Desperately Seeking Harry

19 August 2011

Big publishing is searching for someone to fill Potter’s shoes.

Excerpts from a long Wall Street Journal article:

Erin Morgenstern, an elfin painter with ink-black hair and a fondness for bowler hats, Tarot cards and antique clocks, has never published so much as a short story before. Now, with her first novel coming out in September, she’s at the center of the most high-stakes competition in the entertainment industry: the race to discover the next Harry Potter.

Ms. Morgenstern’s novel, set at the turn of the 19th century, tells the story of two young, love-struck magicians who compete in a magical circus. Doubleday won the novel with a high-six-figure advance. Rights have sold to 30 foreign publishers; some countries paid six figures, a sum typically reserved for established blockbuster authors.

Hollywood studios, eager to anoint the next fantasy blockbuster following the end of the $7 billion Harry Potter movie franchise, began circling immediately after the book sold. Summit Entertainment, the production company behind the “Twilight” films, snapped up film rights in January and has been pitching the novel to “Twilight” fans in hopes of shoring up a fan base. The producer of the Harry Potter movies, David Heyman, is in negotiations to produce the adaptation.

Booksellers that have been hard hit by the recession and the digital revolution have seized on “The Night Circus” as a potential cure for lackluster sales in a post-Harry Potter world.

. . . .

Ms. Morgenstern and her publisher face fierce competition in the industry’s ongoing search for the next big crossover fantasy book. “The Night Circus” has elements of Harry Potter (magic), “Twilight” (forbidden romance) and the postapocalyptic young-adult trilogy “The Hunger Games” (a high-stakes competition). But it lacks key features that helped make those books major franchises. Ms. Morgenstern wrote it as a stand-alone novel rather than the start of a series. And while publishers and booksellers are pitching it to fans of young-adult fiction, it’s an adult title that will be stocked in the general fiction section, which could limit its exposure among younger readers.

It’s landing in a crowded marketplace. Publishers are shelling out big advances for debut novels that promise to lure young adults and adults alike and reach fans of literary and commercial fiction.

. . . .

The frenzied search comes at a tumultuous moment in publishing, with Borders bookstores closing around the country. In the digital era, splashy book releases have become crucial to publishers’ and bookstores’ bottom lines—so much so that Barnes & Noble executives regularly referred to Harry Potter releases in quarterly earnings calls to explain dips and spikes in sales. With the massive success of the series—more than 450 million copies have sold globally—publishers and booksellers began to treat books more like movies, with viral marketing campaigns that begin months in advance, and elaborate themed events.

“Harry Potter taught publishers how to make event publishing resemble event-film releases,” says literary agent Eric Simonoff.

. . . .

With publication still weeks away, an army of “Night Circus” evangelists has formed, with booksellers on the front lines. Page & Palette, an independent bookstore in Fairhope, Ala., has ordered 400 copies of “The Night Circus” and is planning an elaborate book party with a circus tent and a magician. BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas, is organizing a “Night Circus” release party featuring magicians, a contortionist and a Tarot-card reader. BookPeople CEO Steve Bercu says quirky marketing events can “move the needle on your whole year in book sales.” Around 5,000 people attended the store’s release party for the final Harry Potter book in 2007, resulting in the sale of more than 1,800 books.

. . . .

Ms. Morgenstern has had an unorthodox rise to literary stardom. A 33-year-old Massachusetts native with pale skin and wide-set amber eyes, Ms. Morgenstern has never left the country and just applied for a passport. She studied theater and lighting design at Smith College; after graduating in 2000, she bounced around as an office temp.

She was miserable, “making photocopies for law professors who couldn’t work the copy machine.” After a few years, with her husband’s support, she quit temping and devoted herself to painting and writing, spending long, solitary hours in their home in Boston. She sold her artwork for $20 to $30 a print. In 2005, she crashed out a manuscript during National Novel Writing Month, a kind of literary endurance race for writers who goad one another into completing a 50,000-word novel in four weeks. About halfway through, her project stalled.

“I got really bored with what I was working on, so I sent all the characters to the circus,” she says.

. . . .

At one point she grew so discouraged that she considered destroying the book. Her husband hid a hard copy of the novel from her in a drawer. Finally, a few agents got back to her with more-encouraging rejections, suggesting that the book could work with major revisions.

. . . .

Doubleday is pitching the book to romance and fantasy fiction blogs as well as young-adult fiction sites. A bold bid for a mass audience could backfire. Young adults might find the book too sophisticated, and some adults might deem it too precious (the novel features a pair of acrobat kittens).

