Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail IV

I have been trying in the three previous Harry Potter posts to look at what went right with J. K. Rowling’s book series. In the first half of this final wildly ambitious post I’m attempting to get somewhere near a theory or model of publishing. By ‘publishing’ I mean the commercial activity of making information public, and this includes advertising. My definition indeed encompasses any kind of communication. Publishers (in the narrow booky sense), curiously for those working in the understanding and communication business, don’t usually seem much interested in the generalizable and theoretical principles for how and why we do what we do. And the world of academics seems (with notable exceptions) largely unconcerned with commerce.

The point of the theory is to understand or explain what happened in practice, and what we might try to make happen again. The second half of this post – about HP in particular – only makes sense if you look at the theory first.

For publishing success there must be some kind of convergence, match-up or ‘fit’ between the channels of medium or language, being-in-the-world (the gestalt of the mind’s embodiment in nature – including ‘human nature’ – and culture) and monetizability – the ability to turn human attention into cash. This is an extension of Marx’s extraordinary insights into the effects on consciousness of the ‘material conditions […] of production and exchange’, but I hope without the deterministic eschatology; I’m also trying for a richer conception of subjectivity, language and culture. At some point in the future I hope to draw up a comprehensive graphic of this model, using some of the analytical language of Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model, which is a beautifully elegant visual and philosophical cybernetic representation of ‘systems’ – but this post is long enough!

These convergences or match-ups, fitted to their environment (in the Darwinian sense), exhibit a kind of energy (‘signal’) that crosses over a threshold of normal, background and chaotic information flux (‘noise’). It is not enough to generate this one-way, artificially (‘hype’) – there has to be some reciprocal energy coming back from the environment or market. This kind of energy, I suggest, will usually be emotional/affective, reachable by stories that key into existing pathways of cognition; these pathways may be hard-wired and instinctual, or they may be learnt/acculturated/reinforced by advertising, promotion, word-of-mouth, Twitter, blogs … Some thoughts about pathways:

  1. Mental pathways are by definition neural/synaptic. I can imagine these forming by repetition but I don’t want to discuss it because I don’t know anything about it.
  2. Our bodily pathways are shaped by and expressive of habitual and characteristic physiological responses to external stimuli; our specific responses via each of our senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste will be very different, but we should expect correspondences and congruences between them. We may expect multimodal and convergent messages via different faculties of sense to be more impactful on our consciousness, but this has to be considered subtly; it is not enough to think that the visual acts of reading words, looking at television or studying a painting are all cognitively equivalent.
  3. External channels of communication (‘media’) all have a unique character. Whatever messages commercial companies seek to promulgate must be designed or framed to be carryable by or idiomatic to the chosen channel. Websites with too much video or Flash for old computers/slow broadband is a classic error, but so too is trying to tell a child how to fly a kite by bellowing at them from 50 yards away, and writing dense, complicated prose in a blog …
  4. In a commercial context, monetizability is key. In the early days of the web there was a beautiful dream of peer-to-peer sharing and collaboration, all for free. ‘Search’ was a wonderful new service, but the more brilliant invention was to sell, invisibly, to advertisers Google’s major property – our attention. Meanwhile we thought everything was free. This was bitter lesson for publishers working in the money-for-content model, whose revenues have stayed largely static while Google has gone from zero to $30 billion in 15 years. In the general terms of my model here, no commerce has been transacted unless money changes hands; products have to be designed so they can be sold in a form convertible readily into money.

Most of the professional work in publishing and advertising is intended to avoid making mistakes. But even if you get all the designing right, match up all the convergences you can, there still must be a creative spark, a remarkable insight that sends a message down some pathways it has never been before …

The genius and key to the longlasting publishing sales(!) of the later Shakespeare was to design projective identification (‘as you like it’) into the inherently pluralistic and multipersonal genre of drama. The audience completes the meaning. Everyone sees, agrees with and loves what they want to see: a reflection of themselves. And then Shakespeare’s PR company advises him to suppress nearly all his biographical information. Brilliant.

I have previously said that J. K. Rowling found some powerful convergences between the individual reader and the group, activating behaviour explicable only in terms of crowd psychology in order to confirm the one of the beautiful and empathic messages of Harry’s story: you are not alone. You are ordinary, but you are also amazing. ‘Look at me,’ says the author, ‘I’m like you, I know what you’re feeling.’ And we really do believe her. To follow Harry’s story year by year was – as the young reader quoted at length below will eloquently tell us – amazing.

