after, as technology improves, as reading entire novels on handheld devices becomes more common. But I'm talking about today and tomorrow, which is all you can really talk about regarding the Internet.

TBR: Do you feel that e-publishing will adversely affect conventional book publishing?

DC: It's hard enough to get people to pick up a paperback by an unknown, but at least with a paperback you can resell it or pass it to a friend or donate it to the library -- but a download? If you don't like the book, it just takes up space on your computer and reminds you that you wished you hadn't paid for it. And if you love it, you'll probably want the finished book -- I know I would.

Think of how hard it is to build an audience in bookstores for a new novelist without a huge marketing budget. Sure, Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark might command this, but then they've had twenty years of the biggest publishers in the world building their names internationally, as well as of having written books that have become popular classics. I'm certainly not there yet -- I'm just a storyteller who wants to reach a wider audience. I don't think it's realistic for most novelists, because on the Internet we're forgetting that an invitation is required to enter the households of the potential readers. They have to really want the eBook to purchase it online, and they have to really want to read it on a computer, and when all is said and done, it's hard to part with even five dollars for a novel you may not like beyond the first ten pages.

TBR: I'm going to ask the same question in a slightly different way. Last year you gave away a serialized version of your book NAOMI via e-mail. I understand that it's going to be published as a conventional paperback early next year. Is there any concern that the sales of it will be hurt by the fact that it was available for free?

DC: I may attract 6,000 people to read my email serial, but I can reach more than 100,000 readers with my paperbacks -- in fact, when the paperback of NAOMI, my e-serial, comes out in March of 2001, I'm willing to bet it will reach 250,000 people, whereas the email serial reached 4,000, and it was free and got a lot of publicity. I don't believe every novel a novelist writes should be available free on the Internet, and I certainly intend to enforce my copyright on NIGHTMARE HOUSE, but I do believe that with electronic downloads, the e-novelists might consider giving one free complete look-see a year to try and build their audience (and some already do this).

I also want to give something back to the readers with this. Over the years, I've come to understand how much readers have supported my life and work, and I want, now and then, to say: here's something for you if you want it, a novel of mine, and it's free for those who are interested as a thank you.

TBR: Well, NIGHTMARE HOUSE is a pretty nice gift to your readers! So you're not concerned that your book sales will be affected by essentially giving away some of your work via the Internet?

DC: I don't think giving away fiction on the Internet will hurt print sales at all -- in fact, I have anecdotal evidence from my own writing career that it will build an audience further! Print books are about possession: we, who love books, want to own them, have them, keep them on our shelves. Some people even smell them. And if you love a story, I believe you'll love it in many different incarnations. After all, how many people read the book and then go see the movie? And then, rent the video? And buy both the paperback and hardcover? When it's a novel I love, I do that. Sometimes I buy the hardcover twice if the first copy got a little shabby from overuse.

TBR: Now THAT'S a true booklover! Thank you, Doug. We'll keep reading NIGHTMARE HOUSE as it's released and look forward to the conventional publication of MISCHIEF on September 17, 2000!