Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
In June 1997 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone left publisher Bloomsbury's printers with a print run minimum of just 500 copies. By July of this year the print run for the fourth book--an impressive 1.5 million hardback copies--came off the selfsame presses amidst much hullabaloo. Those three years have now seen the production of some 9 million Potter books so far. Translated into 32 languages, they're the only children's books ever to have made it to the New York Times bestseller list. The first three books have won three consecutive Smarties prizes for children's literature.
The Potter portrait has graced the front cover of both the US and the international editions of Time magazine. The movie is now in pre-production at the studios of Time Warner Brothers--owners, funnily enough, of Time magazine. So many column inches have been devoted to either Rowling--all are fascinated by the rags to riches story that has been spun about the woman herself--or the literary tour de force that is her creation, that it is hard not to become lured.
The fact that Bloomsbury's stock price has trebled since she joined its list seems to have escaped most articles, as does its most recent company report, showing exactly why Bloomsbury loves Harry Potter. In his chairman's statement Nigel Newton reports that '1999 was a vintage year for Bloomsbury Publishing, with pre-tax profits up 66.4 percent on a turnover that increased by 37 percent to £20.863 million (1998: £15.231 million)... The drivers of this growth were...led by the extraordinary success of Harry Potter.' Books number two and three in the series had a hardback print run of around 10,500 each. If these made last year vintage, then Bloomsbury's investment in a 1.5 million print run for the fourth book is based on expectations of more bumper profits.
It may be hard for the perpetrators of the media frenzy to glean their own role in aiding the Potter series to outsell all other children's books combined by a ratio of five to one. But given the way most newspapers have regurgitated successive government literacy-bashing lines, it should not be surprising they now find themselves at a loss to understand how or why a book has become another playground craze.
Selling newspapers on the basis of magic or phenomena is still apparently easier than investigating the murky world of profit, where a book is just another unit to be shifted and an author (to paraphrase Nigel Newton) 'an opportunity to exploit our intellectual copyright'. What investigative skill does it take to know that a £6.99 cover price seems of relative good value in comparison to the parental price of other current--and probably more highly prized--playground crazes: a minimum of £4.99 for a scrap of cuddly toy named Beanie Baby, or £1.99 for a set of six Pokémon cards. Pokémon chapter books incidentally also hold three places in Amazon.com's top 20 children's list, but no claims are made about them as a literary tour de force. Yet their fictitious world is entirely understood by children whilst remaining almost incomprehensible to grown-ups. Even Michael Rosen, writing in Socialist Worker (8 July 2000), although rightly recognising books as commodities, can say, 'As it happens the success of the first Harry Potter book was created almost entirely by word of mouth between children.'
While not wanting to deny that children are enjoying these books or are able to make a literary recommendation, their ideas don't exist in a vacuum--a material reality that the Muggles (ordinary humans) in Bloomsbury's marketing department have understood all too well from the very beginning where they played midwife to Potter's birth. Believing books are judged by their covers, they waved no wand when they ensured Joanne Kathleen's gender would be shrouded by the androgyny of her initials to make the book cover 'look better'. Think of some classic children's authors--JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, E Nesbitt, even L Frank Baum--and you begin to get their game plan.
Nor was there anything necromantic about Rowling's appearance on Blue Peter to plug that first title as it came out in paperback. Once again the Muggles had been at work product placing. She was interviewed, the book gushed over, and the editorial endorsement of the BBC's most prestigious children's programme to an audience averaging around 4 million viewers in the run-up to stocking-filler season (as publicity departments like to call Xmas) was of enormous importance to the success of the book. Blue Peter had created the word of mouth and promoted the pester-power that by Christmas 1997 had the book soaring up the bestseller lists. In total last year, Bloomsbury's marketing and distribution costs increased by some 87 percent from £1.7 million in 1998 to almost £3.2 million in 1999.
None of this is to say that the books are no good. Kids do like them. But in reality there can be no such thing as a children's craze unless parents are complicit. And Potter comes wholly parent-endorsed. For they have to take their children to the book shops and they, either directly or indirectly through pocket money, pay for the books. But then adults generally don't mind buying into the prevalent idea that book reading is good for you.
Unfortunately, some of us also have to read the books with our children. And I did find the books depressingly derivative, conservative and dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone notion of a middle class Britain of public school and jolly hockey sticks (Quidditch at Hogwarts) that I thought had gone out of fashion when I grew out of Enid Blyton.
But don't let me put you off. If you haven't had fun reading the tales of the books being banned in some schools for their anti-Christian ethos, you might just have some tracking down 'the alternative point of view' critics claim the saga doesn't have. Because there are in fact unexpected and amusing moments of class politics in Potter. The young wizards are thoroughly grounded in the history of the interesting sounding goblin rebellions of which there is, sadly, too little detail. And in The Goblet of Fire (the latest book) Hermione, outraged on behalf of the wizard world's servant class, forms a Society for the Promotion of Elfish Warfare and considers 'direct action' when the issue fails to ignite. Not quite S26, but it can alleviate the boredom nevertheless.