When the previous Harry Potter was released, the frenzy created such a shortage at independent bookstores over opening weekend that many bought copies at big box retailers and resold them to their own customers.
What a difference two years make. This time around, independent children's bookstores spent the days after the release trying to move hundreds of copies of unsold books... to each other. Overordering, intensifying discounts and widening distribution may have helped turn the biggest book of the year into a disappointment for some. "It's a tremendous success in terms of P.R., but it wasn't a tremendous success financially," said Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., in a comment heard, sometimes not as diplomatically, over and over again last week.
Strange as it sounds for a book now estimated to have sold more than eight million copies, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was a bust for many small retailers. While booksellers were quick to acknowledge that Scholastic was effective in getting them the books, they pointed to a system that was not set up to their advantage. The release had them in an unsolvable bind: they knew their own store realities wouldn't always reflect the larger mania, but they also knew they couldn't sit out the biggest book of the year.
"I think a lot of us probably fell prey to [the hype]," said one store owner who requested anonymity. "There felt like a lot of pressure to make sure you had enough to meet demand. Then we got caught by surprise when we ordered too many." Indeed, the listserv of the Association of Booksellers for Children was abuzz the last few weeks with stores buying and selling—but more often selling—surplus copies. (Scholastic acknowledged that it encouraged the practice, but the company's Ellie Berger said she "didn't get a sense there was a huge surplus out there.")
Compounding problems for indies is that the book is treated not like an author-event title, which can be returned right away, but like a regular book, which can't be returned for three months. This puts bookstores, which put a premium on cash flow, in a pinch. "We can't afford to have that kind of money out and just get a credit," said Barbara Wilson, owner of Butterfly Books in DePere, Wis.
The situation calls into question a system where the biggest book release in history doesn't provide a ripple of profits to many retailers. And indies aren't alone; Amazon reported recently that it thought it would barely break even on the title.
But Scholastic notes that the ready availability of books is exactly what the stores complained they didn't have last time. And asked if something was wrong with a system where the biggest bestseller couldn't make them money, Berger said, "Everyone creates experiences that are unique to their market," and also stressed that she believed there was a halo effect.
So why did a lot of indie stores not sell as many copies as they expected? Discounts at the competition was a factor, as was Scholastic's decision not to allow its book club buyers to redeem coupons at stores, as it did for the previous Potter. And several store owners also pointed to the sale of the book directly from Scholastic's Web site. [For one store's personal account, see Soapbox on p. 242.]
Booksellers also said there was reason to doubt the halo effect. In the first week, 5.8 million copies of the book sold, according to Bookscan, but only 330,000 were sold the next week. While an increase in front-loading may not affect the publisher, for stores it shortens the period of increased customer traffic. "The whole thing just needs to be spread out a lot more," said Olson. "Otherwise it doesn't do that much for many of us."