The online factor Growing with technology


Published: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 4:22 p.m.

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. Rowlings' 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.

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.

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 book-selling 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 grown-ups a chance to get back on the list.

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.

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

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.

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