The Potter Phenomenon and a Spoiler Free Review

The craze over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seems ubiquitous these days, but it wasn’t always so. Back when Prisoner of Azkaban was coming out, childless adults first started hearing of a strange phenomenon on slow news days; kids were reading! Go back even further to 1997 and you have Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, a book with an initial print run of 1,000 volumes,(1) and which was published by Bloomsbury Publishing with a generous advance of £2,500 to an unknown first time author.(2) And, even though it won children’s book awards, there was no fanfare, no huge marketing blitz. According to Rowling, her first reading was attended by 2 people who walked in by accident, and the bookshop staff. (3)

By word of mouth, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone gained readership even as it won awards. By Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling’s creation was recognized by at least its publishers and the children reading the book as something BIG. This was highlighted in 1999 when US fans began ordering Chamber of Secrets from online vendors, months before it was available from Scholastic which had released the US edition of the first book late in 1998. (4)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released with a robust media campaign to general excitement and the ringing of cash registers in 2000. Adults as well as children were snapping up the unexpectedly massive book and, unless you lived under a rock, you knew about Harry Potter and the rags to riches story of his creator. Harry had become a world wide phenomenon, and had spawned a much larger media propellant, a feature film.

Which brings us to the three year pause between Goblet of Fire and the Order of the Phoenix. In the interim, J.K.Rowling got married and had another child. Big things happened in the world of grown-ups and muggles. And, this year, another film was released by Warner Brothers. If you doubted the impact of the Potter phenomenon before, then consider that a group of Russian lawyers actually claimed that the film’s Dobby was modeled after Vladimir Putin. (5)

Somehow thinking that the massive built-in audience realized by the earlier four novels was not absolutely guaranteed (6), Scholastic invested between $3-4 million on an advertising campaign of truly epic proportions, more than twice what they had spent on Goblet of Fire. In the UK, Bloomsbury had a marketing budget of £1 million.(1) Fans already excited by the hype around the film, and fighting withdrawal symptoms from the long wait, were bombarded with images reminding them of the coming feast. Scholastics billboards; print ads; costume contests; 3 million bumper stickers; 400,000 buttons; 50,000 window displays; 24,000 stand-up posters with countdown clocks; logos on the 2003 BookExpo America badges; and over 15,000 'event kits' which were sent to retailers holding 'Potter parties.' ''The kits include(d) stickers, buttons, a trivia quiz and suggestions for how to handle long lines of impatient fans''(7) Bloomsbury’s tactics of tantalizing tidbits in print and bits and their contests and television placement nicely meshed with Scholastic’s. You could not walk into a supermarket, bookstore, discount retailer, or indeed any place which might remotely be expected to sell the newest 'Potter' book without seeing either hype for the book or hype for the movie, or both. And don’t forget TV, radio, and the web. Turn something on and like as not there Harry’d be, either from placement and sponsored events or from the growing news attention.

Add on top of this hype the mystery surrounding the actual story, Rowling’s determination that nothing be leaked, the sealed boxes and special contracts preventing early sale, the legal woes of the Daily News and others, a missing tractor trailer full of books, and fanfiction being stolen and then marketed as the real thing. (8) Is it any wonder that Pottermania peaked into a massive feeding frenzy on June 21st? Here are some statistics for you: (9) unless otherwise noted.

  • Total UK sales for the other books to date (6/23/03):
    Philosopher’s Stone – 3,371,090
    Chamber of Secrets – 2,809,856
    Prisoner of Azkaban – 2,655,787
    Goblet of Fire – 2,865,477
  • took 1.3 million pre-orders worldwide.
  • Because of pre-orders, Scholastic upped the total number for the first hardcover printing from 6.8 million to 8.5 million. Compare that to the 3.8 million first run for Goblet of Fire, which was unprecedented at the time. (10) Scholastic has also ordered another printing (officially the third printing) for 800,000. (11)
  • Barnes & Noble stores sold 286,000 copies in the first hour (or 80 books a second), and 896,000 copies in the first day, with lines as long as 2,500 people in some cities.
  • (12)
  • Borders reports that its first day worldwide sales reached approximately 750,000 volumes. (13) This compared to 300,000 copies of Goblet of Fire. (14) A Borders store in Singapore received 2,700 pre-orders for the book. (15)
  • 1st day sales numbers: US – 5 million, UK – over 1,777,000 (not including library, and institutional purchases); a record for both countries. Previous UK record was set by Goblet of Fire which sold 372,775 on its opening day.
  • In the US, FedEx delivered 400,000 books for and Barnes & on the first day, compared to 250,000 on Goblet of Fire’s first day. In the UK, Royal Mail delivered 500,000. (14)
  • In Canada, 70,000 pre-orders were delivered by Canada Post, and Raincoast Books which prints the book for Canadian distribution, has already ordered a reprint run of 55,000 copies.(16)
  • The entire state of Hawai’i, sold out of the book by Wednesday. The 5,000 volumes sent to Costco branches sold out the first day. (17)

