The sense of anticipation has been building at our house for more than a month. There was a false alarm a few weeks ago, when my 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, heard that the big day was June 15. She was counting down the hours, only to discover tearfully that the actual date was July 8.
If you have children, you know I'm talking about the release date of the new Harry Potter novel. So intense is the excitement about this fourth installment of the series that its American publisher, Scholastic Press, is printing 3.8 million copies -- 40 times the normal bestseller and probably the biggest initial print run in history. The advance order is so huge that it's straining the capacity of the printing industry, according to The Wall Street Journal.
What's best about the Harry Potter craze is that it's in some ways an anti-marketing story. This frenzy wasn't created by an ad blitz or a tie-in with McDonald's but by kids like my daughter who loved the book and told their friends about it. In that way, it's a reminder that the best marketing is the kind you can't buy -- and that hype doesn't conquer all.
For these are well-written books. They chronicle the adventures of a plucky orphan boy stranded in suburbia with a dopey, status-obsessed aunt and uncle; he discovers that he's a wizard and finds his way to the magical platform Nine and Three Quarters at King's Cross station that takes him to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, he finds his true powers and boldly challenges the evil one, Lord Voldemorte, who is so terrifying that only Harry dares to say his name aloud.
As the highbrow New York Review of Books noted in a glowing review last year, these books tap into the secret feeling in most children (and most adults, too) that they're misunderstood -- that they have dreams and powers and possibilities that the ordinary world will never understand.
''It's great storytelling, that's what it is,'' says John Sterling, president of rival publisher Henry Holt. ''It's the biggest phenomenon in publishing anywhere,'' he says. And it comes down to that ineffable, unpredictable quality about a book that makes people want to tell their friends about it.
The Harry Potter books have actually triumphed despite rather ordinary marketing. The initial British publisher, Bloomsbury, printed up some posters and hosted a few events for the first book, but it was a ''fairly standard'' effort, says Colette Whitehouse, who works in the publisher's marketing department. But word began to spread -- first within the house, then among excited readers. To date, the British editions have sold 7.5 million copies.
The story was much the same in the United States. Scholastic bought the rights for $100,000, which seems like a piddling sum but was a lot for a ''middle-grade'' children's book, which normally sells about 3,000 copies in hardcover. People at the house loved the books, but they had no idea they would be such blockbusters, and consequently they bungled the distribution. For months, they couldn't keep pace with orders. Now Scholastic has sold more than 20 million copies in the United States.
''The merits of the book are what has shone through -- the structure, complexity, language and characters -- rather than the marketing,'' says Whitehouse at Harry's British publisher, Bloomsbury.
The cultural marketplace is interesting because the audience still matters more than the pitchmeisters. Blockbusters are driven by passionate fans, not by advertising budgets. Lorraine Shanley, who runs Publishing Trends newsletter, cites the wild success of unheralded books by previously unknown authors, such as ''Cold Mountain'' by Charles Frazier, ''The Perfect Storm'' by Sebastian Junger or ''Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'' by Rebecca Wells -- as evidence that ''in any creative medium there is an element of uncertainty.''
Now that kids have fallen in love with Harry, the marketers think they'll have an easy time exploiting the trend. Warner Bros. has overall rights to sell Harry, and a trade publication called The Licensing Letter counts 45 separate licensing deals -- from Adorable Kids, which has bought the rights to make boys' sleepwear, to Xpres, which has the rights for ceramic mugs and giftware. Overall sales of Harry bric-a-brac may gross more than $1 billion after the Harry Potter movie comes out in November 2001.
But here's the part of the story Harry Potter would like best: The people trying to exploit him may lose out! There's growing fear in the industry that all this Harry stuff that's being licensed won't sell. ''There's a lot of skepticism in the publishing and licensing industry,'' says Shanley.
The marketers' problem is that kids like my daughter -- who love the books so much they sleep with them at night -- have such a vivid mental picture of Harry that they may not want a plastic version of him, or a T-shirt, or a baseball cap. They want the real Harry Potter, who lives in the imagination.
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