In the previous post we had a look at the publishing intention behind the deliberately ingenuous front covers of the second book. I also talked about the time-framing of the two worlds, wizard and Muggle, in relation to childhoods past (both those of parents and those imagined by children) and present. This is my final point about the energy of convergence, here convergence of medium and message – it might need reading twice: The Harry Potter novels are consciously framed as books – those things that children used to read in the past. I’m not saying that the effects of media on literacy weren’t also dreaded by educators and parents in the 1950s. Marshall McLuhan claimed in 1959 – with a metaphor that had more bite to it at that time – that ‘education was civil defense against media fallout’. Perhaps Rev. W. Awdry’s elegaic tone in The Railway Series (discussed in my first HP post) also laments the falling away of literacy. And 20 pre-television years earlier, a larrikin D. H. Lawrence larrups the moral bankruptcy of Lord Chatterley’s addiction to listening to the wireless (radio). I’m also not saying that any pre-contemporary novel setting therefore implies that ‘the book’ and literacy belongs to a bygone age – prior to the twenty-first century, publication in book form is not notable in any way, simply because books in their physical (codex) form were – culturally – invisible. I am saying, though, that the HP series was published and framed at the start of our new and different cultural context. The age of the unselfconscious liberty of literacy is now passing. The cultural lightning – the ‘energy’ that I mentioned earlier – that this series of books conducts is that children experience the bittersweet pathos of our our changing world in the very medium they read. The success of the Harry Potter series may perhaps reflect public grief and guilt at the end of the book. 

I say ‘grief’ because there are multitudes of young children who cannot read who are playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 – there are currently 27,000+ ‘likes’ for the promotional video of ‘The Vet [Veteran] and the N00b [‘Newbie’]’. I don’t wish to demonize even ‘violent’ computer games because their framing in some ways is gentle and kindly – no one really ever dies or gets hurt; the games are endlessly patient and allow you to make any number of mistakes. Are we adults, as teachers and parents, ever as kind as that? But they shift the attentions and minds of our children. Yesterday I read a shocking report from the National Literacy Trust: ‘Seven years ago 1 child in 10 [in the UK] did not have a book of their own, while today the figure stands at a startling 1 child in 3.’ I also looked at a website (the inspirational Shannon Trust) about illiteracy levels in the UK prison population: ‘48% of the prison population have a reading ability below that expected of an 11-year-old’ (Prison Reform Trust 2008). I am not saying illiteracy therefore directly produces criminality – plenty of people with major reading difficulties make enormous contributions to public well-being. I am saying there is a major cultural shift under way, whose consequences are a cause for public concern.

And I say ‘guilt’ because we wonder ‘What have we done?’ Any contemporary parent of young children can tell you that the skill of reading and the gift of imagination is not so easily passed on when competing attractions are so easy and so strong. Yet I am sure hundreds of thousands of parents will also pour out their heart’s gratitude and relief that their children ‘caught the reading bug’ from Harry Potter.

Yet I am not sure this kind of publication/framing/design was entirely deliberate. It must be true that public reception is more complex and interesting than the publishing story Rowling, Bloomsbury and her (now-ditched) agent Christopher Little had imagined or intended. (Only Shakespeare has succeeded in designing pluralistic audience response into completing the meaning of his works.) Perhaps their framing was only for something a little old-fashioned. And ‘the end of the book’ is of course a rhetorical exaggeration, a fiction – a fiction, like Harry Potter, into which we willingly enter. Note that the rhetoric comes from what Marshall McLuhan calls the ‘tribal drums’ of electric and near-instantaneous media, not the voices in books. Search for ‘the end of the book’ in the Books department on Amazon and you will find The Monster at the End of This Book (Sesame Street) and, on the right subject but with a different spin, This is Not the End of the Book. Books (codexes) will be with us for hundreds of years – if we’re around for that long – until human communication evolves into direct brain-to-brain apperception and the skill of reading becomes the skill of reading minds.

In the meantime I suggested in a previous post that the HP series offers children an extraordinarily empathic and valuable experience of feeling you are not alone. To end, let us have a look at a typical letter (presumably dating from the publication of the seventh book, 2007) from Dear Mr Potter. This is a book (extracts are on a website here) consisting entirely of hundreds of letters – very much like this one following – sent in to J. K. Rowling. The book is being sold to raise money for a literacy charity – geddit? As I read it, in the second paragraph I secretly substitute ‘Books’ for ‘Harry’. Try it. What do you think? I leave the last words to Miranda W., aged 14, from the USA:

My heart breaks as I realize that the things that I most look forward to are ending. I’m never going to go to another midnight party release (even though I’ve only been to one), I’ll never hold a new Harry Potter book in my hands, or rush to the movie theaters to buy my tickets. And as I watch Hogwarts crumble on screen, the Hogwarts in my heart will be putting it back together.

Harry, I have grown with you, mourned with you, laughed with you, and lived with you, but, most importantly, I have loved with you. I have loved Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Sirius, Lupin, Tonks, Mad-Eye, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, and need I go on? As I have stood up for you, I have learned to stand up for others. You have taught me that I can change the world. You have not only inspired me, but so many others. We love you so much that we would sacrifice ourselves for you. Every single one of us. So, in a way, our love kept you alive too, right? And we will continue to do so for evermore.

‘The end of the book’ at Propagandum Towers

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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