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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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)