Tag Archives: product

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.

DRM – what’s dumb for music is dumb for books, too

Thanks to Tobias Buckell, I caught another slice of wisdom from Eric Flint of Baen Books on the subject of piracy (though not the sort with ships and cutlasses, mind) and the genre fiction market:

“You literally can’t penetrate the obscurity of the book market. You’d have to spend every waking moment reading book reviews—and even that wouldn’t suffice, because the book reviewers themselves, all of them put together, can’t keep up with the production of new titles.”

(Yup.)

“In short, the book market is just about as opaque as any market there is. I might mention, by the way, that this is not the least of the reasons that the fears of authors that they’ll get “pirated” are almost always just plain silly. With the exception of a tiny percentage of very well-known authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, the real problem authors face is that only a very small percentage of their potential customers have even heard of them—so how likely is it that the ravening hordes of electronic pirates are out there plundering their titles?”

And a little further on:

“In the real world, the only authors—or musicians, by the way—who get “pirated” in any significant numbers are ones who are already famous and enjoy top sales. (And all the “piracy” is likely to do, even then, is simply boost their sales. See my next essay for a further discussion.) The great problem faced by all authors—musicians are in a very similar position—is the opacity of the book market. The entertainment market in general, actually, even movies. Compared to that problem, all others are fleas standing next to mammoths.

It is therefore absurd for an author or a publisher to support DRM, when DRM not only makes the market still more opaque, but—worse yet—it removes the best tool any author has today to penetrate that obscurity, at least a little.”

That is, of course, the O’Reilly / Doctorow “piracy as progressive taxation” argument, but here it’s coming from someone who knows the industry of which he speaks from the beancounting end. And the music industry comparison is timely, what with plunging CD sales and corporate panicking making headlines. They’re failing spectacularly; publishing would do well to learn from their mistakes.

Further evidence from O’Reilly, via Doctorow (ZOMFG! H4X! k0nsp1r4cy!), in the form of a case study of sales and download figures for a non-fiction title whose free availability became a Digg headline:

“…what’s most striking (apart from the huge scale mismatch, in terms of the number of people accessing the content through the free online version), is that when the downloads spiked in January of this year from about 8000 a month to nearly 30,000 after the book’s free availability was noted on digg, we didn’t see a correspondingly sharp decline in sales. Of course, neither did we see any evidence that free availability of the book spurred sales. And as noted above, there is a sharp drop at about the time the download data starts that is likely unrelated to the downloads, even though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that downloads had some effect.”

This is of limited relevance here – because popular fiction is a different kettle of fish to obscure geek tomes on the future of telephony, and because this is a case where a free, easy and perfectly legal source for the electronic version was made available. But even so, it’s worth noting that there was no sharp decline in sales.

Of course, the best way to nullify piracy, as Flint and O’Reilly have both said before, is to make the stuff freely available at source. Publishers have been reticent about this, which is probably no surprise – the economics of abundance is a pretty new phenomenon in creative works, after all – but the problems being experienced by the record labels should be sufficient impetus to start planning ahead.

And the options are there – even Google, those filthy copyright-infringing bookscanner types, are holding out a hand to publishers by offering them the chance to have branded portals to the content of theirs that Google makes available:

“Publishers can tailor the index of their search engine so that only books published by them show up in the query results, Google said Friday. As in the main Book Search site, these result pages give users the option to link to online shops that sell the listed books.”

Sure, Google gains from this. They’re not stupid. But publishers stand to gain, too – and while playing King Canute as your business dwindles might be a glorious stand for what you’ve always believed in, it’s ultimately an empty display if you’re in the business of getting good reading material in front of the eyes of readers. Go with the flow; it’s easier to adjust your stroke if you’re not swimming against the tide.

The future of marketing

If the core mode of science fiction is extrapolating current ideas into an imagined future, then quite a few people can be said to be doing it in one form or another:

Penny Arcade webcomic

Image © 1998-2006 Penny Arcade, Inc.

Nice subtle bit of humour from the Penny Arcade boys, there. Click through for the full-size version, and have a read around while you’re there. If you or any of your mates are serious gamer/obsessive types, you can’t fail to find a good laugh.

I’m being decidely un-writerly this evening and going out for beer and loud music. Yeah, so call my lawyer … 🙂

Product placement

As the DRM wars heat up, and the rise of peer-to-peer sharing shows little sign of stopping (despite ineffective and draconian litigation against children and people who don’t even own computers), the smarter computer games companies are looking at new ways to monetise their products. Continue reading Product placement