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Can <i>Harry Potter,</i> Hillary Clinton, Oprah Save the Book Industry? - 2003-07-12


A children's fantasy writer, a U.S. Senator, and a famous television host are sharing credit for bringing customers into American bookstores. J. K. Rowling's new Harry Potter novel, Hillary Clinton's memoir, and the latest pick for Oprah Winfrey's television book club are all generating millions of dollars in sales. It's much needed good news for the book industry. According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of adult hardcover books during the first four months of this year were down nearly 30 percent from the year before.

Bookstores across the United States have been getting lessons in crowd control in recent weeks. Tara Fleming, who works for a B. Dalton bookstore in Austin, Texas, says it started in early June, with the publication of Hillary Clinton's memoir, Living History.

"It was like madness," she said. "It went on sale on a Monday, and by Tuesday morning by about eleven we were already sold out. We still have people coming in looking for it."

Soon after that came Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the long awaited fifth novel in the series. Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon was one of many stores nationwide to host a midnight sales launch party. David Weich, director of content and marketing for powells dot com, describes the scene.

"That was complete chaos," said Mr. Weich. "There were hundreds and hundreds of people here, and it has shown very little signs of stopping. Basically, as many books as we can get on the shelves are selling."

If madness and chaos aren't usually words associated with book stores, neither are the kinds of sales figures associated with the new Harry Potter novel. The book's American publisher, Scholastic, said it sold an unprecedented five million copies in the first 24 hours, breaking all publishing records. David Weich says it was even outdoing some high profile movies.

"People have been talking a lot about Harry Potter in terms of the numbers and scale against other entertainment industries that aren't generally discussed in the same sentence as the book industry," he said. "I think the more people talk about books that can only be good news for the book industry."

One more piece of good news is Oprah Winfrey's decision to revive her television book club on an occasional basis. The announcement turned her first selection, John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden, into an instant best seller, more than half a century after it was first published. Robert Newmann is President and CEO of Newmann Communications, a public relations firm that often represents authors. He believes the response to Oprah Winfrey's club offers important lessons to the book industry.

"She reinvigorated it and said, 'I'm going to focus on the classics," said Mr. Newmann. "And that is great because I think what was seen with her and what is seen specifically now with Harry Potter is if there is high quality literature, then there could be a revival not only for the book publishers but for book sellers. It's been a 'shot in the dark' industry where they're really not sure what will make it and what won't make it. And there really hasn't been a lot of high profile, high quality literature that is out there. If you stare at your best seller list, for example, your New York Times best seller list, you don't see a lot on there consistently."

Beardsley: And there have even been reports that books by some of our most reliable best selling authors, writers like Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark, haven't sold so well lately. What's that say?

Newmann: " I think what it's saying is that the American public is looking for new, and they're looking for creative, and they're looking for something out of the ordinary. Just like any other entertainment venue, there comes a time in which the American public becomes a little bit overrun with the same old, same old, and they're looking for new."

Beardsley: There are a lot of really creative books, interesting books published each year that don't become best sellers. How does the publishing industry go about publishing exciting literature but not losing huge amounts of money on all those that don't succeed?

Newmann: "It is a terribly tough industry. I think a couple of things are happening. They try and sign books that are similar to what has worked before, whereas there are some wonderful manuscripts that get turned down by major publishers. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series was turned down by 20 publishers, and then finally Health Communications Inc. Florida signed it, and they have sold 70 million copies. So there was a thirst amongst everything from teeny kids to teens to elders to get that type of spiritual literature, but the book industry had no eye for the fact that that could be successful."

And while a few best selling books may not be enough to revive an industry, there's evidence they can help stimulate sales of other books. Colleen Holt is an area marketing manager at a Borders bookstore in suburban Washington, D.C. She believes about half of those customers who come in to buy the Harry Potter novel end up taking away another book as well.

"Certainly the night of the Harry Potter midnight party they had a long wait. If they had gotten here at 7, they would leave people in line, and one by one go off and browse," she said. "And I saw many people with books other than Harry Potter that night, and the same thing with Hillary Clinton's book. I think it's definitely brought more people into stores, and I think both of them draw people into bookstores who aren't necessarily readers. So hopefully it's increased reading across the board. It certainly has for kids with Harry Potter."