04 June 2009

Confirming the True History of Harry

Back in 2005, I set forth a hypothesis about how Scholastic's purchase of U.S. rights in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone produced extra press attention in Britain, which gave the book an aura of magic and helped to make the American firm's gamble into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I repeated that thesis here in 2007.

I was pleased to see that Harry, a History, a chronicle of the Potter phenomenon by Melissa Anelli of The Leaky Cauldron, confirms my understanding of events. The following passage starts on page 54, just after Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic bought the U.S. rights to the first book for a $105,000 advance.

The auction was huge news in Britain, and hardly anyone failed to notice it, least of all Bloomsbury [the London publisher]. The Sun, the British tabloid to whom the racy New York Post would be considered a modest cousin, offered Jo Rowling big bucks for her life story. She didn't sit with the tabloid, but Bloomsbury did want her to tell her story, preferably to the mainstream press in an attempt to get the Harry Potter story seen as a breakout hit that shouldn't be relegated to the children's review pages and specialty magazines like Carousel and Books for Keeps.

"Partly because we loved the book as grown-ups, and partly because of the very newsworthy sales of the book, we took the view that this was a story that we could place in the news pages," said Rosamund [de la Hey, marketer]. "We were very confident that here was something a bit special, so it gave us the brash confidence to go for the moon."

Two days before publication, the Herald in Glasgow published a story in a way that would become very familiar: "Three years ago Joanne Rowling landed in Edinburgh with a baby under one arm and dog-eared manuscript under the other." A few days later Eddie Gibb in the Sunday Times ran a story called "Tales from a Single Mother." In the first week of July came Nigel Reynolds's story on page three of the Telegraph in London: "$100,000 Success Story for Penniless Mother." . . .

The truth combined with assumptions and romance minted her as an icon for struggling young mothers everywhere, whether she liked it or not. . . .

Press around the auction ensured that the first printing of 2,500 paperbacks and 450 hardbacks wasn't enough; the books went into a second printing only four days later.
The small first printing is why those first hardcovers are so valuable today. When it came time to set a print quantity, Bloomsbury was still cautious.

That doesn't take away from the effect the first book had on its readers, as opposed to people reading about it in the press. Anelli also describes (without specific dates) how Bloomsbury began to take in fan mail for Rowling. Some of those letters began "Dear Sir," so--assuming they weren't junk mail--those readers had enjoyed the book without seeing any of the welfare-mom press coverage.


Gail Gauthier said...

I think there's little doubt Harry would have been a hit of some kind. But I think your post confirms my gut feeling that marketing--either through money actually spent or through things like the big press regarding the U.S. sale--had a hand in the size of the hit.

Does anyone know how much real money was spent in marketing these books? In addition to the two publishers' marketing money, do you suppose anyone will ever be able to estimate how much individual bookstores spent on publication parties and various kinds of promotion?

J. L. Bell said...

It might be an interesting business-school case to figure out how much was spent in marketing Harry Potter, and what was effective. By the time the movies arrived, the book expenditures were such a small part of the total that they almost didn’t matter.

One of the savviest people in book marketing I know, Jess Brallier of the Family Education Network, used to say that promoting a book was like pushing a car. If a car gets rolling, it's relatively easy to keep it rolling and to steer it. But if the car isn't moving at all, no amount of pushing will budge it.