Decade in books: Writers work magic, delivery has transformed — USA TODAY, 12/30/2009

Nearly a decade ago, the book world was jolted — digitally — by one of its scariest and most popular writers.

On his website, Stephen King launched a serial novel, The Plant, the first experiment in digital self-publishing by a brand-name author. Readers were asked for $1 for downloading each 5,000-word installment about a vampire vine that takes over a publishing firm.

His experiment ended midplot; fewer than half the readers had paid.

King now says it wasn’t “the delivery system” but a problem as old as writing itself. He ran out of inspiration, which “happens quite often with writers, but the world usually doesn’t know.”

Still, it raised staggering questions in 2000: Who needs publishers, bookstores or even books when a writer has a website?

In 2009, King’s best sellers still are published the traditional way, although Under the Dome, released in November, is out as an e-book today. The sky hasn’t fallen, but for books, it has been a transformative decade roiled by anxiety and possibilities. New powers emerged: Google, which plans to digitize 20 million books, and Amazon, which continued to change bookselling.

The word reader took on new meaning in devices such as the iPhone, Sony E-Reader, Kindle and Nook, not to be confused with the Vook, a one-screen blend of book and video.

Human readers made it a big decade for novels about wizards, vampires and a Harvard symbologist. Two series for kids with “crossover” appeal to grown-ups —J.K. Rowling ‘s Harry Potter and Stephenie Meyer ‘s Twilight— swept nine of the top 10 spots on USA TODAY’s best-selling books of the decade. Dan Brown ‘s The Da Vinci Code is No. 2.

Rowling was a best seller before 2000, when third book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sold a record 3 million copies its first weekend.

By 2007’s release of the finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, speculation about Harry’s death (unfounded) rose to levels not seen since Charles Dickens ‘ 19th-century serials. A record 8.3 million copies sold in a day.

In 2007, Meyer, a Mormon stay-at-home mom, began an unprecedented dominance of the best-seller list with her Twilight series about a chaste teen romance starring a vampire. Last year, she sold 22 million books.

Brown hit it big in 2003 with Da Vinci, a thriller mixing fact and fiction. It made best sellers out of Brown’s three earlier novels. His latest, The Lost Symbol, has sold 4 million copies since September.

Rowling, Meyer and Brown had help from Hollywood, but their books were blockbusters in their own right: “They opened as big or bigger than the most anticipated movies, with pre-orders and opening-night parties, which spilled over to other books,” says Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Lunch, a digital newsletter. Each sold “quantities of hardcovers once unimaginable.”

But publishers complain of flat sales overall — even before the recession. E-books, the fastest-growing segment, are in their infancy, 3% of sales. Prices, rights and delaying e-books to protect hardcover sales are in dispute.

“Hard bargains will have to be struck,” says Sara Nelson, books editor of O magazine, “but in the end, readers will win. Over time, the more readers you can create and nurture, the better … no matter what the format.”

It was a decade for memoirs, including Elizabeth Gilbert ‘s Eat, Pray, Love (No. 25). But after James Frey ‘s A Million Little Pieces (No. 45) turned out to be part fiction, he was publicly scolded by Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah’s Book Club turned 34 titles into best sellers, but waned, making only one selection this year. Her show ends in 2011. But authors found outlets on cable shows hosted by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Glenn Beck, who wrote their own best sellers.

Metropolitan newspapers reduced book reviews or moved them online. After 76 years, Kirkus Reviews closes next week.

But countless blogs and websites are now devoted to books. “More books are getting attention, but at the same time, enthusiasm for one title is tougher to cultivate,” says Carol Fitzgerald, president of the Book Report Network of websites.

The number of bookstores peaked and is in “irreversible decline,” Cader says. That troubles publishers such as Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin, who says, “Bookstores are such wonderful places. We need them. They offer community in a world that is becoming more fragmented.”

Fitzgerald worries about the implications of a recent price war between Amazon and Wal-Mart : “Books as loss leaders, priced like bulk paper towels, says something about what we think of culture in this country.”

Still, as the National Endowment for the Arts ‘ David Kipen puts it, “Any decade with two new Thomas Pynchon novels and an uptick in national reading numbers can’t be all bad.”

A 2004 report warned that literary reading was fading away, but a 2009 update found reading on the rise for the first time in 25 years; the biggest increase was among readers 18 to 24.

Asked about 2019, King sees 40% of fiction and 25% of non-fiction sales as e-books, but their “essentially ephemeral nature will probably keep them from biting any deeper, even when delivery quality improves.” Overall book sales “will decline slightly or remain steady.” These days, that sounds like good news.

Contributing: Anthony DeBarros