Thursday, July 19, 2007

And here I thought Monday would be timely.

But the New York Times and Baltimore Sun got the jump on us, with reviews today of the new Harry Potter. And bravo to them: while Scholastic is entitled to try and stoke the flames of publicity--I mean, "preserve the magic moment"--by insisting on all kinds of secrecy, it's equally the job of the press to get the scoop. More than equally: by loudly embargoing review copies, swearing booksellers to hide the boxes, and going after bloggers who might or might not have reproduced pages from the book, Scholastic made their own blockade news, practically obliging journalists to get their hands on a copy. (You wouldn't know this from the deeply embarrassing Huffington Post story, though, which, in its stomping around like a little girl, reminds me that we are talking about a book for ten-year-olds.)

Our review, if the owls or whatever get the book to my house on time Saturday, will appear online Monday. Given that Scholastic seems to be insisting that the entire world should and will read the book this weekend, I guess we don't have to worry about spoilers. Except I do think we need to worry about spoilers, or at least be concerned about a willfully infantilized culture of suspense junkies so insistent on "not knowing the ending" that the future is probably going to kick our whiny, self-obsessed ass into oblivion. But that's a topic for another day.

20 comments:

gail said...

"willfully infantalized culture of suspense junkies"

Oh, Roger, duck! Duck!

I'm getting out of town this weekend. Perhaps the dust will begin to settle by the time I'm back on Monday afternoon.

Anonymous said...

If there really is any actual concern about the "spoilers," then it is from a willfully infantalized *corporate* culture. However I suspect Scholastic's marketing department has engineered its hissy-fit in order to feed news outlets with reasons to keep Harry in the press. The end-users don't seem to give a whit about pre-release spoilers, they just want to get their hands on the freakin' book. --m

rindawriter said...

Oh my! As I say about the cats in my house, what a lot of Ffffffft Ffffting around does go on!

Even I am begining to feel like part of an HP emergence online now...

Saipan Writer said...

Stomping around like a little girl? Dangerously close to name-calling. And unnecessary.

Also, I disagree.

It may be a news-coup for the NYT to review HP Deathly Hallows before the release date, but there's nothing wrong with an HP fan saying they find it offensive.

Just like a White House leak about a CIA operative--news, but offensive. We can object and not be little girls.

Roger Sutton said...

Are you kidding, Saipan? It was totally namecalling. And I indulged in it because the writer in question was acting like a spoiled-brat fangirl rather than a journalist.

Books and films and theater are routinely displayed to media journalists before publication because the producers hope the reviews will bring customers. In their turn, journalists review these productions as both news and service journalism, giving people information about something so that they can decide whether or not to put their money in that direction.

Scholastic doesn't care about reviews for HP, nor do they have any need to. But why would you allow them to control the media reception of a book? Why does this book get a "magic moment" and not the thousands of others published for children? By your logic (and the Huff Post writer) the enthusiasm for HP is so great that perhaps journalists should be forbidden from saying anything negative about it. Let's let Scholastic make all the rules. Why do you want to give them so much power?

Since Harry Potter, other children's publishers have occasionally asked me to sign a contract swearing not to divulge the contents of a book before publication day. I always say no, and tell the publisher that they can always wait until publication before sending us a book. This of course will delay any review. You may or may not be surprised that most often they cave.

Andy Laties said...

Isn't there an analogy of some sort to the way Harpercollins pitched and sold that O.J. Simpson book -- "If I Did It" -- to booksellers last year?

Recall that the Harper sales reps informed the booksellers that an unnamed Big Book was coming out, and that the booksellers would have to place their pre-orders without knowing this book's title or subject -- but BOY had those booksellers better place a big order because this unnamed book was going to be BIG.

Secrecy merely to make more money.

So I agree that to ignore the commercial aspect of Scholastic's corporate behavior is pretty absurd. This is about profits.

Is it in fact such an unmixed blessing for the currently living citizens of the world to have the chance to jointly, simultaneously experience the plot developments in this popular fantasy soap opera?

I do understand that back in Ancient Greece, the community in an amphitheatre was somehow brought into mystical accord through theatre. Catharsis was supposed to engender social resolution.

