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Was the Boy Wizard the Charm That Made Children's Books Fly?

"If it hadn't been Harry, it would probably have been something else," says Candlewick Press Editorial Director Liz Bicknell. "I think demographics have a lot to do with it." The children of the baby boomers were creating their own population bulge, and their child-centered parents were being urged to read to them every day.

Publishing as a whole, in the 1980s and early 1990s, was being roiled by major changes, among them corporate acquisition of previously independent houses and the rise of bookselling in big-box stores.

The children's end of the business remained "a cozy backwater," Bicknell says, but for better or worse, it would be forced to move "closer to the adult model of publishing."

Advances would skyrocket. More books would be sold through auctions. Greater emphasis would be placed on "branding" and blockbusters. Harry Potter's success greatly accelerated these changes.

But did Harry, as one might assume, boost children's publishing's overall bottom line?

Albert Greco, an industry consultant and Fordham University marketing professor, calls attention to some numbers that suggest otherwise.

In 1997, the year before the first Harry Potter book was published in the United States, revenues for juvenile trade hardbound books totaled $908 million, Greco said. In 2006, the total was $979 million, a modest increase at best and a decrease if you correct for inflation. The years between have been volatile, with peaks and valleys that correlate with the release of Potter titles. But "this is essentially the classic zero sum game," Greco says.

How could this be? One answer is that while middle-grade and young adult sales are up, the picture book category has tanked. Explanations are numerous, but Roaring Brook's Boughton offers two that are Potter-related. With 6-year-olds being read Harry Potter, their parents are less inclined to buy picture books.

And with the fat Potter volumes selling at a discounted $20 or so, "the poor old $16.95 picture book" just doesn't look like a very good value.

So did Harry change the world, or didn't he?

The discussion could go on forever. It could include the globalization of children's publishing (with Harry as both symptom and cause) or Hollywood's newfound enthusiasm for adapting children's books.

It might highlight the blurring of traditional publishing categories such as adult and children's, literary and commercial: Harry is a crossover phenomenon in both. It would certainly have to consider the question of community, online and off, and Harry's role as a touchstone for a generation.


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