I could keep listing statistics, but I think this gives you an idea of the unbelievable consumer need to get their 'Harry' as soon as possible, and also of the following the novels have achieved. Keep in mind however, this frenzy is not quite the windfall for booksellers and publishers that it looks like. Many retailers are selling the book at steep discounts off the US$29.99 cover price, fueling cash flow rather than profits. It’s been a bad year for publishing, and both Barnes & Noble and Scholastic are down slightly in the markets.(18)

Another aspect of these figures is that they are for English language texts only. Because of the security surrounding the novel, translators were not permitted to receive their copies before the public release date. Foreign language, Braille, audio, and large type versions are scheduled for later this year, with Braille due out the soonest (2 weeks). (19)

Our own ailie had first hand experience with a midnight Potter party at a Boston book store. ailie says: People were pretty civil, it was lots of fun. We sold about 300 copies of Harry Potter in the hour between 12 and 1 am, another 500 during regular business hours on the first day.

My favorite example of the power 'Potter' now exerts over the reading public is the story of a woman in Canada who reportedly was erroneously sold a volume one day early. When approached by the publisher with an offer of $5,000 for the return of the book (for one day, mind you), she refused saying ''I haven’t finished reading it yet.''(20)

That Spoiler Free Review

Not that it will make a difference any more....

I liked the book. I’ve liked all of them for their funny details and clever bits. The characterization has always been a bit flat and the writing rather predictable, but not bad, and certainly entertaining. Call it brain candy.

In tone and structure, #5 is very different from the first 3, and even from #4, the transition text. I have a little theory that JKR’s been using a plot formula she cooked up from 3 genres (detective and boarding school stories within each novel, and the classical epic* form over the whole series); when one subplot slows down, another can take over. It is one thing that helps make her work so satisfyingly full of detail and yet so lacking in characterization; there simply isn’t space amongst all the stock characters! But, I did wonder if book 5 would continue to hold on to the 3 genres considering the turn it needed to take.

It didn’t. Much less torturously configured than Goblet of Fire, the detective story has essentially departed and the boarding school story is something of a red herring, something sufficiently important to keep us (Harry and the reader) occupied as we stew and wonder what’s going on elsewhere. There is a great deal of uncertainty, mystery, and suspense, revelations and discoveries. It has nothing to do with a problem Harry and his pals can solve in the course of a school year. Instead, the issue of Harry as our developing hero having problems that are larger than who will win the House Cup, is explored thoroughly. The book is, I think, much stronger for it.

I found Harry less likeable, yet more realistic. Perhaps because he has unpleasant things to wrestle with almost all the time, he’s getting a bit cranky. But as his character develops, the story also becomes more interesting. He’s recognizably a normal, self-absorbed teenager filled with anger and angst and frustration. He’s still got identity issues (sadly lacking in the film versions, but one thing I’ve admired from the previous books). In fact, the whole world, magic and all, is more realistic. Bad things happen from which there is no easy solution, no neat resolution, no clean ending and no new beginning.

There are a few gratuitous moments of ‘payback.’ I found that even these lacked the early, rather harsh, ‘justice of the school yard’ mockery of JKR’s earlier works. They are held up against similar acts and revealed to be problematic. Perspective and the big picture keep intruding and revenge has become empty. It doesn’t fix the problem or return what has been lost.

All in all, this is a very interesting new addition to the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Due to the loss of one self-contained plot line and the great reduction of another, this book is most definitely a midpoint in a series. The ending lacks the satisfying closure of the first 3, and even of Goblet of Fire. We don’t even get to know what their O.W.L. scores are as the students don’t find out during the academic year. (Later) Just in case I'm not clear, I don't consider this a flaw. It simply is another indication that JKR is taking her narrative into a new (for her) dimension of storytelling. She is exploring the possibility of the longer format, and the story needs this. It is a difficult and brave thing to make such a significant change in a popular and successful formula. She began it in Goblet of Fire and it was awkward. Goblet of Fire could easily have been two separate books. In Order of the Phoenix she has successfully expanded outside of the confines of the previous mold.

