Harry Potter Inc

The boy wizard makes a spectacular return, in 5.7 million profit-spinning copies of a novel that lives up to all the hype

Brian Bethune July 17 2000

Harry Potter Inc

The boy wizard makes a spectacular return, in 5.7 million profit-spinning copies of a novel that lives up to all the hype

Brian Bethune July 17 2000

The Hogwarts Express has finally burst out of the station, both literally and figuratively. On July 8, after close to a year of relentlessly escalating hype, author J. K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling embarked on a four-day promotional trip around Britain—in an antique steam train done up as the one in her novels. On the same day, her long-awaited Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—the latest installment in the most popular children's book series ever penned—finally hit the bookstores. And not a moment too soon for many. “I just have to have that book,” 10-year-old Kiri Laing of Halifax said last week. She was far from alone in counting the days. Three earlier volumes of Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have together sold 35 million copies worldwide and made Rowlings exceedingly wealthy (an increasing number of product spinoffs and a movie due next year will make her even more so). The books still dominate best-seller lists, and their audience now includes hundreds of thousands of adults.

Now 14 years old, Harry carries on his slim shoulders the pent-up anticipation of adoring fans, the hopes of three publishing houses and the ambitions of his reclusive creator. At 636 pages, Goblet of Fire is almost as long as the first three novels combined. Bearing a hefty suggested retail price of $35, and with considerably darker content clearly aimed at older readers, it represents a remarkable gamble on Rowling's part. But if the author was worried that the size and tone of the fourth volume might disappoint her phenomenal audience, she gave no sign of it during a chaotic media scrum— two cameramen actually got into a fight—at King’s Cross train station in London. “Yes,” Rowling agreed with a nod to a shouted query, “ Goblet of Fire is darker in mood” than her other books. “But that’s the whole idea.”

As in the three earlier adventures, most of the action takes place at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the orphaned Harry battles his enemies, who range from school bullies to the evil Lord Voldemort, murderer of Harry’s parents. And, as before, Goblet of Fire absorbs elements from the whole spectrum of children’s literature: magic powers, growing up, school relationships, the pain of being different, the loss of loved ones. And, as before, the result is a wonderful story. The 35-year-old author, the most famous single mother in Britain (she has a six-year-old daughter), is highly inventive, funny, a fine plotter and a superb narrator. Her ability to make the parts that are supposed to be exciting actually so—a much more difficult art than it sounds—may be unmatched among her contemporaries. “I read the first book with my 11-year-old son, Simon,” remarks Eleanor LeFave, owner of Mabel’s Fables in Toronto. “And I still remember his heart beating against my arm during the last chapter.”

Such is Harry’s magical pull that Goblet of Fires unusual marketing campaign-by-silence alienated very few fans. No advance copies were sent for review, and for months all that was known about the novel were two facts, offered by Rowling herself: a character would die and Harry, as befits his age, would start to notice girls. Then in April, the length and price were revealed, and on June 26, the title and cover jacket were leaked. As intended, the very lack of information ratcheted children’s already high level of anticipation into the stratosphere. The campaign rolled along with remarkably few glitches. About 20 copies somehow found their way onto Wal-Mart bookshelves in Virginia a week before they should have, and Laura Cantwell, 8, of Fairfax, Va., found herself both a lucky customer and, briefly, a media darling. In Canada no leaks were reported until the very last day, when I the owner of two Toronto bookstores, claiming she thought the publisher would want “to give the little stores a head start,” sold 130 of her 150 copies in four hours.

