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

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

Did Harry Potter really change the world?

It seems an absurd question to ask about a series of children's books. But when that series sells 325 million copies worldwide, with tens of millions to be added this weekend when the final installment of J.K. Rowling's wizardly fantasy goes on sale, it gets a little less so.

Plenty of claims have been made. Among them: Harry got kids to read, especially boys, and he revitalized the sleepy universe of children's publishing. Talk to informed observers of that universe, however, and you'll find that nearly every claim made for Harry is open to interpretation, if not dispute.

The Potter phenomenon has been "so overwhelming that it's blurred reality," says literary agent Simon Lipskar.

Take the cherished notion that Rowling's series has revived the love of books and reading in a youth culture dominated by mindless mass entertainment and video screens. It's been undermined of late by a burst of stories with headlines like the Boston Globe's "In End, Potter Magic Extends Only So Far: Decline Still Seen in Adolescent Reading."

The chief spokesman for this gloomy view is National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia. "This one series of popular novels has not been enough in itself to reverse the overall decline in reading," Gioia says, citing an NEA analysis of government and private studies his agency will release this fall. The problem isn't that kids aren't learning to read. It's that "everything in their society" conspires to make them read less as they become teenagers.

Publishing executives express annoyance with what they see as an anti-Potter spin.

"It's almost like Harry is being held to the standard of the Holy Grail," says Lisa Holton, president of the trade division of Scholastic, Rowling's American publisher. "Has Harry made every single child a reader? And if he hasn't, he's failed." A 2006 study by Yankelovich Inc., Holton points out, found that 51 percent of Potter readers said they "didn't read books for fun" before encountering the boy wizard.

"Harry Potter was a rising tide that lifted all boats," says Rick Richter, who heads the children's publishing division at Scholastic rival Simon & Schuster. His company's middle-grade and teen publishing programs, Richter says, have seen "double-digit growth in each of the last several years."

But closer observation suggests that the views of Gioia and the publishers may not truly conflict.

"What scares me is what would have happened without Harry Potter," says Gioia, who read the first four books aloud to his younger son and credits them with creating "positive social pressure" for kids to read. And while Holton believes publishers are doing a better job of cultivating and serving "voracious readers," she agrees that overall teen readership could nonetheless be in decline. As children grow up, she says, "they're harder to reach."

What about the widely accepted argument that Harry Potter attracted boys who would not otherwise have touched a book? Here again, Holt and Gioia find common ground. That 51 percent number about kids not reading for fun, Holt says, breaks down to 61 percent boys and 41 percent girls. "Boys in every measure are falling off more rapidly than girls," Gioia says.

Rowling's work "has absolutely had a great effect on boys and reading," says Jon Scieszka, author of boy-friendly books such as the "Time Warp Trio" series (though it's worth noting that girls like them, too).

A few years back, Scieszka, a former elementary school teacher, got so concerned about non-reading boys that he started a Web-based literary program called Guys Read ( http://www.guysread.com) and put together an anthology of boy-friendly writing.

Yet Scieszka emphasizes that, more than just Harry, boys need "a choice in kinds of reading," whether it's nonfiction, science fiction or graphic novels.

"There are a huge number of boys who read nonfiction," agrees Jewell Stoddard, who heads the children's department of Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore. Stoddard's son was one of them. His fifth-grade teacher once sent a note home saying "the problem with him is that he doesn't read." This was a boy who "read everything that the Montgomery County libraries had on snakes when he was 11." He's a neurobiologist now.

Many in the children's literature business also note that Harry was hardly the first fictional series to appeal to boys. Among those frequently mentioned are the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, the "Goosebumps" series and Brian Jacques's "Redwall" saga.

What about Rowling's seemingly indisputable contribution to a boom in children's book publishing (or at least part of it)?

Ask about Harry's effect on the industry and the first thing you'll hear is that Rowling's books disproved the longstanding belief that hardcover children's fiction didn't sell. The next is that they've caused a vast and lucrative expansion of the fantasy category.

Simon Lipskar, the literary agent, represents Christopher Paolini, author of "Eragon," "Eldest" and the forthcoming third book of the "Inheritance Trilogy." Before Potter, Lipskar says, if he'd called a publisher and said "I'm going to sell you this trilogy and by the second book you'll have sold more than 8 million copies in North America and a majority of them in hardcover," he'd have been laughed at.

Yet both changes might eventually have occurred even without the boy with the lightning-shaped scar.

"I think the landscape started to change before Harry Potter," says Simon Boughton, publisher of Roaring Brook Press.

Boughton was publisher of the Knopf children's division when it made what was then a substantial hardcover fantasy bet -- a first printing in the low six figures -- on "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman.

"We took a big swing at this book and it worked," he says, though he takes care to note that "something as big as Harry Potter can't be just a symptom. It's a freestanding phenomenon."

"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.

To keep all this in perspective, it helps to talk to an actual Rowling reader such as 15-year-old Washington resident Jacob Horn.

Horn is a boy who was reading anyway, not the kind lured to it by Harry -- though when he got the first book, he says, "I definitely hadn't read anything that long." The fourth book came out when he was still just 8 and it was "kind of dark for me."

When the fifth arrived, at the end of sixth grade, he attended a midnight party with a bunch of friends wearing "dementor capes my dad had cut out of black fabric."

He remains annoyed that a girl at summer camp gave away the ending of the sixth book by screaming "No!" while reading at lunchtime.

And this year?

He's ordered his copy of Book 7. He expects to be "pretty into it."

Still: "I'm not pacing around saying, 'Is it the 21st yet?' "

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