Searching for Harry
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?
- The author and the Austen plot that exposed publishers’ pride and prejudice – Guardian
- The Potion for Success – abcnews.com