The demand for Goblet of Fire seems so intense that it is quite possible most of the 5.7 million copies— the biggest print run for any English-language hard-cover ever—will be sold before a single child finishes reading it. The Potter series long ago shattered all previous marks in children’s publishing and is now toppling adult records. The unprecedented printings by Rowling’s three publishers—Bloomsbury PLC in Britain, Scholastic Inc. in the United States and, in Canada, Raincoast Books of Vancouver—reflect a similar level of interest. Online book retailer had more than 325,000 pre-orders, eight times its previous high (for John Grisham’s The Brethren). In Canada, Raincoast learned 10 days before the book was to go on sale that booksellers had ordered all 300,000 first-run copies— already more than twice the total of a Peter Newman or Margaret Atwood best-seller—so it printed 50,000 more. A week later, when most of those were also snapped up, the publisher ordered another 50,000. And the Braille edition which normally trails an original text by several months, was scheduled for the end of July.

Even the smallest of bookstores went big on Harry. Halifax’s Woozles Children’s Bookstore ordered 200 copies of Goblet of Fire, 20 times its normal order. “We could sell loads more if the publisher could supply them,” said bookseller Thomas McIntyre. Chapters, the colossus of the Canadian book trade with about 50 per cent of national sales, would not comment on the exact size of its order. “I’ll just say it’s one of our biggest buys of the year, probably of the decade,” said director of communications Helena Aalto. But the company did announce that, in yet another unprecedented Potter effect, it had contracted with Canada Post for Saturday home delivery of 10,000 pre-ordered copies on July 8. (The actual door-to-door delivery was carried out by those Canada Post employees who regularly empty street mailboxes on Saturdays.) Some of Chapters 300 stores opened early on H-Day, while others never closed their doors on July 7, staying open until 1 a.m. on the 8th in order to start selling Goblet of Fire at the stroke of midnight; major Indigo stores did the same.

It was the independents, however, who really celebrated Harry’s arrival. Theme parties were staged across Canada from Halifax’s Woozles (which featured a potion-brewing chemist and a palm reader) to Vancouver’s Kids-books, the country’s largest children’s bookstore. There, a professional set designer turned the entire 25-m storefront into a replica of Hogwarts School, and co-owners Phyllis Simon and Kelly McKinnon held a Potter party for 500 kids and family members starting at 11 p.m. on July 7. “We turned down another 500 people who wanted to come,” says Simon, “but 500 is all the fire regulations would allow.” Some of her guests had planned ahead. “I got a flashlight so we can read all night,” one 10-year-old confided to her younger sister. “Don’t tell mom.”

Even those who thought a party would be counterproductive—“my customers don’t want hoopla, they want to get the book, run home and read it,” said Jessy Kahn, owner of The Constant Reader, a Toronto children’s bookstore—weren’t treating July 8 as an ordinary day. “I am opening 90 minutes early, at 9 a.m.” Kahn allowed. “And I’ve bought a bottle of antacid.”

It was fitting that Kids-books threw the splashiest bash, given the store’s role in the history of Harry-mania in Canada. Rowling and her novels, now such constant presences in the national media, did not attract its attention until 16 months ago, making their first appearance in Canadian news reports in February, 1999. But in October of the previous year, McKinnon and Simon had already been alerted by the huge British sales racked up by the first volume, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, since its publication there in 1997. They asked Raincoast, Bloomsbury’s distributor in Canada, if it would bring in some copies. Raincoast imported 400, which Kids-books sold, entirely by word of mouth, within two weeks. Since that time, their total Potter sales, exclusive of the new novel, stand at 15,000. “We like to think we encouraged Raincoast to take Harry on,” laughs Simon.

Raincoast president Allan MacDougall, who readily acknowledges the bookstore’s role, takes up the story. “Bloomsbury told us the Canadian rights had gone to Scholastic along with the American ones. But in October, 1998, when I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I accidentally ran into the man who had been kids’ editor at Bloomsbury when Rowling was signed. I said, ‘You bastard’—we’re old friends, you know—‘why didn’t you get us the Canadian rights?’ He gave me a funny look and told me to check the Scholastic contract. So I went over to the Bloomsbury booth and talked to their managing director, Nigel Newton. He phoned London and had the contract looked over. The Canadian rights were still available.” Then, Newton asked MacDougall if—rather than simply import Bloomsbury’s editions to Canada—Raincoast would like to actually publish Rowling’s novels. MacDougall didn’t hesitate. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