But we're talking tens of millions of readers distributed around the world. There will be no social OUTCOME of joint simultaneous awareness of the Harry Potter Ending. Will there be a cessation of hostilities in Iraq as a result? The end of global poverty? What GOOD does it do for everyone to observe this particular information embargo? Children will have a magic moment?? Children's literature is a backlist business, which means that a great book is one discovered for The First Time by generation after generation. Initial release is meaningless. Every baby reads Very Hungry Caterpillar for the first time. The release date is the date when the reader first encounters the book: when the story is released into each reader's unique awareness.

dbxqb said...

Can we talk about corporate greed while we're on the subject? I'm still choking on the $34.99 list price for Volume 7. Granted, it's bigger than your average hardcover children's book, but does really that merit double the price? Especially on a book with a seven-digit print run which is guaranteed to sell millions of copies -- in HARDCOVER?

I'm especially incensed that Amazon and other big-box stores can offer a 49% discount which brings the price down to a reasonable $17.99. I pre-ordered two copies from my local independent which could only offer a 10% discount, and shelled out more than $60. THAT was a rude awakening!

Why not just offer the $17.99 price with no discounts to everyone in the first place? Scholastic is still going to make money. Rowling is still going to make money. The big box bookstores are still going to make money.

This whole scam has really made me lose a lot of respect for Scholastic. Yes, I know they're first and foremost a business. But when they happen onto an embarrassment of riches such as they've had with the Harry Potter series, I wish they'd been a bit more magnanimous. Instead they've chosen to feed the beast of the big-box stores. It just goes to show that in the real world, Voldemort always wins.

Wendie O said...

dbxqb--

Scholastic doesn't always make money with the Harry Potter books. In fact, some years they lose money with all their hoop-de-la.

They may print millions -- but it's possible that a third of them (anybody know the numbers? maybe more?) will just remain part of a huge pile sitting in the bookstores and then will either be returned to Scholastic or destroyed. All of these are a loss to Scholastic. They need to sell more than are returned to even get a tiny profit from the book for the company. Having a sell-through is a dream and usually never happens. There are always leftovers whose full cost of production you have to cover.

I know people who had manuscripts bought by Scholastic, who already had cashed their advance money in various Harry Potter years, only to discover that their book was cancelled and handed back to them. (yes, they could keep the advance, but Scholastic said they couldn't afford to publish the book.)

yes, they're trying (and succeeding) to create excitement about this book. (and all the Harry P. books) I find it fun to watch.

This will be the first time that I'm scheduled to work on a Harry Potter publication day and I'm looking forward to seeing all the excited parents and children come pick up the book the minute we open the doors. I suspect it will be all hands on deck and we librarians will be helping the circ people check all these books out.

Like Betsy Bird in NYC, All of our library's copies of the previous 6 books are already checked out as people try to catch up with the story and be ready when book 7 arrives. (I've read the whole set myself this July.)

-w

Roger Sutton said...

Wendie--what you say about sell-through and all is generally true, but Scholastic consistently makes a lot of money from Harry Potter. The retail discounting affects the profit of the bookseller, not the publisher.

And, dbxqb, in this country the publisher is not allowed to establish the retail price of the book. This wasn't always true, nor is it an international standard. But Andy, if you're out there, could you give us a more informed explanation on how pricing works?

wokalus said...

wendie o, I find it very hard to believe that Scholastic doesn't always make money on Harry Potter.

First of all, I haven't seen them put a whole lot of money into marketing the series. They'd be stupid to do so. You couldn't buy the kind of publicity Harry Potter has has since about the third volume. As Roger said earlier, they don't even send out advance copies because they don't need to. They know the book will be reviewed by newspapers and magazines everywhere. And, even then, the reviews won't make much of a difference. Even small libraries will buy multiple copies, and I'd wager that large library systems like NYPL have bought hundreds. And that's just the library market, which is a drop in the bucket these days.

Second, if returns are such a problem for Scholastic, why was a second printing needed within three days of the publication of book four, even with an initial print run of a million or more? This was also the experience with the subsequent volumes. For each volume, Scholastic ups the initial print run and it's never enough. With each volume, we read reports of a new sales record being set, and reprintings being ordered in record numbers.