* To clarify, I am using the term epic to refer to the classical model of the hero archetype. I would have used ''Heroic fantasy'' as this work is most definitely in the genre of fantasy, but ''heroic'' used here usually leads people to think of Conan the Barbarian and not King Arthur. I'm particularly thinking of the sub-genre of fantasy where the author is attempting to revisit the rise of a hero; think Lloyd Alexander's The Prydain Chronicles and you'll see what I mean. In these stories, the creation of a hero from obscurity is the reason for the story to exist. It is an educational story as well as a cautionary tale, and has historically been used to teach the young. That the model now resides in what is accepted as fiction rather than history does not eliminate its efficacy, as the hero archetype is well imbedded in our collective consciousness.

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**Near Spoilers**

A great deal of previously secret privileged adult information comes out, some history is revealed, and we get some more background on Harry’s parents and the feud with Snape. Several other largely secondary characters are getting a bit of solid character development as well, and I definitely think JKR has big plans for one. And all the hints listed elsewhere are essentially true.

Kudos to JKR for killing off the right character and making its inevitability progressively clear in the text. It must have been a difficult choice, and I’m interested to see what she will do with it.

If you want a spoiler or a hint or a clue, think really hard about whether you really want it or not, ‘cause if you /msg me, I will tell you.


JKR’s author page at Bloomsbury Publishing’s website. (

The webcast will be up for a week: (

New J.K. Rowling has her own website now: (

(1) Guardian Unlimited ‘’Harry Potter and the Crock of Gold’’ by John Arlidge, 6/8/03, (,10608,973910,00.html).
(2) Guardian Unlimited ‘’Bloomsbury booms every witch way’’ by John Ezard, 6/20/03, (,10761,981292,00.html).
(3) The New York Times ‘’A Wizard’s Creator Answers the World’’ by ALAN COWELL, 6/27/03, (
(4) The New York Times ‘’ Children's Book Casts a Spell Over Adults; Young Wizard Is Best Seller And a Copyright Challenge’’ by Doreen Carvajal, 4/1/99, (
(5) Guardian Unlimited (,10608,885387,00.html) Lawyers say Dobby is based on Putin 1/30/03.
(6) ‘’Behind ‘Harry’ Delivery, Months of Plotting’’ by Ariana Eunjung Cha, 6/24/03, ( The volume of pre-orders suggested that the target audience was already prepared to buy the book, however a representative of Scholastic, Judy Corman, said: ''It’s been a difficult retail environment, and our thoughts were ‘you don’t take too much for granted to make sure the audience is guaranteed, and blessedly they were.’’
(7) ''Are You Ready for Harry Hype?’’, 6/5/03, (
(8) ''Frenzy over Phoenix’’ 6/19/03, ( MSNBC ‘’Internet pirates hawk fake Potter’’ by Bob Sullivan, 5/8/03, (
(9) BBC News Potter smashes UK sales record 6/23/03 ( ).
(10) Business 2.0 ''Operation Harry Potter’’ by Ian Mount, June 2003, (,1640,49404,00.html).
(11) Reuters ''Scolastic Conjures Up 3rd Harry Potter Printing’’, 6/24/03, (
(12) BusinessWire ''Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Breaks All Records at Barnes & Noble’’, 6/22/03, (
(13) Reuters ''Major Book Chains Upbeat on Early Potter Sales’’ by Ellis Mnyandu, 6/22/03, (
(14) ''Harry Potter casts a record-breaking spell’’ by Jacqueline Blais, 6/22/03, (
(15) The Guardian ''Harry casts worldwide spell’’ by David Brown, 6/23/03, (,3604,982878,00.html)
(16) The Globe and Mail ''Fifth business’’, 6/23/03, (
(17) ''Real Harry Potter mystery is where to find the book’’ by Christie Watson, 6/25/03, (
(18) Reuters ''Used-Book Sellers to Jump on Potter Mania’’ by Ellis Mnyandu, 6/22/03, (
(19) Expatica ''France goes potty over Potter’’ June 2003, (,310,&item_id=32173). See also note (15).
(20) The Guardian ''Embargo fails to stem tide of leaks’’ by John Ezard, 6/20/03, (,10761,981299,00.html)