Discuss: Why are the "Harry Potter" novels the most popular ever?

A fairly strong argument can be made that J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels are in fact the most popular novels ever written. Granting that the worldwide audience and methods of publication make it easier to sell 350,000,000 novels than it was in, say, the days of Charles Dickens, the popularity of the Potter novels is nothing short of a sensation. Any one of the six puiblished before this weekend is, by itself, a better selling novel than any other novel of your lifetime, with only “The Da Vinci Code” in the same league, and #7 will presumably sell just as well. Rowling’s seven novels have, according to some sources, sold as many copies as Stephen King’s 50+ books combined. (Don’t hold me to this claim, though, as it’s hard to get firm numbers.)


Now, I’ve read them all and enjoyed them, but I enjoyed lots of other novels and they didn’t sell 75 million copies each. The Potter novels are a true sensation; people line up for them to get them at midnight, show up at public readings, argue about them, dress up like the characters. The marketing and movies have pulled in billions. Only the aforementioned “Da Vinci Code” is even close in terms of widespread appeal, and I think most will agree it’s not going to have the same staying power. “Harry Potter” will probably become a children’s favourite for decades to come.

I’m not asking “why are they so popular?” in the sense that I dislike them, I’m asking the question seriously. What, precisely, is it about the novels that has made them such a sensation? What themes, characterizations, or other aspects of the tales have made them part of every (non-fundamentalist-Christian) child’s book collection?

I remember that one of the things that struck me about the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was that Rowling spent so much of the book giving insight into Harry’s terror that he will not be accepted by, or be thrown out of, Hogwart’s. (It was a theme that was largely most in the movie, which is one of the reasons the movie seemed dry to many people.) It was very powerfully brought across, and fear of non-acceptance would seem to me to be something all kids can identify with. But the books continued past that into other themes.

What do YOU think has made the Potter books such a gigantic success?

This is something that I’m very curious about as well, because as a big fan of fantasy and a reader of youth-oriented fantasy, I’m still baffled by the enormity of their success. The books aren’t bad, but I really feel like they lack that ineffable “fanatic-making” quality that’s present in other things that attract such a following, such as Star Wars. Frankly, there are significantly better youth-oriented fantasy books being published right now, and more specifically fantasy books that really do possess that sort of fanatic-making germ - His Dark Materials being the obvious front runner.

So I’m going to go with a very generic “it’s about 90% media hype” answer, and another 10% of “due to a confluence of historical and social trends and the general zeitgeist, some fantasy series was going to blow up on this level and the HP books just happened to be the one.”

I honestly have no idea, but I do think it’s an interesting question and I have some thoughts.

I know many people think it’s the money behind the marketing blitz, and I agree that with that much money, publishers could push a lot of stuff to popularity. However, I remember when the first book was released, there was a great deal of buzz from the children’s librarians on my children’s literature listserv. Now, this is a self-selected group of people who spend a lot of time chatting about children’s books, so there is always a lot of chatter about various new books that people are recommending. BUT, there had never been anything like the huge response that the first book got with the UK members, who were urging the US members not to wait for the US release. There is definitely something about even the first book that really sparked with people who are experts in their field, even before the explosion of the HP market.

One of the things that stands out for me about the premise of the series is its crossover ability. It’s a magic/fantasy book that works great if you are at least a casual fan of magic/fantasy. I know a lot of hardcore fantasy fans think the HP books are weak in this area – and that is part of the secret of their success. It’s a great fantasy series for people who don’t generally care for fantasy. It’s easy to read for its non-magic elements. The school stuff, the friends stuff, Ron’s brilliant one-liners make it very palatable for people who aren’t fans of magic. Unlike many fantasy books, there aren’t huge chunks of exposition (in the early books) about how the magic words or why there are wizards. If you are a casual fantasy fan, there are still cool dragons and whatnot.

The books also aged with their fans, which works well to their advantage. Kids stayed with the series as they got older and went to more advanced reading levels. The books got darker, which kept adults involved. Even so, Rowling was pretty smart to keep the books … fairly chaste, perhaps? They got more serious, but they never crossed a line where parents in large numbers (let’s ignore the fringe Satan-alarmists who pull it from library shelves) would withhold the books from younger children. Now, there’s a whole other issue about whether more violence should be more of a concern than more sex, but this goes far beyond the HP books.