And the books continue to sell with subsequent print runs, even in hardcover. After Book Four was published, the Harry Potter series was removed from the NYTimes bestseller list because volumes 1-4 occupied the first four spots on every bestseller list, and they weren't budging from those spots.

In short, if you're the publisher of the best-selling book in history and you're not seeing a profit, something is seriously wrong with your business plan.

Perhaps your friends are having their books canceled because the big box stores have indicated they won't stock them.

dbxqb said...

Interesting, Roger. Then who did set the retail price of the book? Who told Scholastic they had to print $34.99 on the jacket flap?

Roger Sutton said...

Nobody. That's Scholastic's suggested retail price. Retailers can sell a book for whatever they want.

dbxqb said...

Oh, I get it, Roger. Let's take the standard 60/40 cut then and do the math on that one.

So a retailer can buy a copy of the book directly from Scholastic for $21, and then sell if for $50, and make a profit of $19. Or a retailer could buy a copy from Scholastic for $21, sell it for $2, and lose $19. Or a retailer could buy a copy from Scholastic for $21, sell it for the list (I mean, suggested) price of $34.99, and make $14.01. But Scholastic doesn't set the price. I get that now.

So, geez, the stores like Amazon and Borders must be losing $3 on every book they sell, if they're selling them for 17.99 and owe Scholastic $21 for each copy.

Maybe Andy will be able to explain to us how that works.

dbxqb said...

Sorry, that first retailer should realize a profit of $29. Of course, that's assuming the book sells, which is unlikely when the consumer can go down the street and get a copy for $2.

Saipan Writer said...

Interesting discussion on the market, pricing, and policies of book releases.

J.K.Rowling has such a huge hit on her hands that she is doing things differently. I think she is very much behind the single-release date and time attempt. And I think millions of fans WANT this, too.

Sure, it's hype. Sure, it's a money-making proposition. And of course, for future generations, there will be individual "release" dates when the books are discovered anew. But for those reading the series, and that's millions of people world-wide, this is THE release date. And we like magic moments.

I'm not saying that the NYT has committed a crime. I'm not saying that what they did is immoral or a betrayal of journalistic standards. I'm not saying they should be "forbidden." And I'm not saying Scholastic should have the power to "control" the media.

I am saying they could have exercised restraint and waited until the 21st--because that's what it means to be invited to a surprise party. Keeping the surprise a secret.

And I'm saying that it's not silly fan-girl speak to complain about the NYTs not cooperating with the magic moment. They tried to spoil the surprise party that millions of people wanted. For that, they can be castigated.

And Roger, just because you're not an HP fan, doesn't mean that weighing HP fan desires into the equation is unprofessional. It doesn't reduce a writer who complains to a child, and a silly female one at that.

Emily said...

The thing about Harry Potter is that they are books for suspense junkies. Rowling isn't a fantastic writer, and the chief appeal of the series is wanting to know what happens next. Some books, it is almost impossible to spoil the ending; some books, you reread again and again even after you know what happens; for me the Harry Potter books are not among them.

So I'm not ordinarily a suspense junkie, but in this case I'm trying to be surprised. (Which is not to say I have anything against the NYtimes for publishing that information).

Andy Laties said...

Hi dbxqp. There are several levels of economic opportunity for each kind of industry player (author, publisher, bookseller, consumer). If no dissertations have been written about The Finance Of Harry Potter I would be surprised.

Briefly, as Roger suggested and you then analyzed, the bookseller has complete freedom to set retail prices (although a recent rather stunning Supreme Court ruling may soon give power to set firm, nondiscountable, retail prices back to manufacturers such as publishers!).

However, in addition, the WHOLESALE price (for instance that "standard" 60/40 split on the preprinted retail price which you have heard of between publisher and bookseller) is a moving target; the split varies with the quantity of books ordered by bookseller from publisher.

The booksellers who order gigantic quantities of the book are getting a much better wholesale deal than the small indie bookstores that order 24 copies. It might be a 50/50 split for big bookstore accounts, or even a 45/55 split or for some retailers even 40/60!!

