The sequel to England's hottest kids' book lands in the hands of U.S. readers
Rarely has there been a success story as sweet as that of Scottish author J.K. Rowling. Her book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published in Britain in 1997. The attendant praise and accolades (winner of the 1997 British Book Award and Smarties Prize, among others) brought Rowling from a strained existence on public assistance to life as a celebrated author. On this side of the Atlantic, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books published the book in September 1998 (bought at auction for just over $100,000) as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and the title has received the same kind of whirlwind attention. It currently boasts an in-print figure of 275,000 copies with nine trips to press.
| BRITISH EDITION of the much-awaited sequel |
On the heels of this initial fanfare, Rowling has already lain to rest any talk of beginner's luck. Her second book about Harry (there will eventually be seven volumes in all), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published in the U.K. in July 1998. It debuted as England's number one bestseller and has just won the 1998 British Book Award. Such an outpouring of favor has already ensured a large audience for the forthcoming U.S. edition.
There's just one hitch: Scholastic is not scheduled to publish its edition of Chamber of Secrets until this September. For the many Harry Potter fans in the U.S., that's just too long to wait; a number of eager American readers have procured the British edition of Chamber of Secrets from Amazon in the U.K., and several U.S. booksellers have even stocked the British edition in their stores. PW spoke to several key players to determine what this unprecedented development means for Scholastic and for the future of territorial rights.
A Whole New Game
In the past, U.K. and U.S. readers have frequently shared a fondness for the same popular book titles. And since the U.K. book-buying market is so much smaller than that of the U.S., until now it has been British readers who have obtained American editions of books not available in England. This situation has arisen a few times with titles for adults; recent examples include Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Royals by Kitty Kelley and The Day Diana Died by Christopher Andersen.
But with Harry Potter, the flow of goods has been reversed, and the issue of monitoring U.S./U.K. territorial rights is a more significant one for children's publishers for the first time. The simultaneous emergence of globe-spanning online booksellers and a generation of Web-savvy kids hungry for more volumes of Rowling's fantasy/adventure series has raised concerns not only for Scholastic, but for any publisher buying rights in books originating in Britain.
"We are aware that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is finding its way into the country," said Michael Jacobs, senior v-p, trade, at Scholastic. "We're not happy about it, but we are working with Bloomsbury [Rowling's U.K. publisher] to address the situation." So far, that has meant contacting U.S. booksellers or distributors directly by letter or telephone. "We have heard of scattered instances of U.S. booksellers and distributors carrying the book," Jacobs said. "Those people are clearly in violation. We don't want to be heavy-handed about it, but whenever we have heard of people selling the book, we've checked it out and informed them that we have the U.S. rights. We have felt that this has been effective."
One East Coast bookseller made the decision to stock Chamber of Secrets based on demand. "Our customers have been clamoring for the second book because Harry Potter is so popular," she said. The bookseller ordered the title from a British distributor with whom the store has regularly done business, with assurances that it was acceptable to do so. To date the store has sold 29 copies of the book, at a retail price of $23.95. "We've also had a lot of customers who told us that friends traveling to England brought the book back for them," she added. "I don't think this number of books will hurt sales of the U.S. edition. It will probably help in the long run, spreading the word of mouth."
A bookseller on the West Coast reports that her store carried Chamber of Secrets until a few weeks ago. "We had been purchasing the book through an importer until Scholastic contacted that company with a cease-and-desist request," she said. "We considered finding another source, but thought, `Why make waves with Scholastic?' " The store has sold 53 copies of Chamber of Secrets at $25.95, and there are 77 people currently on a waiting list for the U.S. edition of the book.
"We've shared all of our feedback with Scholastic," this bookseller continued. "The first book was so popular that people immediately starting asking about a sequel. We don't make a whole lot of money on these books, but as an independent, we do anything we can for our customers."
