Free Harry!

In America, a nice childhood is English – its mythology and literature are, anyway. Upwardly mobile kids grow up on Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, Narnia, Pooh, The Secret Garden, The Lord of the Rings, and now Harry Potter. But this penchant for Englishness is odd. The English don’t like children. There may not be any other culture that has so consistently, and thoroughly, marginalized, even ostracized, its kids. The attraction to English kids’ books might result from some Anglophilia bred into American children (a kind of last remnant of Waspdom), or it might be that a child’s worst and most compelling fear is to be treated as English children have been treated.

Neither condition, however, quite explains the magnitude of the 3.8 million books that left warehouses across the country last week (along with the 21 million of the first three books in the Potter series that have been sold so far in the U.S.) or the breadth of the phenomenon of Harry Potter in America.

I have a child, age 12, who is devoted to Harry (I trust her copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has reached her at summer camp). These books have been unavoidable in my house. What strikes me most is how truly foreign the stories are. Harry’s world is an un-American place (even after the American publisher has cleaned up the language). At its most recognizable, it’s PBS (which is also, pop-culture-wise, relatively remote from America). It’s a tidy, or untidy, English place. Harry is no mass marketer’s dream. And yet, with the books selling at present levels, pretty soon all American children under the age of 14 will have read a Harry Potter book (maybe more than one).

At minus-ten hours until Harry is to be released (quite literally let out of the box), I go down to see the guy who has run the Harry marketing machine. His name is Michael Jacobs. He’s a ruddy, mustachioed golfer in pale socks, in his mid-forties, who started his career as a book salesman in the Northwest territory (on the road, traversing Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska) and came to New York to the Viking Penguin home office in 1984. He’d been canned as the publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint a year before coming to Scholastic and getting the job of selling the first Harry book (truly, a died-and-gone-to-Heaven thing).

Scholastic is building a grand new headquarters in SoHo, on Broadway (people are already calling it the Harry Potter Building). But when I stop by to see Jacobs, it is in cramped, fluorescent-lit pre-Harry offices across the street.

A veritable intellectual-property coup d’etat was suddenly in progress. Amazon became Harry’s liberator. Indeed, “Harry” became one of Amazon’s key publicity and, hence, brand-building triumphs – the irrepressible ’Harry’ was a dashing symbol of e-commerce.

It is peculiarly quiet. It is like any Friday summer afternoon in book publishing (in the book business, you get a half-day on Fridays during the summer). There is no sense of the size and complications of the publishing operation that is being coordinated from here: of what may be the greatest backlog on printing presses ever in history; of the logistical issues of shipping something like 5,000 tons of books; and of the muscle and threats required to make sure the book is embargoed, not sold, not looked at, not let out of its packing boxes, until the appointed moment. Jacobs describes it as the lull after the campaign when voters are headed to the polls. All the Harry-for-president team can do now is wait.

I have no way of telling whether Jacobs is a brilliant marketing strategist who has been instrumental in creating the Harry phenomenon or merely the luckiest man in the history of book publishing. Most probably, he doesn’t know, either. He is friendly but mostly unforthcoming when the conversation comes around to his marketing tricks and strategies. Harry is not the kind of illusion you want to deconstruct. It is better to see the phenomenon as magic or serendipity or, as they say in the book business, “things coming together” (Jacobs calls it “a children’s crusade”) than to demystify Harry as just a function of the mechanics of demand. On the other hand, as we lovingly retrace Harry’s meteoric rise, Jacobs displays obvious satisfaction at each of the pivotal moments and particular ironies that are key to understanding the vastness and the peculiarities of the demand for Harry.

like almost everyone with children at the designated Harry age, I have watched this story unfold in my own house:

My daughter Susanna, at age 10, was an early and appreciative reader of Harry No. 1.

My wife, Alison, as determined a book mom as any, was miffed (in fact, more like morally outraged) to find that the second Harry book was available in the U.K. but not in the U.S. (why our daughter could not read another book, I am not sure; but Alison, like many parents, will certainly walk the extra mile for a sure read). Because of the weirdness of how books are sold – in a kind of pre-import-export world of commerce – bookstores around the world can’t just call up Bloomsbury, the U.K. publisher, and say Send me a pallet. Before Amazon, such a condition depressed rather than increased demand (You can’t get it meant You can’t get it). But perusing Amazon, Alison (along with countless other parents of Harry lovers) learned through a reader review of Harry No. 1 that if you wanted the unavailable Harry No. 2, all you had to do was order it through Amazon U.K. Suddenly, tens of thousands of U.S. book buyers, in the fall of ‘98, were with one click breaking down previously hard-and-fast book borders.

