Harry Potter


"Booksellers Grab a Young Wizard's Cloaktails"

by Doreen Carvajal ("The New York Times", February 28, 2000)


The young and Harry-saturated arrived at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati in numbers that startled adults like a Hogwarts magic spell.
Even the 9-year-olds were desperate; they had exhausted the available supply of three Harry Potter books with frequent readings and yearned for some palliatives until the fourth book appears sometime this summer.
And so the folks at Joseph-Beth, who organized the group and christened it the Harry Potter Withdrawal Club, comforted its members with the adventures of Dorothy in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and with "The Book of Three," the first volume in a 35-year-old series about a gallant pig keeper named Taran and his nemesis, the grim Horn King.
"I've been doing kids' books for 10 years, and I've never seen anything like this, kids coming in and saying give me something like this book," said Wendi Gratz, a children's buyer for the Joseph-Beth chain, who counted 20 children ages 9 to 13 at the inaugural meeting of the club, one of literally hundreds that have been organized by bookstores around the country.
Such is the literary halo effect of J. K. Rowling's best-selling fantasy series. It has turned knobby-kneed Harry Potter into the Medici patron of children's literature.
Last year the sales of children's books soared on the windstream of Harry's Nimbus 2000 flying broom. Classics like C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" experienced an otherwise inexplicable burst in popularity, as did newer fantasy titles like Brian Jacques's "Redwall" series, which had been selling well and steadily over the years until Hogwarts magic gave it a sudden lift.
The Potter series -- with more than 18.5 million copies in print from its publisher, Scholastic -- accounted for much of the general sales growth in children's literature. Last year paperback sales alone increased almost 24 percent to $660 million and hardcover sales grew more than 11 percent to $1.6 billion.
Publishers said they suspected that the sales were buoyed, in part, by a prosperous economy, but that theory does not extend to adult books. Hardcover sales to adults increased a modest 2.6 percent to $2.8 billion last year, while trade paperback sales grew a little more than 3 percent to almost $2 billion.
That literary divide was sharply apparent this month when youthful readers demonstrated their growing cultural clout. For the first time, five children's novels elbowed aside the grown-up fare on the fiction best-seller list of The New York Times on Feb. 20, with a sixth juvenile title, "Holes," by Louis Sachar, hovering on the fringes of best-sellerdom. (The Times is now considering creating a separate children's list.)
All of the best-selling children's novels -- three of them the Harry Potter titles -- are 230 to 400 pages and emphasize a linear plot, vivid writing, a high degree of sophistication and a minimum of illustrations, if any.
Jonathan Lucas, 11, a charter member of the Harry Potter Withdrawal Club in Cincinnati, said Harry, the junior wizard, had given him a taste for this sort of literature.
"I always liked reading, but after Harry Potter I got more into the magic ones than the normals," he said on Friday while at home with the flu and speeding to the end of his current book, "Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger," by Louis Sachar.
"It's just a completely different world," he said of his new penchant for fantasy titles with a touch of magic. "You know how they make books and movies for TV? I've read the books, and my mom would get the video.. I've noticed that every single time the book is better than the video."
Librarians and booksellers say that as mighty as Harry is, there is no doubt that other factors are also driving the fantasy book boom. They cite a prosperous economy, growing efforts by parents to encourage children to read and perhaps an inflation in purchases by adults who are buying children's books to read themselves. Some also said the Potter boom was not an undiluted plus.
"There's a lot of halo effect from Harry Potter that's positive and negative," said Diane Garrett, owner of Diane's Books in Greenwich, Conn., which on Wednesday attracted nearly 150 children and adults to a reading of the newest "Redwall" book by Mr. Jacques. " 'Harry Potter' is getting many people to read who wouldn't pick up a book. But what's happening is that it's eclipsing some of the literature. Kids don't want to read about animals, or they don't want to read fabulous things for their own age, or they're reading Harry too young. So we're spending a lot of time reminding parents that their kids are too young for 'Harry.' "
But tell that to the four children of the Jernick family of Portola Valley, Calif. Ranging in age from 5 to 14, they have all worked their way through the Potter books and are now exploring other literary fare.
"I've read all of the 'Redwall' books," said Michael Jernick, 14. That is no small boast, since he has gone through 12 books in the fantasy series about Redwall Abbey mice by Mr. Jacques, whose latest book, "The Legend of Luke," occupies grown-up best-seller real estate. "I've also read all three Harry Potter books," he added. "And I have to read the next one. I can't wait. But I have to read different things."