Joyce Sampler, a sixth-grade teacher in New Orleans, exemplifies the initiative taken by many individual Harry Potter fans. "After I read the first Harry Potter book, I exchanged some e-mail about it with someone who had posted comments on Amazon.com," Sampler explained. "That person told me that she had ordered the sequel directly from Bloomsbury in England. I went to Bloomsbury.com and did the same thing." Unfortunately, Sampler's order went astray, and because of the delay, she decided to also order the book from Amazon in the U.K. She purchased the paperback Chamber of Secrets for £3.99 plus shipping.
"The kids just clamor for it," she said of her students. "I could read it to them all day. I've never had this kind of reaction to a book. Several of the kids have also purchased it [Chamber of Secrets] from Amazon U.K. with no problem." In addition, Sampler said, the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in her school are reading the first Harry Potter book to their classes now, and will be looking forward to the sequel as well. In Sampler's opinion, "Scholastic is foolish not to change their publishing schedule if there's any way they can."
At this point, Jacobs of Scholastic finds it impossible to quantify the impact of the transatlantic sales of Chamber of Secrets. "We find it encouraging and distressing at the same time," he said. "It's great that people are keyed up for the second book, but we don't want booksellers to think it's okay to sell the U.K. edition at retail. We're looking to protect our rights." Jacobs also insisted that Scholastic has no plans to change its September '99 publication date of Chamber of Secrets.
Beyond Harry Potter
Of course, the Harry Potter books are not the first British fantasy-adventure series to excite young readers in the U.S. Such British authors as Brian Jacques (Redwall series, Philomel/ Berkley) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series, Knopf) have a large and loyal fan base in this country. But neither Penguin Putnam nor Random House report any significant infringement on their territorial rights, mainly due to each house's publishing schedule. "When we published The Golden Compass [Pullman's first His Dark Materials book] in 1996, online booksellers did not really exist," said Simon Boughton, publishing director at Knopf. "In 1997 we published The Subtle Knife simultaneously with Scholastic U.K. and will do the same with the third book in October 1999. We're conscious of it [U.S. sales of British editions] and would prefer not to be in that situation."
Boughton also cited some recent pre-U.S.-publication buzz about another British import: Skellig by David Almond, published in Britain last October and to be released by Delacorte in April. "At ALA Midwinter, librarians were telling us that kids already knew about the book," said Boughton. "That's a noticeable change, I think, that kids and librarians already know what's hot in England."
Craig Virden, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, d sn't foresee any problems with U.S. sales of the British edition of Skellig. "The question was raised early on as to whether we should be worried about it," he said, "but this is the first time it has really come up for us and there's been no instance where anyone has bought it in any quantity that we know of. Down the road this may become an issue. And if it d s, we will decide how to deal with it."
At Penguin Putnam, Doug Whiteman, president of the Books for Young Readers division, agrees. "It has not really been a problem for us," he said. "We wouldn't change our publishing plan based on a few copies of the British edition being sold here. We do try to publish Brian's [Jacques] books when he is available for touring and promotions in the U.S. because it dramatically helps the books. By coincidence, our edition usually follows only a month behind the U.K. publication." The most recent Redwall book, Marlfox, was released in the U.K. in late November and shipped in the U.S. in late December.
When British-edition copies of Jacques's The Long Patrol (published here in February 1998) were being purchased through the Internet at a substantially higher price, Whiteman said it infuriated the author. "Brian did not want to be seen as approving of his book being positioned at that price," Whiteman explained. "But we talked him through it, because we also wanted him to see the potential for legitimate online book sales in the future."
But only time will reveal the true impact of this trend. Boughton speaks for many when he refers to territorial rights potentially becoming more of a hot issue for U.S. publishers. "I have seen more discussion about the future of territorial rights in the U.K. trades," he noted. "You have to think about it a little differently now."
|The 1998 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award in England has been won by Skellig by David Almond (Hodder; Delacorte in the U.S.). Skellig (Children's Forecasts, Dec. 7, 1998) is Almond's first novel.|