Other recent fantasy franchises pitched more squarely at young adults have been touted as more-promising heirs to Potter. Rick Riordan’s mythological “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series has 30 million copies in print and spawned a 2010 film directed by Chris Columbus. Christopher Paolini’s dragon-filled “Inheritance” fantasy books have sold more than 25 million copies, and Knopf is planning a huge 2.5 million-copy printing for the next book in the series, out this fall. Angie Sage’s “Septimus Heap” series, about a young wizard’s apprentice who battles evil spirits, has been optioned by Warner Bros. All three series have been best sellers, but their combined sales don’t come close to J.K. Rowling territory.

. . . .

Her Doubleday editor suggested she write a “Night Circus” prequel, exploring the rivalry between the two magicians who pit Marco and Celia against each other. She’s not so sure she wants to write more about the circus. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on me in terms of ‘what’s she going to do next?’ ” she says.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire after a few days)

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Bestsellers, Big Publishing

22 Comments to “Desperately Seeking Harry”

  1. Interesting. There’s been quite a bit of publicity about this book. I keep thinking of the children’s book, In the Night Kitchen, which my kids loved when they were little.

    I don’t know…my nephew loved Percy Jackson but I had zero interest in the story, whereas Harry Potter was a series for all ages. I didn’t care much for Christopher Paolini’s stuff either.

    Isn’t publishing always looking for the next big thing? I wish the author luck – it’s always a crap shoot.
    BTW, is it important to know she has pale skin and wide-set amber eyes? We ain’t talkin’ romance novel here…

    • Julia – For big publishing, the blockbuster is the thing. Either you’re a giant star or you’re something stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe.

      I wonder if the big bookstore parties are going to work for a first-time author. The Potter parties worked because the attendees had already read several Potter books and were into that world.

  2. When I was a young stage actor, I mentioned to an older colleague that I wanted to be the next [famous person]. He told me “don’t be the next him, be the first you.”

    There isn’t going to be a next Harry Potter.

    Night Circus is a one-off, and if the author is publicly expressing hesitance in writing more about it, that doesn’t bode well for its future as a cash cow. I think it’s a great concept, though, and it must be well-written to have garnered so much attention from publishers.

    What I find most interesting, though, is the transmedia platform they’re building. Failbetter Games is creating a web-based game to help promote the book, and they really know their stuff.

    • Brendan – Thanks for the insight on Failbetter.

      Who knows what the author is really like from a couple of quotes in an article, but one of the reasons JK was successful is that she was really into her characters and her world for the long haul. If Morgenstern is feeling overwhelmed before the book comes out, I don’t know what’s going to happen to her when she’s swamped with publicity.

  3. I saw this yesterday, and I feel bad for Erin. I mean, she’s making bank and all up front, which is great, but there is no way any book could stand up to this kind of pressure. With this much hype, people will buy the book, and then tear it to shreads no matter how good it is, because I don’t think even Harry Potter was THAT good right out of the gate. You can’t force a phenomonon.

    The Husband and I were talking about this and decided that it was still a good deal for the author provided that a) she went in expecting this to fail, b) was ok writing under a different pseudonym forever after and c) was not stuck with a terrible contract (particularly non-compete).

    I mean, I could be wrong and this really could be the next HUGE thing. But when has publishing EVER called that right? Besides, people love to tear down the big thing (witness all the Twilight hate), so how can you hope to succeed when the haters are going to get going at the same time (if not before) the honest fans? In a real phenomonon, the fans get firmly established before the haters move in.

    • Interesting analysis, Mercy. The first Potter book was really not that well-written, but JK became a better writer as she rolled along. She also had a chance to deal with slowly-building fame and expectations.

      I think one of the reasons Pottermania was so powerful is that most people learned about Harry when more than one book was available, so they could do a deep dip in his world right away.

  4. I find this stuff fascinating. Disturbing, too. It’s like Rick Riordin’s Olympian tour — The huge push, the fanfare, the vast amounts of money spent, the huge risks. This stuff always reminds me of the Las Vegas gamblers making that last desperate effort: Everything on red!

    The problem I see is that publishers are looking at results, but ignoring process. Rowling’s first print run was 500 copies. From that tiny seed, a might literary tree grew and grew. I wonder what would have happened if her publisher had said, “HP is a mega-bestseller. I know it.” And given her debut a 3 million copy print run and a promotional budget in the hundreds of thousands. Would readers have responded? Don’t know. HP didn’t become a mega-bestseller because of what the publishers did. That I do know.

    • JW – I too have sensed an underlying desperation for both publisher and booksellers in the descriptions of all the publicity and money supporting this launch.

      If the book doesn’t go big quickly, I fear the author will be universally known as the one with the big bust to the detriment of her future career. You probably read one of the earlier comments about her writing under a pen name for future books.

