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Why 'Harry Potter' did a Harry Houdini
(TIME.com) -- We might expect it of Draco Malfoy, the sneakiest, snottiest student at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Something would go the slightest bit wrong -- a rat performing black magic, Dementors haunting the castle -- and Malfoy would point a finger at his innocent rival with the glasses and the lightning bolt on his forehead. But when the New York Times overhauls its best-seller list for the first time in 16 years, we'd hope for an excuse a bit more solid than "Harry Potter did it."
J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" -- fourth in the phenomenally popular series of novels about the education of a young wizard -- hit bookstores and web sites two weeks ago with an unprecedented blast. The first printing of 3.8 million copies (the largest in publishing history) was quickly exhausted, compelling Scholastic Books, Inc., to rush a huge second printing, which will raise the number of "Goblet" books in print in the U.S. to nearly 7 million. Surely this installment would be joining the three earlier Harry Potters (whose sales totaled 21 million here) in that familiar Valhalla, the top of the fiction list in the Times' Book Review section.
This Sunday, though, the nation's No. 1 best-seller won't be at the top of the nation's No. 1 best-seller list. Neither will the second, third and fourth. Americans young, and not so young, may be in the grip of Potterphilia, but "Goblet of Fire" and the others will not be in their rightful slots. In the first revamping of its lists in 16 years -- a change that casts a cool light on the hot war of competing best-seller estimates, both in print and online -- the Book Review has created a new children's list and consigned the Harry books to it. Instead, this week's list has a truly mature book at the top: "The House on Hope Street," the latest potboiler by Danielle Steel.
"I think books have got to be on one list or the other," says Charles (Chip) McGrath, editor of the Book Review. "It's somewhat arbitrary but nonetheless necessary that we have to decide. And it is not coincidental that the timing corresponds to the fourth Harry Potter book. It occurred to us that if we were ever going to do this step, this would be the time."
The Times' decision was a response to complaints from many publishers -- not Scholastic, of course -- that Harry Potter was hogging and clogging the top of the best-seller list, depriving the public of access to other popular fiction. "By expanding the number of books that are trumpeted in the pages of the New York Times," says Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday, "it increases the variety of books and the choices for different kinds of readers." It also increases the chance that a publisher other than Scholastic will be able to slap the phrase "The New York Times #1 Best-Seller" on a book jacket.
Not everyone is thrilled with the change. Barbara Marcus, Scholastic's president, has a severe case of annoyance. "Best-seller lists are supposed to represent what America is reading," says Marcus. "But the Times has chosen this moment in time to remove the phenomenon of our lives. Nothing has ever been as popular with families, adults, children, in the history of publishing, and it should be a giant celebration. Instead, the argument is being made that they are taking up too much room on the list."
Marcus gets support from one of her competitors: Craig Virden, the president and publisher of Random House Children's Books. "If a children's book is moving in the numbers that the New York Times editors deem appropriate for their best-seller list, then it should be there," Virden says, adding drolly, "I think that 3.8 million is an adult number."
The Times' new policy implicitly raises the question: What is a children's book? Is it by definition second-class literature? ("If an adult horror writer had been on the list for a year," says Marcus, naming no names, "would they have created a horror best-seller list?") McGrath speaks with the weary voice of an indulgent parent who has let his kids stay up late all summer: "Surely Scholastic and Harry Potter have had their moment in the sun." But Rowling's oeuvre -- in its charm and precocity the Shirley Temple, maybe the Mozart of pre-teen literature -- had earned its place at the grownups' table. Now it must go to a subsidiary list -- where, McGrath suggests, it always belonged.
Is a children's book a work written for kids? Or read mostly by them? If it's the second, then Harry Potter should be on both lists, adult and fiction. According to the NPD Group, a leading market research firm that tracks book-buying in 12,000 households, nearly 30 percent of Harry Potter purchases were made for a reader 35 or older. And we know one middle-aged, childless movie critic (all right, we that critic) who last summer read the first three books aloud to his enthralled wife, also an adult. The Potter series is one of those cultural events that spills out of narrow categories and into the Zeitgeist. Reading the books, kids feel more mature, adults feel younger. And all become part of a community where age doesn't matter.
