Harry Potter and the Double-Edged Sword
The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 21st concludes one of the best-selling and most controversial children's book series. After the first book appeared in 1997 "Pottermania" spread rapidly around the world. Reading became cool, children's literature spread to adult commuters, booksellers rejoiced, and Bloomsbury, the publisher that stands to make around £7 million from HP7, became very rich indeed. The author J.K. Rowling went almost overnight from a penniless single mother to a millionaire celebrity.
With the hype machine only just beginning to churn for the seventh installment, curmudgeons everywhere are looking forward to a bumper summer of fun. Ali Karim at January Magazine claims never to have been impressed by the books and wrote an enjoyable and withering piece about the series:
I have taken cursory glances at the Harry Potter books, and found J. K. Rowling’s work not to my taste. I also find the sight of adults reading these works on packed commuter trains bemusing, worrying and, contrary to popular opinion, I feel these books do more harm than good for the book trade.
He's right of course. But looking back to those heady days when Harry Potter was just a cute kid with an owl who seemed to be single-handedly raising a generation of readers, it all seemed harmless enough. In 1999 I even felt inspired to write about the series. I praised it for the way it celebrated mystery in ordinary life, and challenged the establishment. In truth there seemed a lot to be optimistic about.
But now the fear of Harry Potter runs very deep indeed. The Bookseller reported earlier this month that publishers are worried that a market in which a small number of blockbusters sold at heavy discounts by the supermarkets is sucking the life out of highstreet bookshops. Smaller independent bookshops in particular are dreading the release of HP7 because they will have to sell it at a loss, but even Waterstones and Borders are having trouble competing. And publishers and writers are also unhappy because competing books will be hidden by the piles of loss-leader Harry Potters out front. British Conservative MP Charles Walker is calling for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. The Evening Standard reported:
Mr Walker, MP for Broxbourne, added: 'They do not care about the book or the effects of their pricing strategy on small retailers. It's all about getting people through the door. Unfortunately, the essence of Harry Potter and the magic of the book is lost on some people who are just desperate to make a fast buck.'
When even a Conservative MP is complaining about market forces, you know something must be very wrong indeed. What started out as the saviour of the British publishing industry has turned into a Lambton Worm, poisoning the local well, terrorising villagers and eating their sheep.