Tag Archives: decline

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.

The decline of reading in the UK and the US

I used to hear it all the time as a public library employee: “People just don’t read as many books these days.”

It’s almost a common-knowledge truism – certainly something that anyone with a love of literature is certain to have heard if not repeated. But a recent study by the University of Manchester suggests that British people actually read more than they did in 1975. [Hat-tip to Ariel]

The research seems to be pretty wide reaching (10-15,000 people surveyed in each country), but as with all statistics we can’t be sure exactly how this all pans out, and what factors are at work.

For example, the statement “in 2000, Brits read on average for five more minutes each day than they did in 1975” comes with a freight of ambiguity; it’s an average. It may be the case that demographics who were heavy readers in 1975 now have more time on their hands (and cheaper access to books), and have increased their reading as a result. But what of the demographics that traditionally read less in 1975? Are they reading more, or less, or the same amount? Has the flux in their reading time been absorbed by the increase of the time- and money-affluent?

And what about age spreads? The Print is Dead blog reports on a survey which suggests that, in the US, kids are actually reading far less than they used to – despite the alleged success of [multi-part YA book franchise I’m already sick of hearing about] as a ‘honey trap’ for the previously book-shy.

The same may well be the case here in the UK; I’m not even sure how one could go about getting figures that will actuially tell the whole story. The explosion of the ‘YA’ fiction bracket (a marketing term that I personally find cynical and degrading to authors and readers alike) suggests that there is plenty of reading going on at the younger end of the age scale. But sales figures aren’t the whole story – they don’t tell us who is buying these books, or who is reading them.

The fact that, overall, more books seem to be sold each year would suggest that reading as a pastime is far from dead. But who are those readers? Can we even find out? And what could we do with that knowledge – as a genre, as authors, as reviewers and critics and bloggers, as an industry – if we found it?

UK libraries update

Remember my despairing posts about the decline of UK libraries? Thanks to Tim Coates, a man who has campaigned against the decay of the service to the point of losing his livelihood and home due to being blackballed by the industry, here are some figures that illustrate the number of books that UK libraries have loaned out, compared with the amount of money spent on the services, and the percentage of that amount spent on books over the last decade: Continue reading UK libraries update

Science fiction: fragmentation, definitions and perspective

Okay, so why did I feel the need to post up details of my own personal history with science fiction stories, beyond the self-gratification factor? Because I think it shines a light on the way I define what science fiction is – the corollary of which is that everyone else’s definition is a product of their own experiences and preferences, too.

Continue reading Science fiction: fragmentation, definitions and perspective