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Internet has transformed how we buy and read books

There probably hasn't been a decade that saw so much change in the book industry since Johannes Gutenberg came up with the movable-type printing press about 560 years ago.

Many factors contributed to that change, but two tower above the rest: Harry Potter and the Internet.

The blockbuster book became a familiar phenomenon in the past decade, but none can approach the staggering sales — and influence on the publishing industry — of J.K. Rowling's seven novels about the boy wizard.

The first, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was published in 1997, but the series became a true multimedia phenomenon on July 8, 2000, when the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was published.

It was the first of the series to be published simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom; more importantly, it was the first book to be the subject of such anticipation that bookstores stayed open past midnight to let hordes of fans snap up copies the very minute they were released. The release party, complete with costumes and games, became part of the Potter juggernaut.

That got-to-have-it urgency and communal enthusiasm fed the books' sales; each of the last four broke records, with the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, topping out at 8.3 million copies sold in the United States in the first 24 hours.

The series' sales made Rowling more than rich; in 2004, Forbes called her the first billionaire author ever. Worldwide, the books have sold more than 400 million copies; compare that with the runnerup phenoms of the decade, Dan Brown, whose conspiracy-theory adventures have sold 80 million copies; and Stephenie Meyer, whose moony teenage vampire romances have notched 85 million.

But sales aren't the only impact of the Potter books. They transformed children's literature, which used to be a sort of kindly, avuncular sideline of the publishing and bookselling industries, into a powerful force. The Potter books dominated bestseller lists so mightily that in 2000 the New York Times created a separate bestseller list for children's books, just to give books for grownups a chance to get back on the list.

Although they sparked controversy over their magical themes, Rowling's novels brought millions of children to the joys of books and inspired parents to read along with them (not to mention all the adults who enjoyed the books on their own). Even with Harry's saga done, books for kids, from preschoolers through YA readers, continue to be one of the growth sectors of publishing.

The Potter books have also become hugely successful films, but that was nothing new. What was new was the online presence of the books' fandom — just one example of a major trend. Harry's fans didn't just buy the books; they gathered in legions at Web sites like the Leaky Cauldron, MuggleNet and the Harry Potter Lexicon, listened to podcasts like PotterCast and MuggleCast, wrote thousands of screens full of fan fiction and visited Rowling's own sophisticated site.

The online factor

Harry Potter Web sites might be extraordinary for their sheer numbers, but the Internet has swiftly come to dominate how all books are published, marketed, sold and read. No single entity exemplifies that more than Amazon.com, which went online in 1995.

Following founder Jeff Bezos' business plan, the site grew relatively slowly in the heat of the first dot-com boom. It didn't turn its first profit, of $5 million, until the fourth quarter of 2001.

But in this decade it has become the 1,000-pound gorilla of bookselling. Its economies of scale, resulting bargain prices and click-and-buy convenience have made independent bookstores an endangered species, and even chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling to keep their bricks-and-mortar operations going.

Selling books isn't the only part of the industry that has moved to the digital realm. One of the fastest-growing segments of publishing is e-books. Last year they still added up to only about 5 percent of book sales, but that percentage doubled over the previous year. Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle, is the bestselling product on its entire site; Barnes & Noble's Nook, introduced in November, sold out in days and is on back order until February.

The growing popularity of e-books is affecting the pricing of print books, and publishers are trying to gain control of that spiral.

Many e-books cost less than half the cover price of the same book on paper — a price paradigm greatly influenced by Amazon. Publishers, worried about narrowing profit margins and pressure from consumers to lower all book prices, delayed the release of digital versions of several fall bestsellers, such as Stephen King's Under the Dome and Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, until a couple of months after the print versions' release.

For those books, the strategy worked — they've sold briskly in print. As a result, several major publishers announced this month they would do the same for their big winter and spring books, delaying the e-books for one to six months to give the print versions a chance to sell.

But it remains to be seen whether that tactic will stabilize prices or just slow an irresistible shift to books as a largely digital product, like the shift from music on vinyl to downloads.

Growing with technology

Technology has altered the experience of books in other ways in the past decade. Self-publishing has exploded as computers and the Internet have made it much less costly to distribute books in forms such as print on demand and e-books.

Both self-published authors and those whose books are published in the traditional fashion have turned to the Internet to market their books.

With publishers' budgets shrinking, fewer authors benefit from such perks as marketing campaigns and book tours. Instead, they use Web sites, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, FaceBook and other digital paths to connect with readers.

The Internet has even become a haven for book reviewing. As traditional venues for book criticism such as newspapers and magazines shrink or disappear, there has been a proliferation of Web sites featuring both professional book critics and reader reviews — one more phenomenon that first became popular on Amazon and now thrives on book-based social networking sites like GoodReads and Library Thing.

Not long before the turn of the century, as the Internet first took hold in the mid 1990s, pundits predicted it would mark the end of reading, the doom of books. This decade proved how wrong they were.

How we buy and read books may have changed in myriad ways, but our thirst for stories, old as our humanity, remains as strong as ever.

Contact Colette Bancroft at bancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay. com/arts.

Defining moment: July 8, 2000, when J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published. It was the fourth in the series but the first to be published simultaneously in North America and Britain, and the first to spawn the midnight book-party release.

Defining moment: June 2009, when American Stage moved into its new theater in downtown St. Petersburg,

formalizing its association with St. Petersburg College.

Internet has transformed how we buy and read books 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 3:30am]

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