Meanwhile, there is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground.
Credit for the self-publishing boomlet goes to authors like Jim Bendat, whose book "Democracy's Big Day," a collection of historical vignettes about presidentialinaugurations, enjoyed a modest burst in sales in the hoopla surrounding President Obama's swearing-in.
After failing to secure a traditional publishing deal in 2000, Mr. Bendat, a public defender in Los Angeles, paid $99 to publish the first edition of his book with iUniverse, a print-on-demand company. He updated the book in 2004 and 2008, and has sold more than 2,500 copies. IUniverse takes a large cut of each sale of the book, currently on Amazon.com for $11.66.
As traditional publishers look to prune their booklists and rely increasingly on blockbuster best sellers, self-publishing companies are ramping up their title counts and making money on books that sell as few as five copies, in part because the author, rather than the publisher, pays for things like cover design and printing costs.
In 2008, Author Solutions, which is based in Bloomington, Ind., and operates iUniverse as well as other print-on-demand imprints including AuthorHouse and Wordclay, published 13,000 titles, up 12 percent from the previous year.
This month, the company, which is owned by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm, bought a rival, Xlibris, expanding its profile in the fast-growing market. The combined company represented 19,000 titles in 2008, nearly six times more than Random House, the world's largest publisher of consumer books, released last year.
In 2008, nearly 480,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from close to 375,000 in 2007, according to the industry tracker Bowker. The company attributed a significant proportion of that rise to an increase in the number of print-on-demand books.
"Even if you're sitting at a dinner party, if you ask how many people want to write a book, everyone will say, 'I've got a book or two in me,'" said Kevin Weiss, chief executive of Author Solutions. "We don't see a letup in the number of people who are interested in writing."
The trend is also driven by professionals who want to use a book as an enhanced business card as well as by people who are creating books as gifts for family and friends.
"It used to be an elite few," said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a print-on-demand company whose revenue has grown to $30 million, from $1 million, in just two years and which published more than 300,000 titles last year. Many of those were personal books bought only by the author. "Now anyone can make a book, and it looks just like a book that you buy at the bookstore."
To be sure, self-publishing is still a fraction of the wider publishing industry. Author Solutions, for example, sold a total of 2.5 million copies last year. Little, Brown sold more than that many copies of "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer just in the last two months of 2008.
But in an era when anyone can create a blog or post musings on Facebook or MySpace, people still seem to want the tangible validation of a printed book.
"I wanted the satisfaction of holding the book in my hands," Mr. Bendat said.
As a result of his iUniverse book, the British news channel Sky News asked Mr. Bendat to provide live commentary on Inauguration Day. A group of Washington hotels ordered 500 copies to give to guests who were in town for the event.
"O.K., it's not a best seller," Mr. Bendat said, "but I'm happy for what's happening."
Vanity presses have existed for decades, but technology has made it much easier for aspiring authors to publish without hefty upfront costs. Gone are the days when self-publishing meant paying a printer to produce hundreds of copies that then languished in a garage.
Now, for as little as $3, an author can upload a manuscript or collection of photos to a Web site, and order a printed book within an hour. Many books will appear for sale on Amazon.com or the Web site of Barnes & Noble; others are sold through the self-publishing companies' Web sites. Authors and readers order subsequent copies as needed.