Searching for Harry

Discussion
Aug 06, 2007

By Bernice Hurst Managing Director, Fine Food Network

Faced with overwhelming global adoration for Harry Potter as well as rejection for his own manuscript, David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, decided to find out whether he was being rejected personally or on principle.

Using a thinly disguised pseudonym based on one Ms. Austen used herself, he typed out the first three chapters of three of her books with only minor changes and sent them off to no less than eighteen agents and publishers. The result, you may not be surprised to hear, was no less than eighteen rejections, according to London’s Guardian. Perhaps more worrying still, only one of the eighteen even commented on the obvious similarity to previously published bestsellers.

Were the agents and publishers ignorant or could they be right? Although Ms. Austen’s books have sold millions over the past two hundred years, perhaps today’s audience prefers plainer English with more excitement and magic.

Which leads to the book industry’s ongoing quest to replicate the success of Harry Potter.

Arthur A. Levine, the publisher of the Harry Potter series in the U.S., told abcnews.com that the Potter phenomenon has given him a simple litmus test for success.

“When you read something you ask yourself, do you love it? If you say yes, then you ask yourself, why do you love it?”

Levine said he couldn’t have predicted Potter-mania, but when he read Rowling’s manuscript, he recognized elements that would make the books sell.

“I remember thinking, this is so much fun–the humor reminded me of Roald Dahl. So of course, here’s one of the greatest writers of children’s literature, and here’s someone who reminds me of that,” Levine recalled.

Agents and editors cited several underlying reasons why Harry Potter resonated with children of all ages, including the creation of a magical world similar to J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a universally appealing hero in the guise of Harry himself, and the fact that Harry was a boy.

“Little boys would never read about Henrietta Potter,” said Barry Goldblatt at Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency. “Girls will read about both.”

But book experts also agreed that other factors played a role and it would be tough to copy the Harry formula.

“No one understands why it was that series,” said Mr. Goldblatt. “Is it the best written? I don’t think so. Is it the most exciting? I don’t think so. But it was packaged and sold beautifully.”

“I think that for a publisher to try to directly duplicate success is a sure way to mediocrity and failure,” adds Levine. “I’m not trying to duplicate the success. I’m trying to find a way to look for books that will be fresh and unique that no one has seen exactly.”

Discussion Questions: Were the publishers correct in rejecting Jane Austen, or do they have a responsibility for pushing books of literary merit? Given that the Harry Potter franchise might rank as the top selling product so far in the 21st century, what can the retail industry learn from its success?

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7 Comments on "Searching for Harry"


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Giacinta Shidler
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Giacinta Shidler
14 years 9 months ago

In response to the question, how are publishers to judge literary merit? I think the only thing they can do is judge by what is going to sell and what appeals to them. It seems very subjective. One person’s literary merit is another person’s shallow dime store novel. Let the publishers publish what they will. It is history, the critics, the professional organizations, and the general public who will decide what has literary merit.

Warren Thayer
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Jane died in 1817, and has not written posthumously to my knowledge. Writing styles come and go. I have to write differently now than I did when starting out in journalism only, um, 37 years ago. Nobility is fine, but companies have to make money. Some choose the “home run,” hoping for broad-appeal blockbusters; others seek niches where they can thrive in a small way. Both concepts have their place, as we can see on the shelf in different formats of supermarkets, with mass appeal products and niche things for foodies. For crying out loud, nobody should be judged for which they route they take. There is need for, and room for, all of them when done properly.

Matt Werhner
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Matt Werhner
14 years 9 months ago

Yes Pride and Prejudice is a classic, but copies fly off the shelves because it is on many (if not all) of the high school summer reading lists and on the required reading lists for both high school and college level students. I’m really not surprised at the number of rejections. Her style– verbiage, sentence structure, word choices–presents somewhat of a slower read. Readers today have a shorter attention span and want more up front action and less descriptive narrative that sets each scene, a common practice found in many of the classics. Artists, authors, musicians, etc., need to speak to their audiences in a modern format.

Len Lewis
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Len Lewis
14 years 9 months ago

How many rejections do you think J.K. Rowling got before she came up with a publisher for Harry Potter?

Hindsight is 20/20 but a lot of people didn’t think the idea was bankable. Very few imprints in publishing focus literary merit these days. Like most films, it’s all copycat work–coming up with the flavor of the month and packaging it a little differently.

Franklin Benson
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Franklin Benson
14 years 9 months ago

“How many rejections do you think J.K. Rowling got before she came up with a publisher for Harry Potter?”

Eight, according to the 60 minutes interview with Rowling last week.

Unless publishers have reached their maximum production capacity, I suspect there is room enough for both pop culture books and great literature. One does not come at the expense of the other.

Race Cowgill
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Race Cowgill
14 years 9 months ago
Book publishing and the film industry share a number of key components, including the inability, really, to know which work will resonate strongly with large groups of people. We confront here a number of issues: it is difficult (impossible, really) to know why previous films and books have resonated with large audiences, and it is difficult (impossible) to duplicate those factors in the next. We see so many industry followers and critics in both worlds that claim to know why a film or book has been so successful; obviously, if they had the answer, it would be easy to duplicate the formula and create another success; but note how poorly this works in most film sequels. There are dozens of examples of even current best-sellers being rejected many times by many publishers. Stephen King has wonderful stories about his early rejections, as does Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, and many others. It is hard to imagine that any author’s first best seller was bought at the first offering. Publisher senior editors and film executive… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Jane Austen hasn’t had a bestseller in a long time. And most unsolicited manuscripts aren’t read by agents or publishers. Unsolicited manuscripts are called “the slush pile” and if anyone is assigned to read the slush, it’s the lowest paid person with the least seniority in the office.

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