Like all good mysteries, the ending of Stephen King’s latest experiment in online distribution is far from clear. Critics predicted that, like most of King’s work, this saga would turn out to be a horror story. But the author says his unconventional high-tech tale is headed for a happy ending. King released the first installment of his unfinished novel “The Plant” on his personal Web site two weeks ago. While the 20-page chapter can be downloaded for free, the millionaire author is asking people to pay $1 each time they grab a copy. The catch? If fewer than three out of every four people who download copies actually pay, King says he’ll stop releasing installments after the second one. So no pay, no payoff. “Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds,” King says on the site. “No stealing from the blind newsboy!” The thing is, Net users have been ripping off that newsboy so frequently that it’s a wonder he’s still in business. Pirated music and bootleg films are traded every second of the day without regard for the rights of their creators or their corporate partners. King has experienced this reality firsthand. Earlier this year, hackers distributed unauthorized copies of “Riding the Bullet,” his first e-novella, after cracking its copyright protection scheme. That 16,000-word story, made available online through publisher Simon & Schuster, still sold 500,000 copies at $2.50 a pop, earning King a cool $450,000. But most of those copies were bought up by Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com and given away for free. This time, King won’t have to split the profits with a publisher. If 500,000 people pay a buck for the first chapter, he gets $500,000. Of course, he’ll have to pay for Web hosting and marketing as well as for the credit card processing, which Amazon.com is probably kicking in for next to nothing. But even if most people stiff him, he’s likely to come out ahead. King has had the first few chapters of “The Plant” written since the early 1980s. So for him, the process is a little like auctioning off old junk on eBay. If nobody meets his reserve price, he just packs the manuscript back in the attic for another day. This makes me wonder why King is even bothering with that 75-percent payment rate. If he makes as much money as he needs with a lower rate, why wouldn’t he keep publishing new chapters? The point may be moot. King announced last week that more than 75 percent of the people who downloaded the chapter in its first week had paid. “When the dust settles,” he said, he expects “a pay-through rate of 85 to 90 percent.” Of course, the rate may drop as the ranks of his most rabid fans give way to those simply curious about the process. Also, word of his success might convince newcomers that there’s no need to pay, since others before them have pumped up the stats. Still, the early success suggests popular authors might well be able to use the Net to route around traditional publishers. Coming improvements in print-on-demand technology will allow them to deliver real books to stores across the country instead of relying on the unsatisfying process of on-screen reading. The question, then, is whether this would work for lesser-known writers. The cost of credit card processing makes it difficult to turn a profit from small batches of $1 transactions. Marketing is also a problem, since most authors don’t have the luxury of a fan base that will scour the Internet for any word of a new release. Human nature should, I think, be the least of their concerns. The reason most people feel comfortable trading pirated media online is because they figure they’re only stealing from some mega-corporation that doesn’t need their money anyway. Given the option of paying a reasonable fee directly to the creator, most people will usually take the high road. There will always be some who steal whatever they can grab, particularly under the Net’s anonymous cover of darkness. But King’s experiment is proving that even a rich guy can expect most Net users to pay for his products even when his back is turned. To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL, 60611.