Amazon may be getting a full extra 15% margin to work with (45/55 publisher/bookseller split instead of 60/40 publisher/bookseller split for very small indie bookstores ordering a couple of copies) -- which of course makes it a lot easier for Amazon to charge a lower price to consumers.

This issue of how wholesale prices are set has been the subject of antitrust lawsuits between bookstore owners and publishers.

However the bigger question is the PURPOSE from a business standpoint of selling a book. That is: Some companies may decide to use a hot book as a Loss Leader. They will PLAN to lose money, and consider that loss as an advertising expense. Their intent is to 1) Secure customer loyalty and 2) Thereby sell some DIFFERENT and truly profitable products to these cheap-price-seeking consumers. Use Harry Potter to get them in the door and then sell them something else also.

What all booksellers -- big and small -- hate about the marketing of Harry Potter is that booksellers cannot stop supermarkets from using the book as a loss leader -- and the supermarkets are taking a much LARGER loss on this particular leader than even Amazon.

Wal-Mart's British subsidiary is selling the book for $10. They see the book as a tool for driving traffic into their stores. Naturally even Amazon's strategy is undercut by such a radical price-reduction!

So, lots of marketers are using their low Harry price to boost customer loyalty. The book is probably losing them money every time one is sold, but they figure it's worth the cost, since this gives them an Ad Campaign which whispers "Buyers ALWAYS save money when they buy from This Company".

Kelly said...

I've been out of town, so please excuse my late comment here. I've been wanting to comment on "the review" (which I read in the Guardian when in Edinburgh), but had no internet access.

What I wanted to say was this: I have no problem with Michiko Kakutani's early review. Kudos to her for obtaining a copy against the embargo. That being said...it was one of the worst book reviews I've ever read and she should be ashamed of it. Why bother to break the embargo and then write a bunch of baloney about HP being like Narnia and Oz. I doubt she's ever read Narnia or Oz. I know I never made it past the first couple of volumes of either, because the further volumes in each series are awful. I KNOW she's read HP, because I've read her earlier reviews. Why break the embargo and then write crap about the hero's quest. A waste of space if you ask me and unworthy of such an esteemed reviewer.

Anonymous said...

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was when first told of HP (I think it was right about when #3 was coming out) and advised to order the books from the UK.

Not only have we never suffered through the translation to Americanese (I like my British books to sound, erm, British), but it turns out to have been a character-building exercise as well. Since we're used to taking a bit of care to avoid spoilers for a few days after the publication date while our copy wends its way to us via Royal Mail, we haven't developed an entitlement mentality that says it's the rest of the world's job to protect us from them. (That's not to say we don't appreciate a heads-up; "spoiler alert" is just good form.)

Anonymous said...

emily: Speaking of suspense books one eagerly re-reads even though one knows the ending, there are two by T.H. White that I recommend highly.

The first is _Mistress Masham's Repose_. I first read it as a child and have re-read it many times over the years. The 1946 edition (reprinted by NY Review Children's Collection and also available used and at some libraries) is a must, for the Fritz Eichenberg illustrations.

The second is a murder mystery that White wrote in, I believe, 1933, called _Darkness at Pemberley_. I just read it for the first time a few years ago and will read it again. I think it is one of the best adult suspense novels I have ever read. It is out of print but I found it at the library and one can find used copies.

The writing in both these books is excellent. _Pemeberly_ is strictly an adult read (okay for young adults and probably some older children). It is a fairly straight-forward murder mystery, just better written than most and with a unique, very compelling, and (I found) hair-raising suspense element.

_Repose_ is thought of largely as a children's book but could be enjoyed equally by an adult. The suspense element is compelling yet not unnerving and the ending is very satisfying. It also has a large measure of fantasy to it, but of a down-to-earth sort. And it's very literate, and very literary. And with no shortage of Latin. And humor. And one of the best heroines of all time (all of the characters are drawn beautifully). And it is underpinned with running themes of personal responsibility, integrity, ethics, (appropriate) selflessness, and sheer bravery in the face of tyranny. It is the perfect gift for a strong reader who loves to read.