With the ascendance of the high kiddie literary form, publishing executives are already rushing to capitalize. Their promotions offer various solutions to the question librarians and booksellers say they now frequently face: children ask what else they can read while they wait for the next "Harry Potter" book.
"I never thought I would say this, but for the first time I'm grateful to 'Harry Potter,' " said a keen Potter competitor, Craig Virden, the publisher of Random House Children's Books, where net sales were up by 12 percent last year and are expected to rise by double digits again this year. "I think 'Harry Potter' has made reading cool. The best advertisement you can have is a kid talking to another kid about a book."
The "Harry" halo effect has touched classics like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first book in C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series, which was first published in 1950. All seven titles reliably sell about 1.7 million copies a year for the publisher, HarperCollins, but in the first half of the company's fiscal year sales have already reached that amount. Sales have also tripled for Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" series about Taran, the assistant pig keeper, which in ordinary years sells about 10,000 copies.
Last year "Harry Potter's" creator, Ms. Rowling, expressed a fondness for Dodie Smith's 1948 book, "I Capture the Castle," about 17-year-old Cassandra, who keeps a 6-penny journal of life in a ramshackle English castle. In response, the book's publisher, St. Martin's Press, immediately repackaged the book, included an endorsement from Ms. Rowling on the cover, and then watched a steady backlist title rise in sales to 54,000 from 11,000.
Young Americans are making reading choices that show a distinct preference for a backdrop with a British accent. The "Potter" series, the "Narnia" books and "I Capture the Castle" are all set in Britain.
This month the American Booksellers Association and its Book Sense marketing staff polled independent booksellers on their recommendations for what they are calling Harry Potter Deprivation Clubs.
The top response from 400 stores was "The Golden Compass," a 416-page fantasy about an orphan named Lyra who grows up near Oxford University and, naturally, is caught in a life-and-death struggle against dark forces.
The group's Top 10 list also includes classics like "The Hobbit," Edward Eager's 50-year-old "Half Magic" and Madeleine L'Engle's "Wrinkle in Time."
"I've heard from hundreds of independent stores, and they're all producing lists and fliers or Harry Potter recommendations to meet the demand," said Carl Lennertz, a marketing consultant for the national Book Sense marketing campaign. "It's funny, I could have begged my daughter to read 'The Hobbit,' but she might not have ever read it if this hadn't happened. There's a little bit of peer pressure. You've got to keep up, but once they're in, they're hooked."
The burst in sales of juvenile novels follows a gloomy period in the late 1990's when the children's paperback market dipped by almost 20 percent, as fans started abandoning the popular "Goosebumps" horror series. Over a two-year period through 1998, customers were buying fewer copies of children's books, according to the Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing, which has not yet released its 1999 study.
Last year consultants for the Association of American Publishers developed long-term projections that underestimated the percentage growth in children's hardcover sales by more than half because they had not factored in what Albert N. Greco, who helped develop the projections, calls the "titanic of book publishing: 'Harry Potter.' "
The trends involving younger readers are clearly at odds with those for younger adults, who according to surveys are devoting less money and time to books. (People over 49 remain loyal customers with increasing sales levels.)
At Books of Wonder on West 18th Street in Manhattan, the clerks are approached about four times a day by children and adults who are seeking post-Potter reading material, said Jennifer Lavonier, manager and buyer for the store. By now the response has a certain rhythm: employees hand a packet to customers that includes "Harry Potter" games and questions and a list of some 20 other children's novels to consider.
Ms. Lavonier said she suspected that adults were seeking children's novels for themselves because "there's a lot of imagination in children's books."
"There's a lot of scenery and detail that's not in some adult books," she said. "To be honest, I don't really even read adult books anymore."
That view has resulted in some odd role reversals. Eleven-year-old Logan Dill of Kentucky is currently rereading the three books in the "Harry Potter" series to her father while driving on errands with him in the family car.
She is the most dedicated member of Joseph-Beth's Harry Potter Withdrawal Club. Although attendance for club meetings has been up and down, Logan is already planning to read the club's choice for April, "The Golden Compass," and has voluntarily finished "The Black Cauldron," the second title in the Lloyd Alexander "Chronicles of Prydain."
"I'm still waiting for the fourth 'Harry Potter' book," she said. "But the books I've been reading have really helped. There's nothing that can compare to Harry, but these books have really helped fill the gap."
Since Logan has nearly finished reading the third "Harry Potter" to her father, she has found relief just in time. In a few days, she said, she will begin reading aloud "The Black Cauldron" series to her father.