A Week in Books: The Harry Potter phenomenon

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

By his own death in 1870, Dickens had become one of the best-selling authors of his age, and one of the wealthiest - worth, in modern terms, around £12m. Tomorrow, another best-selling, wealthy author launches the latest transatlantic literary sensation, which may or may not contain the death of a much-loved character ("Is Dumbledore dead?"). Operation Rowling Thunder, as the the biggest book-launch in history might be called, begins at one minute past midnight. From a secret warehouse lorries have been moving copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince across the country with the intention of arriving at bookshops and supermarkets just a few hours before the doors can open. The numbers are extraordinary. In the first 24 hours more than 1.7 million copies are expected to be sold in the UK alone; worldwide sales of the English-language edition are likely to be 10 million. These are astonishing figures for a hardback book and nothing else published this year, either for children or adults (and Half-Blood comes in editions for both), will approach them.

If the logistics and planning are on the scale of a major military operation, the tenacity of the legal side in defending the embargo is worthy of the late Robert Maxwell. All retailers worldwide have had to sign a letter promising not to sell copies before 12.01am, well aware that a breach will mean a ban on selling the final instalment of the Potter saga, however many years away that might be. (Not that many will make much money from actually selling the books - supermarkets are engaged in cut-throat discounting just to attract readers into their stores. Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury will sell you a reserved copy with a cover price of £16.99 for £8.96. Under-15s can pick up a copy in Kwik Save for £4.99.) Fourteen fans who bought copies in good faith from a supermarket in Canada before an appalled manager realised his mistake have had a "John Doe" injunction slapped on them which prevents them even reading the book before Saturday.

It's a sign of how powerful the Harry Potter phenomenon is that a substantial secondary literature has grown around it. The latest title to appear is Wizard: Harry Potter's Brand Magic by Stephen Brown (Cyan Books, £7.99) which ascribes JK Rowling's success to a triumph of unconventional marketing. Brown believes storytelling has become the most plausible management theory: a brand needs to be be a character in its own, continuing, soap opera. People are naturally attracted to narrative, and the brand gains power and momentum through constant reinvention. Rowling's stories breed other stories: her own rags-to-riches life, the multi-billion-pound movie-franchise, merchandise tie-ins, anti-witchcraft critics, obsessive fans, ongoing publicity campaigns, constant rumours of the death of characters, future developments and the next volume's final denouement - and all lubricated by endless speculation on the frictionless internet.

Dickens was no mean marketer himself: on his final reading-tour of the United States he earned the equivalent of £1.5m. People used to say that if Shakespeare was alive today he be in Hollywood. Perhaps if Dickens were alive today he'd be a partner at McKinsey.