Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail Part I

Anything that has gripped the imaginations – and spending power – of so many people has to be saying something important. Over 400 million copies sold (and some of the biggest-grossing films in history) is an amazing success – but why?

I have just finished – lagging slightly behind my second son – the final book in the series. Regular readers of this blog will know I am particularly interested in the reactions of children simply because they haven’t yet fully learned to block or disguise the way they feel. Looking through the other end of the telescope, we adults sometimes say we live in a cynical and callously exploitative world, but underneath we are still looking for an authentic kind of way of living our lives; we seek to love and be loved in ways that are, in the very best sense of the word, child-like. This blog is usually about commerce, media and communication. I would like to try to connect some of these themes with Harry Potter and see if we can take something from its success forward into other fields and into the future.

Famously, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down seven times before Bloomsbury took it on for a £2500 advance. I don’t think – pleasurable though it is – we should tut-tut about this too much for too long. Book publishers sometimes claim they are the experts at predicting what will sell, but if that was completely true, (a) they would only publish profitable books, (b) publishing would be a lot less interesting. The usual rule of thumb is that a number in the upper nineties titles out of 100 make a loss, so clearly publishers are guessing, bigtime. There’s nothing wrong with that: trade book publishing products are nearly always short-run ones-of-a-kind, not repeat items. Market research/product testing has never been popular in the industry, perhaps partly because of a long publishing tradition of having a ‘hunch’ or ‘good feeling’ about a book. I am very much in favour of this, and don’t like to see creative people get defensive about charges of naivety, or patrician amateurism. Apparently David Ogilvy once said ‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.’ The cost of (probably inaccurate) market research – particularly with contemporary ultra-short initial print runs – would blow away any chance of a profit.  So on the same excellent self-perpetuation principles that frogs produce lots of frogspawn and have no childcare, the publishing trick is to keep your optimism high, make your repeat losses small and be ready to make the most of your successes when they come. And successes don’t come much bigger than Harry Potter.

What explains the success? I hope a comparison with the Thomas the Tank Engine stories (‘The Railway Series’) isn’t too obscure and can help illustrate that publishing successes come from a deeper level than we might think. (I am not referring to Thomas and Friends, the now better-known television programmes for much younger children.) ‘The Railway Series’ was successful enough in its time, aimed at boys aged from 7 to 12 from the late 1940s onwards. The wordy moralistic text suggests an adult fantasy of childhood rather than what children might actually want, though publishers always try to speak to the people who make the buying decisions.

I am suggesting a general principle: books/products generally become successful because at different levels they reflect back us what we want to see. We find this reassuring, and reassurance is something we want to buy. So the engines are always lovable if sometimes naughty: when they get into trouble they always eventually feel sorry and learn their lesson. The Railway Series books offer children the reassurance of a framework of secure moral values – I am not saying, by the way, that the particular values here have lasted well. Any new book is a fascinating renegotiation of what our values are, and the sales are a guide to the energy or relevance of that renegotiation at some level. The hook into a deeper elegiac truthfulness, emotional honesty and publishing success of the Railway Series books are twin shadows, both of their time and both universal: the coming of the dark diesels presages a world both more powerful, complex and cynical, a new pervading instrumentalist rationality and technocentrism. In the realm of subjectivity, there is a further suggestion that the time of play and childhood itself is soon to be over. For also – if I may indulge in some psychoanalytical talk – somewhere in the future for readers here is what the Freudians call ‘genital sexuality’: children in the ‘latency period’ seem to be appalled at the idea of kissing and marriage generally while still trying very hard indeed to work out what will happen for them in their adult lives. To widen the analysis, I believe that these books (and Harry Potter) reflect back to children a renegotiation – in the terms and symbols they can really understand – of their existential condition, of their (to borrow Heidegger’s term) being-in-the-world, both of their time and of all time. To get this straight, I am not saying that the author knew consciously what he was writing about, and neither did the publisher; nor do I believe that the psychoanalytical point of view is necessarily foundational or explanatory, particularly when trying to explain publishing or commercial success. But I very much admire the honesty, integrity, transparency, empathy, truthfulness – whatever it is – in the writing of Rev. Awdry and J. K. Rowling, that they have found a way to channel our deepest concerns back to their readers. Please note that I am saying that the publishing success of these books is directly related to the richness, expressiveness and energy of that renegotiation.

[to be continued]

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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