As late as June, 1999, Raincoast had printed only 10,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), the young wizard’s second adventure. “We thought it would be great to sell maybe 25,000 of each novel over time,” MacDougall recalls. But it was soon apparent the series was catching fire. By October, 1999, two months after the publication of the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “with no author tour, no publicity, just the independent bookstores hand selling them like mad, we had sold half a million Potter books.” By Christmas, the three-novel total was one million, and has now reached 1.3 million. A privately held company, Raincoast has not commented on exactly what the stunning sales totals have meant to its bottom line, but Harry’s smiling presence is surely behind the publisher’s recent expansionary moves, such as the acquisition of Polestar Press last March.

It is not surprising then, that most in the industry believe Goblet of Fire is as sure a thing as exists in publishing, virtually guaranteed to expand Rowling’s estimated worth from $40 million to $300 million. But Harry’s handful of detractors, and even some of those who love the series, are not so certain. “I think it could be a bomb,” comments Toronto children’s literature critic Jeffrey Canton with some satisfaction, given that he finds Rowling’s hero one-dimensional and unoriginal. “How many kids have $35 for a book, one of the most expensive kids’ books of all time?” Canton asks. “Why didn’t the publishers bring it out in trade paperback? And Harry’s most dedicated readers are eight to 10, while I hear the new one is aimed at 13and 14-year-olds. Will it be too much for the loyal young crowd and of no interest to the older?” It is a good question, and young Laura Cantwell’s only quoted remark about her embargo-busting copy may point to an answer. “The beginning is not about Harry Potter and it’s not very exciting,” she told a reporter. In fact, the Potterless beginning of Goblet of Fire is exciting—at least for an older reader—as well as being very grim indeed.

Pro-Harry booksellers also worry about price and length. Vancouver’s Kids-books has slashed its own profits by reducing the price to $26.99, a discount level otherwise only seen in chain stores. “We felt it was an unfair price for children,” commented co-owner Simon. “Please understand, we never discount, but we couldn’t penalize children.” Kahn of Constant Reader sent several e-mails to Raincoast urging that the book be divided in two. “The kids who did not read anything before Harry Potter may find the new one daunting—most have never seen a 636-page book.” Most booksellers, however, report little price resistance. Victoria’s Bolen Books phoned every one of the 1,500 customers who pre-ordered a copy to inform them of the unexpectedly high price, but none backed out. for links

Publisher MacDougall, with his own not inconsiderable stake in Harry’s success, was able to relax after H-Day passed, though not for long. Once the Goblet of Fire release was over, Raincoast announced that Rowling would finally make her first trip to Canada this fall, visiting Vancouver and Toronto in October. Another media frenzy will almost surely start to build soon, but for now MacDougall remains unperturbed. “Rowling has broken the rules all along,” he says, “and always successfully.” Regardless of what happens, Raincoast is “proud of what we’ve accomplished—we were never out of print, never failed to get books to stores. Harry Potter gave us the chance to show that a small Canadian publisher is quite capable of doing what multinational houses do.” And MacDougall and the booksellers are united in astonished glee on one point. “Could you have imagined 10 years ago,” he says, “that the highest-profile figure in kids’ entertainment in 2000 would be a literary character?”


Bigger, costlier, grimmer—and triumphantly better—Goblet of Fire is the best novel in the series.

Some highlights:

Voldemort makes his first substantial—so to speak—appearance since the first book.

A memorable new character bears, with good reason, the name Mad-Eye Moody.

Like the heroes of traditional fairy tales, Harry has to accomplish three tasks—including a nasty battle with the vicious Hungarian Horntail dragon portrayed on the cover—any one of which would have made an exciting finale.

The gripping conclusion is a virtuoso turn by author Rowling that changes the future tone of the series.

Brian Bethune