And, well, there’s still the marketing. The movies were released quickly enough to get non-readers on the bandwagon. And, at the end of the day, the movies are pretty good on their own. I’m trying to think of another example where a movie series was being released before the book series had wrapped up. The Lemony Snickett books, I think, but that movie is a good example of a film that just wasn’t good enough on its own to capture a wide audience of people who hadn’t previously read the books.

Something I thought was interesting is that some of the older librarians in my organization have mentioned two past series that also received a lot of attention (at the time) as the books were released – Narnia, and the Little House books. They had a somewhat similar element, where kids would be racing to read them first, talking about them at school, aware of when the next one in the series was being published. They even had some publicity from the publishers (parties at bookstores and libraries), but of course nothing like the Harry Potter scale. Still, can you imagine if today’s marketing could be transplanted back then? I think with both of these series, you could be looking at something as big as the Harry Potter hoopla.

I’m not sure that they are the most popular novels ever. There have been many phenomenon books that sold wildly, that everyone read, and that were read for years. Ben Hur is one example. But the population was smaller and more people shared books, so the raw numbers are smaller.

I think there are several reasons why HP sells so well.

  1. Popularity begets popularity. “Everyone’s reading it,” so everyone reads it. Marketing–lots and lots of marketing–helps.

  2. HP isn’t too hard to read or understand, and it’s a page-turner (much like Dan Brown, only not so stupid). Higher-quality authors don’t sell so well, because they require more work.

  3. HP’s real structure is that of a Famous Five-type story, a tried and true formula that has always done well. Not only that, it incorporates something from virtually every genre and interest–adventure, horror, humor, gross-out humor, sports, even a little teen romance. Almost anyone (except my husband) can find something to like.

Even so, plenty of kids wait for the movies.

I think you’re right about the age thing, but that might work to the series’ disadvantage over time. I know a lot of parents who weren’t very happy about the progressively darker tone of the books, because it made it difficult to let younger kids read them. I think in the future you will see some parents who don’t want their kids reading HP until they’re older for this reason–I’m one of them. Now that all the books are out, it’s annoying that you can give a 7-yo the first one, but not the last 4. But such parents will probably be few, seeing as how our entire society is awash in media violence and 6-yo children are routinely allowed to see R movies.

I absolutely agree with you on this point, and I don’t think I made this clear in my first post. Even though I personally would be concerned about a 7yo and the level of violence in the later books, my observation is that we’re in the minority. Many parents are not concerned about this, or don’t realize (if they haven’t read the books themselves) how the issues ramp up throughout the series.

On the other hand (I can never seem to post without throwing in “on the other hand”), I do know some parents who allow their younger kids to read all the books, but with deliberate conversations about, I guess I would say, the seriousness of the more mature issues and nuances in the book, which I think can also work well depending on the individual kids. At any rate, better than the kids reading them with no input from the parents.

I don’t think the progressively darker tone is that big a deal, since you can read the first book or two indepently of the rest. Also, my second- or third-grade teacher read The Hobbit to us as children, but I think The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have worked as a read aloud book for such a young audience, so it’s also not unique to this series.

And I think dangermom has it right; a best-seller today (especially an international one like the Harry Potter books) sells many more copies than in previous decades. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind were huge bestsellers in their day, but the population was smaller and perhaps more people read library copies. (Wikipedia has their total sales at 28 million each, although presumably that’s cumulative to the present day.)

:eek: Wow, I knew they were popular, but that’s…wow! JK must be sitting on mountains of cash. Good on her!

I’ve yet to read them, but one thing I’ve noticed in my frequent trips to charity shops in search of books is that every popular writer is very easy to find - your Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele etc crowd - but although they are there, there are comparatively few Harry Potters. That suggests to me that they are loved and re-read.

Or beaten up so badly they can’t be given away. :stuck_out_tongue:

Seriously though I think that there are a few factors that would prevent you from minding them. First, children’s novels aren’t likely to be given away until the children outgrow them. It’s a little early yet to see the mass quantities of Harry Potter books hit the shelves. Second, for whatever reason most readers of science fiction and fantasy like to hold on to their books. People who are reading the latest beach novel are reading disposable entertainment. Finally, Harry Potter is still wildly popular so any books that get donated might be getting snatched off the shelfs immediately.

Come back ten years from now when the kids have grown and the excitement is gone. Then you’re going to find the shelves flooded with Harry Potter. With that many copies in print people will donate them and they’ll never move because everyone who wants them already has them.

I remember when they first began to enter into the news. It felt exactly like some new greatly hyped kids toy that all of a sudden became the absolute must have that Christmas season. In fact it may have been during the Christmas season.

