As the industry's traditionally busy fall continues apace, Harry Potter is clearly the runaway story of the season. J.K. Rowling's first two books about wizardry student Harry have been riding high on the New York Times bestseller list for months, but with the release on September 8 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which promptly joined its predecessors in bestsellerdom) and the paperback of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, fans-and the media-have been truly whipped into a frenzy. In the past six weeks, the junior wizard's face has graced the cover of Time, and Rowling and her books have been featured on 60 Minutes, the Today Show and the Rosie O'Donnell Show, where Prisoner of Azkaban was named the inaugural selection for O'Donnell's new Rosie's Readers children's book club in partnership with eToys.com. And recent publicized complaints from conservative groups seeking to ban the books for perceived anti-Christian content may have even helped fuel the fire.
This widespread Harry fever has put Scholastic in a race to keep readers plied with books. The numbers are staggering: for the three hardcovers combined, there are 5.2 million copies in print and 5.7 million copies on order. For the paperback Sorcerer's Stone, there are 3.7 million copies in print and 1.7 million copies on order. 'We've got nine printing plants and various paper mill houses across the country working around the clock to fill our orders,' said Judy Corman, senior v-p, director of corporate communications at Scholastic. 'We've never done anything like this before.'
With such massive exposure, the climate couldn't have been better to launch the Listening Library audiobook, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, on October 5. 'In my 20 years in this business, I've never seen a children's audio title selling at this level,' said Tim Ditlow, publisher of Listening Library. 'We're seeing the kind of numbers that only the likes of a John Grisham has achieved with an audiobook. We've got several duplicators working on this title to help us keep up with the demand.'
According to Ditlow, the audiobook fills a niche, as no other licensed Harry Potter merchandise is currently being sold. But that should change soon. Christopher Little, Rowling's literary agent, reports that 30-40 potential licensees are contacting his office every day, with the number totaling 'well into the thousands' over the last two months. 'It's quite extraordinary,' Little said. 'We've had the same reaction in Germany and Korea and Mexico and Portugal [as in the U.S. and U.K.].' Warner Bros., which plans to produce a Harry Potter film, has an option for worldwide licensing rights, and Little called a deal 'imminent.'
The audiobook is also the first children's audio title (and the first new audio title, period) to be included in the Book Sense 76, landing on the November-December list. According to BookSense's Carl Lennertz, '[Narrator] Jim Dale's characterizations are superb-so much so that I think kids who have read the book already will enjoy it anew, along with the whole family.'
Meeting the Crowds
Rowling has just completed a U.S. bookstore tour that has consistently drawn a minimum of 1000 people at each stop. 'The tour is spectacular,' commented Scholastic v-p of marketing Jennifer Pasanen, calling from the road. 'It's amazing-it's like traveling with a rock star,' she said of the crowds, often filled with children donning wizard cloaks and Harry-like lightning bolt scars on their foreheads. Pasanen said that Rowling signed an average of 800A?"1000 books during the scheduled two hours at each store and that customers were limited to one signed book each. 'Our goal is to accommodate as many people as we can,' she said. 'We hate to turn anyone away, but we also have to be sensitive to the fact that Jo is just one person and can only do so much in a limited time.' Fans lucky enough to meet Rowling have offered nothing but warm praise, according to Pasanen. 'One man came through the line and made the comment to [Rowling]: 'Thanks for bringing back reading,'' Pasanen said.
As an unprecedented turnout can be expected for any Rowling appearance, Pasanen said, 'Scholastic stipulated that stores needed to be prepared for tremendous crowds'; booksellers arranged for security and organized various ticketing systems, in response.
Diane Garrett, owner of Diane's Books of Greenwich, Conn., who hosted Rowling on October 16, explained her strategy: 'We worked months and months on this and were excruciatingly organized. We held the event at the Greenwich Teen Center, which is just south of my store. We had three security people and 15-20 staff members on hand. And we were careful not to overticket. Because of this, our signing was fantastic. Jo was relaxed and had a marvelous time.'
Garrett's experience is representative of other events held at both chain and independent stores in other states. But at an event at the Borders in Livingston, N.J., on October 15, things did not go so well. When a crowd estimated to be well over 2000 became unruly, police were called in and recommended that the store end the signing after one hour. Jill Zimmer, a teacher, and her 11-year-old daughter, Allison, were among the Potter fans in Livingston. 'It was handled so poorly,' Zimmer said. 'The store managers drew chalk marks on the parking lot pavement and asked people to stand in line. I was amazed that there were no partitions or anything.' Zimmer said many latecomers to the event did not heed the lines or markings and began pushing their way to the store's entrance, where tickets were seemingly handed out 'willy-nilly.' Despite arriving more than two hours early, Zimmer and the majority of others were turned away. 'I had prepared the kids for disappointment,' she said. 'But the saddest thing is, we were about 400th in the line we were told to stand in and we should have gotten in the store.'
'It was a total fiasco, really ugly,' said Matthew Demakos, another attendee. 'Irate parents were screaming; people who had bought books were demanding their money back. One teacher remarked [about the chalk mark system]: 'If it doesn't work in first grade, it won't work here.''
Young Allison Zimmer decided to express her disappointment in a letter she sent to the local newspapers. In part she wrote: 'A dark cloud fell over the parking lot. Lots of little kids were screaming and crying. If Borders could only see how many customers were upset they would be amazed.'
Ann Binkley, manager of public relations for Borders Inc., emphasized that this 'very unfortunate incident' was an isolated case and that subsequent signings at Borders in Chicago and Baileys Crossroads, Va., 'went extremely well.' Of the Livingston confusion she said, 'We were expecting a large turnout, but nobody anticipated a crowd of more than 2000 people. The managers told customers that only 800 tickets would be given out, but many of the people did not leave.' In the midst of an angry crowd, Binkley said the store's general manager was bitten and punched.
'We're very sorry that this happened,' Binkley continued, 'and we are doing everything we can to apologize to our customers.' She said that people who have phoned and sent e-mail have received apologies and that the company has drafted a conciliatory letter to send to the kids who missed out. In addition, Borders is 'currently working with Scholastic to possibly get some signed bookplates for those Livingston customers who were disappointed.'
A Vote of Confidence
PW has learned that in response to the right-wing Family Friendly Libraries organization's efforts to ban the Harry Potter books from schools and libraries, a resolution defending the books will be presented for membership vote at the ALA's Midwinter meeting in San Antonio. The resolution, drafted by ALA Councilors at Large GraceAnne DeCandido and Karen G. Schneider and ALSC Councilor Eliza Dresang, praises Rowling's works as having 'brought the pleasure of reading to millions of children and adults' as well as 'reminding us all of the value of books that delight and instruct through metaphor and fantasy.' The resolution also calls for making Rowling an honorary member of the ALA.
HARRY POTTER FAQ
Potter devotees who were able to meet -- and in some cases, briefly chat with -- author Jo Rowling on her tour eagerly pitched questions her way. Here are answers to the most frequent inquiries, as posted by Kim Alexander on an Internet mailing list.
'Book 4 is longer than Book 3.'
'I gave away one of the computers I got from Rosie O'Donnell.'
'My wrist is bound protectively; it is fine.'
'The first book took five years to write; Book 3 took one year.'
'Yes, I've heard it's been banned.'