    • HP grew from the ground up, yes you’re right. It wasn’t shoved at us from the top down as the next big thing – the book we should all love and heap accolades upon. The process was organic and natural – and I read the first book as soon as it came out – loved it. I didn’t think her writing was bad – I found her characters absolutely engaging. Characters will always win me over, not hype and gimmicks.
      I’m reserving judgement. Sounds like the author is as well. I mean, really, think about it…how will she feel if the book flops? Is this really fair to her?

      • Julia – The characters got me in the first Potter as well.

        In the comparisons between a big movie launch and this big book launch, I haven’t read anyone who has noted that a big movie launch always includes one or more big, established actors and often an established director and an already best-selling book. They’re known quantities that generate organic buzz.

  5. Hmm. I think the point about HP teaching publishers how to do mass spectacle is pretty interesting. Not just HP, but Twilight, and the Hunger Games. If they’ve reorganized their business to produce big show stoppers, well, that’s what they’re going to make. You don’t use a hammer to do delicate engraving.

    • Genevieve – Agree this is interesting, but HP, Twilight and Hunger Games didn’t become mass spectacle with the first book. Each series built over time.

      Trying to force book 3 spectacle with book 1 is a risky proposition.

      • Oh, I agree. I just meant that the success of those series trained them to do this, and now that’s the machinery they have to work with. It was more of a when you a hammer, everything looks like a nail, even if it’s not a nail so much as delicate stained glass window sort of comment. Not everything is built to have sustained mass market appeal, etc.

        Is this all that much of a change in the industry, though? I thought they’d always made $ off only a few bestsellers? Or is it a matter of degree?

  6. ah, the desperate rattle of the big industry dice…good luck, Erin.

    Funny how the publicity is all about the publicity, and very little about the actual book.

  7. “What’s she going to do next?”

    The pre-publication hyped publicity of young authors is actually cruel and often career destroying. I suppose it is inevitable for publishers to oversell the next big thing without any regard for the future of the writer. But it is harmful. After receiving so many undeserved accolades, it becomes virtually impossible for a young author to write without constantly intending to outdo themselves, generating massive writer’s block. When a writer writes to meet expectations rather than simply expressing whatever comes into their minds, they become their own worst critic. Since the first draft is always crap, nothing is good enough, and it all goes into the dustbin.

    There are many examples. I am thinking of Donna Tartt with the Secret History and her forgettable second book many years later. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova also comes to mind. I wonder if Tea Obrecht with her over-hyped The Tiger’s Wife will fall into this pattern. I hope not.

    The question was asked, what if JK Rowling had received such an overwhelming debut rather than a 5000 print first run. Perhaps she never would have written book two because of being unable to meet expectations. Of course, she kept writing after she did hit the big time, but by then she had already developed the confidence of tackling her second book and third.

    Is this another reason to anticipate the demise of the big six publishers?

  8. Probably apropos of nothing, but I’m always asking people why they read one book or another. Not for market research, but because I’m nosy. I hear, “I read a review in the newspaper,” or “I heard the author on NPR,” or “My friend gave it to me,” or “I saw the movie,” or “I was browsing and liked the cover,” or… you get the idea. I have never once had anybody reply, “I saw an ad.” Does that mean anything? I don’t know. All I know is, I’ve never bought a book based on an advertisement or publisher publicity. It makes me curious if anyone does.

    • Eh. People are notoriously bad at accurately evaluating their own perceptions and actions. Self-reported data is generally pretty useless without some corroboration. Once you become aware of something enough times – including through ads, although ideally through multiple channels- it does gain legitimacy and credibility as a “real thing” that people are into.

      Like 50 years ago, and I forget his name, but a psychologist / social scientist came up with a construct he called “need for cognition” and devised a huge battery of questions to measure it. The idea was something like a resting mental RPM – some people just need to feed their brain more, or something. Anyway, it hasn’t held up as a construct at all, but that battery of questions turned out to be very good at predicting the thing he’d been hired to ultimately predict, which was susceptibility to advertising.

      Advertising does, unfortunately, work. Isolated banner ads on a website might not, but coordinated campaigns…they work, if they’re managed and executed well. They work really, really well, even if we’d like to think they don’t. Humans are such social animals, and we learn so well (and are thus suggestible), it’s sort of inevitable.

      This is not to say Morgenstern’s success is inevitable. I don’t know if her publishing company does have the marketing and advertising chops, but I wouldn’t discount the power of persuasion.

      /end weird relapse into academic career I narrowly avoided

    • Just to add to Genevieve’s explanation, the rule of thumb for TV commercials is the typical viewer needs to see one six times before he/she remembers ever seeing it.

  9. Very interesting story, thanks PG, for drawing attention to it. What baffles me is how Big Publishers are always, invariably looking for the next blockbuster by referring themselves to the PAST!!

    They don’t do market research to figure out what might tickle readers NOW. No, they look at the past, at Rowling and Meyers, and then try to find something that fits the R&M profile. Really! It’s just too depressing!

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