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Web gave 'Twilight' fresh blood

Stephenie Meyer grew her books' readership with a constant, open, grateful and helpful online presence.

November 29, 2008|Susan Carpenter | Carpenter is a Times staff writer.
  • SCREEN ADAPTATION: Kristen Stewart stars as the mortal Bella and Cam Gigandet is the villainous vampire James, who still feeds on humans (unlike Bella?s beloved Edward).
SCREEN ADAPTATION: Kristen Stewart stars as the mortal Bella and Cam Gigandet… (Peter Sorel / Summit Entertainment )

Mania is almost too sedate a term to describe the ongoing frenzy surrounding "Twilight," Stephenie Meyer's mega-hit young adult series about a devastatingly handsome vampire and the plain-Jane human he wants to sink his teeth into.

Since 2005, when the first of the four books was published, more than 25 million copies of the "Twilight " saga have been sold worldwide. At least 350 fan sites have cropped up online. And the movie, which opened Nov. 21, has been the season's breakout hit; it's grossed close to $100 million in fewer than 10 days, the kind of numbers that guarantee sequels.

Yet only five years ago, no one had even heard of Meyer. In 2003, she was a 29-year-old stay-at-home mother who spent her days doing what any other Phoenix mom was doing: chasing her kids around and trying to keep her sanity. Going from maternal obscurity to cultural phenomenon in a scant five years is no easy feat. Like so many success stories, hers was a combination of hard work, dumb luck and being in the right place -- and doing the right things -- at the right time, including a brilliant and strategic use of the Web.

Although Meyer's manuscript was the object of a bidding war -- she eventually got a $750,000 deal with Little, Brown -- the first printing in October 2005 was an optimistic, if cautious, 75,000 copies. To promote the book, Little, Brown sent Meyer on a brief author tour and set up an in-house Web page to promote the title. But that site failed to pick up on the book's subtler themes -- the bridled desire and self-deprecating humor that connected with fans and were representative of Meyer herself.

So Meyer took things into her own hands. She set up StephenieMeyer.com, a more personal site that revealed aspects of her life, including pictures and stories about her family and her Mormon upbringing.

More important, she directly engaged with her readers. When fans posted messages, Meyer's response was personal. She'd write back or blog about it.

In being so approachable and responsive, she unwittingly cemented her fledgling fan base, revealing herself as affable and human, surprised to have fans and genuinely delighted by their interest.

"Stephenie was somebody who was early to use a new medium and to use it effectively," said technology expert Tim O'Reilly. "An authentic connection really matters."

So does a two-way street and connecting with the right people. It wasn't just that Meyer's fans came to her blog, but that she went to theirs, writing posts and commenting on the things they had written.

That's what happened with Lori Joffs -- a "Twilight" fan who rewrote the book from a different character's perspective and posted her take on fanfiction.net. Not only did Meyer write a review, she left a personal e-mail address.

The two got chatting. Joffs asked for Meyer's blessing in setting up a "Twilight" dictionary that fans could reference. Meyer gave her approval and then some, providing inside information. Less than a month later, Joffs and her friend Laura Cristiano set up Twilightlexicon.com, a website that, last summer, broke from overuse.

That sort of fandom raises a question. What is it that gets readers so worked up? Part of it can be chalked up to a hot segment in the book market -- young adult fiction. But more importantly, it is the "Twilight" books themselves.

Seductive reads

The book jackets, with their black, red and white photo illustrations, were so sophisticated readers wanted to pick them up. Once they did, the story drew them in and they couldn't put them down. Then, they couldn't stop talking about them. Although the series was initially intended for teen girls, mothers also started reading the books, which created a strong crossover following among adults.

"A key part of the appeal," said Publishers Weekly children's book editor Diane Roback, "is that they're essentially a romance but with a twist." The main character, Bella -- an insecure, accident-prone Everygirl -- is in love with Edward, a perfect, out-of-reach bad boy who happens to be a vampire. It takes 2,000 pages for their tortured romance to unfold.

"It speaks to this sort of exquisite pleasure of not being able to fulfill the relationship," Roback continues. "The books have a strong moral message, which is abstinence before marriage, and by choosing a vampire who does not want her to become a vampire, they're locked in that kind of struggle of the hormones that many teenagers find themselves in."

Biting into teens

Vampires were a largely untapped subject in teen fiction. Meyer capitalized on this by inventing a breed of vampire that hadn't existed before. Morally evolved and stunningly beautiful, her vampires are socially acceptable because they eat animals, rather than humans. And they have the added benefit of looking like supermodels.

Thanks to Meyer's reimagining, vampires became "white hot," Roback says. "Meyer definitely created a new genre."

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