I'm just wild about Harry

October 1, 2005

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

The weather might be cooling off, but a fever is simmering just below the surface. Its name is Harry Potter.

Does the brouhaha over the record-shattering sales of the recently released sixth Harry Potter book seem to be quieting? It is probably only because Potterites the world over are focusing on the upcoming release of the fourth Harry Potter film adaptation. Everyone is wild about Harry. Everyone under age 12 is a given. Sales demographics indicate that adults who began reading the series aloud at their children’s request now are reading (and purchasing) for themselves.

Teens also are Potter maniacs. Harry has been with us for eight years now. This segment of the fan base is growing up right alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione.

I won’t smother you with Harry statistics. Is there anybody who doesn’t know that last July’s volume included the largest prerelease print run in the history of the bound printed word? Let’s look instead at some lessons to be learned from Harry:

“Kids don’t read anymore.” I am going to give you statistics after all, but not ones you’ve heard before. So far, there have been six volumes in the Potter series, the first having 309 numbered folios. Each succeeding book has increased in length until the fifth book peaked at the voluminous page count of 870. The most recent release bucked the trend, weighing in at “only” 652 pages.

I don’t have figures to support this, but I’ll bet, thanks to Harry, the average child now reads longer books than the average parent. While adults have been busily “dumbing down” children’s classics, kids have been left hungry for more substantial fare. If kids like Harry Potter, wait until they discover the writings of Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis, whom Potter author J.K. Rowling has cited as a prime inspiration from her childhood.

“Kids can’t read anymore.” Chaucer and Shakespeare it isn’t, but the Hogwarts gang isn’t Dick and Jane, either. 3,341 pages (and counting) of 12point Garamond isn’t boring the kids; it has them screaming for more.

Children (and adults) have tipped their hand: Given a good reason, they are quite capable of wading through The Illiad or the Bible. Adventure, mystery, suspense, magic and higher truths are all good reasons in their minds. But, make it a homework assignment, and a chorus of, “It’s too hard!” will be heard again.

“Kids won’t read, at least not ink on paper.” An interesting factoid: Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of Harry Potter books, declined to release any of the series in ebook format, although the latest release did include such variations as braille and large-print editions.

The rich, satisfying texts kids are thirsting for can’t be read on a Blackberry device or cellular screen. Black ink on white paper is the only effective medium.

By my reckoning, Harry has sold roughly 85 million books averaging more than 500 pages each, to date, and the biggest seller isn’t even out in paperback yet. Many have read the earlier volumes more than once.

Don’t tell me kids don’t, can’t or won’t read.

“There is no money in the printed word.” Joanne Rowling was essentially penniless a decade ago. “You do realize,” her literary agent warned her, “you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books.” Some now cite her as the world’s first writer to earn more than $1 billion U.S. at her craft.

I suspect the RR Donnelley folks in Crawfordsville, IN, are wild about Harry, too. Donnelley’s share of the recent 13.5-million-book print run might be the best thing to happen to that company since the Sears catalog.

“Harry is a fluke.” Tell that to A.A. Milne. To Laura Ingalls. To Dr. Seuss. Though he has bigger numbers than we’ve seen before, Harry is blazing no new trails.

Gargantuan figures aren’t required to validate the lessons of Harry Potter. I speak with the authority of a digital ondemand printer when I tell you that total book sales of 500 or 1,000 can be quite profitable for all concerned.

“This doesn’t apply to commercial printing.” Oh, yeah? I just sent my nephew a Harry Potter birthday card. My son’s Harry Potter science kit has a colorfully lithoprinted package and detailed ink-on-paper instructions. The Harry movies have generated posters, booklets, mailings and all manner of print. I’ll bet Harry beefed up the annual report print budget for Scholastic and for Warner Brothers, as well.

If you still think the Harry phenomenon doesn’t apply to your printing business, I must ask, why not? Perhaps it is time to explore some new markets.