A veritable intellectual-property coup d’état was suddenly in progress. Amazon, as much as Harry, was the hero of this tale. Amazon became Harry’s liberator. Indeed, Harry became one of Amazon’s key publicity and, hence, brand-building triumphs – the irrepressible Harry was a dashing symbol of e-commerce.

For lots of American parents (really, do not underestimate the power of a parent wanting to satisfy the desire of a child to actually read), Amazon became the illicit Harry Potter dealer (in the oldest rule of marketing: There is nothing you want more than something you think you can’t have), shipping U.K. copies all over America (do you know the effect of some kids’ having the book and others’ not? Of some parents’ being obviously good and other parents’ being, demonstrably, not as good?). In fact, Amazon became the not-so-secret dealer to other bookstores, who began reselling the U.K. edition of the book.

Jacobs and the Scholastic legal department professed themselves, of course, to be shocked and dismayed that their market was being invaded in such a rude way. Now, the legal issues of who can sell what where, in the context of books and the Internet, are awfully unclear (i.e., Jacobs and the Scholastic lawyers were on thin ice). But Jacobs managed to strike a deal that kept everyone happy (except the independent booksellers, who are never happy and, it seems sure, will never again be happy): He got Amazon U.K. to agree to limit Harry orders to one per customer. He succeeded, in other words, in protecting his U.S. market while further adding another artificial restraint on the already artificially restrained market, hence further, artificially, boosting demand.

We fell for this in our house: The fact that our children might have to share a book was surely some evil restraint of trade.

And so, over three books, the Harry legend, as well as the Amazon legend, grew. My formerly reasonable wife hunkered down, planning her get-Harry campaigns and assaults on international trade barriers.

By then, the author, J. K. Rowling (A. A. Milne, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien – what are all these initials about when it comes to kids’-book writers in England?), having sold 35 million copies worldwide and having acquired more than a little power herself, and, perhaps, a bit of hubris, too, decided she wanted no more U.S./U.K. bifurcation and ensuing arbitrage. What she wanted was for the English-speaking world to receive Harry No. 4 in a single, revelatory moment (and prior to that, to keep it one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world). Amazon, which had gained equal power and hubris, became her willing partner.

Amazon’s proposal was Amazonian in magnitude: If your parent were among the first 250,000 to place an order, Amazon would get you your book on the day the embargo was lifted, providing Saturday delivery to you gratis. (This meant that FedEx needed the books before the release date, requiring no small amount of finesse on Jacobs’s part and provoking a hue and cry about “security” from the independent bookstores, as though Harry were key to the defense of the country – and the independents were the last trustworthy Americans.) The Harry FedEx brigade took the Amazonian marketing strategy of losing money on everything it sold to a new extreme.

The effect of the free offer, along with Harry’s history of being unavailable, was to create something relatively unknown, and indeed quite illogical, in the book business: preorders. Not just at Amazon but at every chain and corner bookstore (to the extent that there are still corner bookstores), people were ordering – and prepaying! – for Harry (even though Harry No. 4 is available without shortage everywhere).

This is the kind of marketing that has been, many would say, missing in the book business for a long time (if books ever had this kind of marketing). It’s movie marketing. Or it’s software marketing. Microsoft marketing, momentous-cultural-event marketing.

Or not. And what you have here is the kind of fluke, a rare alignment of ambitions, irrational ambitions at that, which, as Jacobs acknowledges (with not a little awe), happens only once.

Harry’s initial success is key to Amazon’s initial success, which is key to the rise in the Internet-stock market, which is key to Amazon’s ability to spend on promotion more than it makes on sales, which is how it can FedEx 250,000 Harrys for free. This helps to create the biggest publishing event of all time, which actually does not even primarily benefit Amazon (which will sell fewer than 10 percent of Harrys sold) but in fact benefits most of all its primary competitor, Barnes & Noble, which will sell far and away the lion’s share of Harry.

“So Amazon,” I say to Jacobs, “is basically paying for the Harry promotion? While at the same time losing its shirt on the deal?”

“Well, losing its shirt, I wouldn’t know, of course, but,” Jacobs chuckles, “I think we can say it’s an amazingly expensive thing for them to do. And I admire their courage.”

perhaps some future ph.d. student will look back on Jeff Bezos and Harry Potter as having one of the great literary relationships of the age. Jeff helped make Harry, and Harry helped make Jeff. And each, in part owing to the other, became a unique and extreme phenomenon – beyond logic and reason. Beyond books. If Amazon and Jeff survive, Harry will deserve part of the credit. If Amazon fails, fades, or is acquired by Wal-Mart, Jeff ought at least to be remembered for Harry.


Free Harry!