Is Harry Potter hype bad for the book industry?

I’m allergic to hype of all kinds, but experience seems to show that it’s a fairly rare condition. Most people seem to enjoy the crescendo of excitement as a much-anticipated event approaches (Christmas, the HP7 launch, &c), and lap up the associated press coverage. Personally, the more I hear about something the more put off the entire idea I become.

But my curmudgeonly attitude is not the focus here. I instead want to argue that intense hyping of any book to this degree is quite possibly damaging to the long term health of the industry as a whole. But first …

An example of peripherary Potter bandwagonning

There’s just no escape, you see. Because of the way the media works, a hot topic gets leaped upon by all and sundry, no matter how tenuous the connection. Witness, for example, a social work researcher using the opportunity to plug the idea of discussing death with young kids. OK, it’s a laudable aim, I guess, but talk about blatant opportunism.

Of course, this is exacerbated by the way internet search engine optimisation works – everyone with a website wants a slice of the inevitable barrage of Harry Potter search traffic. Of course, there is no such cynical motivation behind this post. *cough* 😉

Signal and noise – items of genuine interest amongst the cruft

Along with the bandwagonners, there’s some pretty interesting articles riding on the coat-tails (or should that be cloak-tails?) of the Harry Potter hype-wave:

The spoilers issue

A great deal of the concern about the leaked copies and early reviews comes from readers concerned about ‘spoilers’. As I think I’ve said before, I agree with a number of other reviewers of my acquaintance in that, if a book can be ‘spoiled’ by a plot denouement ahead of reading it, it’s probably not much worth reading anyway.

That said, people do seem to have worked themselves up into paroxysms of angst over the possibility of finding out which character (or characters) die within the course of the story, regardless of how ambivalent and vague the alleged spoilers are.

But even this is baffling – if your enjoyment of a book is going to be spoiled by reading a review of it, then why the hell did you read a review of it? Maybe its just me, but that’s just bloody daft.

The perils of consistant overhyping

But I promised you a proclamation, and here it is – this degree of global frenzy over the release of a single book is really not a good sign for the health of the publishing industry.

“Oh, come on,” I hear you cry. “It’s getting kids into books!”

Well, it’s getting kids into Harry Potter books, certainly; but there’s little evidence to suggest that items outside the franchise (which probably come with a lot less hype and merchandising attached) have the same ability to capture the interest of kids who weren’t interested in reading beforehand.

“Well, it’s selling a lot of volumes, so Bloomsbury and Rowling are getting some good dollar. Surely you don’t begrudge them that?”

I begrudge them nothing. I think it’s great, in fact – I’d say that Rowling herself, a single mum who worked damn hard while on a benefits-level income to fulfill her dreams and write her books, is a far better role model than Harry himself, to be honest.

As for Bloomsbury – well, good for them, too. But they’ve gone and raised investor expectations. They’d better be able to keep on bringing out books that shift as well as the Potter saga, though – business is all about momentum, after all, and last year’s balance sheet only means anything when held up to this year’s.

Which brings us finally to …

“Well, what does the hype matter? If the books weren’t good, they wouldn’t sell, surely?”

Well, that’s a hard one to defy with facts and figures (though I suspect that’s more because I don’t have tham rather than that they don’t exist), so I’ll draw a comparison to another industry that fell into the hype cycle and bargained its future on relentless promotion of sequels of declining quality – hello, Hollywood.

The Hollywood Syndrome

Hollywood cinema is (literally) a text-book example of Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ economic hypothesis, and he’s got plenty of facts and figures to show that Hollywood movie viewing is in a steady decline. I think all but the least critical movie-goer might agree that the increasing desperation and shoddy quality of Hollywood product may have soimething to do with it.

[Personal anecdotal aside – walked past Blockbusters last night, and saw the cardboard promo-plinth thingy for some movie whose title now escapes me. Which isn’t surprising – the best blurb they could find to put on the thing was “dazzling special effects”. Wow.]

Of course, technological factors are at play with the Hollywood model – but as I’ve discussed here at length before, the publishing industry is approaching its very own technological singularity. It would be hoped that the industry will look at what’s happening to Hollywood, and realise that relentless hype is self-defeating, unless you can guarantee that the product will meet the expectations you generate for it.

Furthermore, publishing is already deep into the “play it safe with known successes” business model, which has been a Hollywood watchword for far too long.

Big hype is bad news

And therein lies my hypothesis – nothing flags up concern about product quality worse than relentless hype. If the book’s really that good, it’s going to sell just fine anyway, though maybe not at such a rapid rate on the week of release.

The content of the new Harry Potter bothers me not in the slightest – I have no interest in reading it (the first three were not my slice of pavlova, darling), and don’t really care whether it’s any good or not. But I do worry that the industry is far too desperate to make hay while the sun shines to think about tilling the land for future harvests.

4 thoughts on “Is Harry Potter hype bad for the book industry?”

  1. Thats a very very well written article. I have read only one potter book, had to stop midway because it stopped interesting me. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said there are no bad books, only well or badly written ones. The potter book seemed badly written, and lifted from everything that i seemed to have read when i was a kid.
    You hit it on the nail when you said kids may only be getting into harry potters, and not books in general. I’d agree, its like another fast-consumable item that you buy because everyone else does. That has nothing to do with quality. people don’t “get into” reading because of one book, most either have read since very young, or they don’t.

  2. I think hype is bad in general but hype about garbage is worse.

    I have a niece that was reading Harry Potter. I tried paying her to read a couple of sci-fi books. I have watched 5 movies and read 2 books trying to comprehend this phenom. The movies are no worse or better than Star Wars which doesn’t qualify as science fiction. I consider the movies to be good interpretations of the books but the books are too uninteresting to read. Just like Star Trek books. The effort of reading demands a higher pay back.

    But it is just a vast example of the bandwagon effect. Everybody has to do what everybody else is doing. The movie and publishing businesses just do it for the money.

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