Well, books 4-6 all end on a cliffhanger, and there are lots of little details slipped into the earlier books that play in the later ones, so I think the guessing / speculation game has contributed hugely to the popularity of the series. It will be interesting to see if the books will have staying power now that people can read the whole series without huge breaks for discussion and speculation. (I think they probably will – classic children’s books seldom go out of fashion, and Rowling is one heck of a storyteller – but they’re not going to be bigger than, say, Narnia in ten years’ time.)

Heh, but surely all the adults haven’t covered their own copies in orange juice and peanut butter! I don’t know if they do this in every territory, but here the publishers do a children’s cover and an adult one. But you make very good points. I guess I’ll have to wait a while to pick up a set on the cheap. :wink:

It depends how you are counting what the most popular novel of all time is. It appears that each of the Harry Potter novels will have sold about 60 million copies each (as of a few weeks from now by which time most fans will have bought the seventh book). I would count this as being 60 million copies of one series of novels, not as 360 million copies of a single novel. It appears that The Da Vinci Code has also sold 60 million copies. I would count The Lord of the Rings as being the winner though, since it has sold over 100 million copies in authorized editions and perhaps about 150 million copies if you count the unauthorized editions (many Russian translations and many Asian-published copies were unauthorized). One copy of The Lord of the Rings is either a one-volume edition of the book or a set of The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.

I’m not sure that I agree; every kid knows that HP is a long series, and who is going to want to read the first two and then leave the rest alone for 5 years? I’m not sure The hobbit is a great comparison; we’ve read it to our 7-yo, but it’s a children’s book and LOTR is a different series for a mature audience, which we won’t be reading for years.

I agree that discussion is much better than no discussion, if parents are going to let their younger kids read the books; but I’m not sure that’s a cure-all. A book that is too scary for a kid to handle is still going to be too scary after a conversation about it, and is still going to result in bad dreams and whatnot. While I’m all for discussion of issues, and I’m not against a fun scare, I sometimes think we use it as an excuse to cover up the fact that we have failed to protect a small child from something inappropriate. It’s inevitable that children will be exposed to some frightening things they are not old enough to handle well, but perhaps we’ve gotten too casual about the constant barrage of inappropriate content thrown at our kids. (Generally speaking, since the current state of society is not solely J. K. Rowling’s fault. :stuck_out_tongue: )

So, how many Oz books have you seen children reading? How about the original Peter Pan? Children’s books rarely last more than the generation that reads them. Other media may take their place like in my two examples but the books are pretty much abandoned quickly. There are a very small handful of exceptions, but I’m dubious that Harry Potter will be one.

That’s not intended as a slight against Rowling’s work, BTW. Baum and Barrie are good company to be in.

You clearly haven’t seen the type of adult that reads Harry Potter. :smiley:

A lot of kids still read Oz books, even if not as many as before. Even Peter Pan still gets read. Many children’s books have been poular for the past hundred years or so; but these days kids don’t read so much and they often aren’t prepared to read the old-fashioned language in some of the classics. Books written in more modern language, such as the Little House series, are still going strong 3 generations later. And a whole lot of older books that have been out of print for years are now coming back into print–Jenny and the cat club is one example.

I agree that HP won’t be a bestseller for the next 100 years, but I think it will take a place as a solid popular book for a while.

I’ve always thought the popularity of Harry Potter came from the fact that the books describe an entirely different world. People love exploring new worlds, like in Star Wars, especially if the world is full of unknown creatures and magic spells, like the Harry Potter world is. I think most of the characters in the Harry Potter series, most notably Harry Potter himself, are sort of lame.
I remember when I read the first one almost a decade ago loving the part where Harry bought his supplies in Diagon Alley most of all, because you learned so much about the wizard world.

I think the basic formula of the books is what works well is that in each character ( main and bit players) each have well written parts that make you like them, sympathize or hate them instantly.

I think what I appreciate about this series is the fact that Jo Rowling hasn’t turned it into this huge massive over commercialization ( yay, really.) she could have issued comic books, TV shows, cartoons, and completely saturated the market to the point of asphixiation for everyone. It is just the movies, which are pretty faithful to the books and a few tie ins.

Besides, who wouldn’t want to be able to brandish a wand and say, " Accio Beer!"

The slash.

Apparently, a lot of people at Harry Potter conventions wear stickers or buttons on them that say “I’m just here for the slash”.

My source is a gal that I worked with that’s a Potterhead. She wasn’t in it for the slash (so she says).