Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Just Like Magic: The Harry Potter Economy

I've such a backlog that I am still on The Economist Christmas Special. Here is a selection from an article on the The Harry Potter economy (Economist):

In fact the Harry Potter books were the iceberg. As each book appeared it drew new readers to the series and expanded sales of earlier books in a snowball effect. Thanks largely to the boy wizard, Bloomsbury’s turnover, which had gradually increased from £11m in 1995 to £14m in 1997, took off. In 1999 it stood at £21m. Two years later it was £61m. By the middle of this decade, with Bloomsbury’s revenues above £100m, rival publishers were griping that there was no point bidding against the firm for a children’s title. So far the books, which are published in America by Scholastic, have sold more than 400m copies worldwide. Not all were read by the young. Central to the books’ success was a repackaging, with a darker cover, for adults embarrassed about being seen reading a children’s book.

Mr Newton says he became “fearful and respectful” of the windfall. A sudden hit can destabilise any company, but the danger is acute in the swaggering media industry. Bloomsbury banked a lot of the money, and has taken advantage of the slump in asset prices to pick up specialist and scholarly publishers. It now owns Arden, most famous for its series of Shakespeare texts, the legal publisher, Tottel, and the cricketer’s bible, Wisden. Having learned to handle magic, Bloomsbury is thus returning to its Muggle (non-wizard) roots. The ideal, Mr Newton says, is to balance the risks—and large potential profits—of the trade fiction business with the dependability and high margins of specialist publishing.
Fans get up to much more. As the books and films took off, the hunger for Harry Potter news and content quickly became so much greater than Warner Bros or the increasingly press-shy Ms Rowling were able to supply that alternative sources began to spring up. The emerging internet fuelled their growth. The most obvious of them are fan websites like MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron, which mix official announcements with rumours. But the most intriguing is the strange world of fan fiction. Ms Rowling’s “worst nightmare” was that her hero would end up on fast-food containers Re-telling the Harry Potter story is a popular pastime. One website dedicated to it, Fiction Alley, added 14 book chapters in November 2009 alone, together with many shorter works. Would-be Rowlings push the Harry Potter story in new directions by focusing on different characters or writing about years not covered in the books. Many plunge into the characters’ romantic lives—perhaps the weakest point of “the canon”, as the original series of books is reverentially known. These amateur stories, which are often subjected to rigorous criticism from other fans, are for the most part competent. The students in them often talk the way teenagers actually talk. “I can’t just be an arse to him for no reason,” splutters Harry at one point in the third book in the “Lily’s Charm” series, by a writer called ObsidianEmbrace. That carries a convincing whiff of the playground.

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