Beyond the value of the books, the Times decision stokes another debate: whether value judgments should be applied to the raw data of popular preference -- and whether the compilers of lists can evict a work of popular art because it's just too darned popular. Back in 1964, five Beatles songs were in the top five slots on Billboard magazine's list; maybe the editors should have put the Beatles songs in a separate "moptop" category, to make room for Louis Armstrong and the Beach Boys. The talliers of weekend box office returns might get bored with all those popular gross-out teen slasher comedies ("Cut!") The Nielsen folks must have wanted to create a game-show niche once "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" started monopolizing five of the top 10 weekly slots. Instead, the calibrators of the people's favorites let the lists speak for themselves. In these snapshot moments, the mass audience couldn't get enough of the Beatles, scary movies, Regis Philbin -- and Harry Potter.
Perhaps the change does damage to nothing but Scholastic's pride. Says McGrath: "I really do not think that moving Harry Potter onto the children's list is going to affect Harry Potter one way or the other." That's true. But it has already singed the reputation of the Times list. "The plan is a jumble of loose ends that is continuing proof to some that the Times ain't what it used to be," observed Publishing Trends, an industry newsletter, "and that this latest project is only hastening the decline in its importance to the book industry."
In one sense, there is something delightfully old-world about the Times list. Its rankings are compiled from the unverified reports of nearly 4,000 bookstores, plus wholesalers. This process allows for some creative bookmaking. "People believe there are prejudices built into the Times list," says one publishing executive. "They think it's heavily slanted toward the independent stores, that it's not a fair representation of either the chain stores or the Wal-marts of the world -- and that perhaps stores have reported books they 'wished' were selling. They were more likely to report a literary book than a romance novel."
Thus the increasing influence of other book lists: from Publisher's Weekly, The Wall Street Journal and especially USA Today, which each Thursday publishes the raw data of actual sales from independent stores, chains and the dot-com dealerships. "A lot of people are looking at that list," says Liz Perl, executive director of publicity for the Berkley Publishing Group. "It gets stronger and stronger."
And what can threaten a Gutenberg-era giant like the Times more than a new-media kid on the block. The Amazon.com Hot 100 list, a reflection of sales over the web site, is updated hourly. (The Times Book Review, because of its long lead time, can publish only the very latest estimate of the books people were buying two weeks ago.) "The beauty of Amazon is the instant gratification," Perl says. "If you have an author who appears on, say, 'Rosie O'Donnell,' you can find out right away whether or not there's a bump in the Amazon numbers."
The Amazon sample can be misleading, since the taste of its buyers doesn't always match that of bookstore browsers. Self-improvement texts do better on Amazon, romance novels far worse. Nora Roberts' "Tears of the Moon," the Times' paperback No.1 and USA Today's sixth top seller, is No. 19 on Amazon. Roberts' "Irish Hearts," 17 in USA Today, is 313 on Amazon. One of USA Today's best-selling romances, "Wild Child," doesn't even crack Amazon's top 1,000. So is the list important? "In terms of actual sales, somewhat," says Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday. "In terms of author psychology, very important. Authors check it like daytraders keeping track of the NASDAQ." (In fact, the list is so fickle and fast-moving that the numbers we've quoted here are already out of date.)
From new media and old, the Times list will continue to be challenged. That's fine with McGrath. "If there has been a proliferation of best-sellers lists," he says, "in a way it's a compliment to our list. It's people wanting a piece of the action." And even the carpers in the book biz can't do without it. "We get annoyed with the list," says one insider, "then we put it on the cover of our books and build it into our contracts." (Many author-publisher deals have escalator clauses if the book hits the Times list.) As McGrath notes: "The list has become something it was never intended to be: a vast marketing engine."
The engine is likely to keep on chugging, even in the jet age. But it has coughed a little steam in its decision to throw Harry Potter off the train. McGrath wants to be seen as open to input from the people who buy ads in his Book Review. "I think what we're going to do is to take our cue from the publishers," he says. "If you publish a book as a children's book, we will treat it as that. If you publish a book as an adult book, we will treat it as that. We'll take our cue from you. And Harry Potter was published as a children's book."
Note to Barbara Marcus of Scholastic: Next summer, when the fifth Harry Potter book is due, simply designate it as adult fiction. The boy will be 15 by then; he could be the Holden Caulfield of wizards.
Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.
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