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The fastest-selling book in history

30 June 2003

The aftershock of the fastest-selling book in history is running through the book trade worldwide. In spite of negative pre-publication forecasts (see News Review 16 June 2003) the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a happy celebration for millions of children all over the world. Booksellers organised special events and midnight openings on a huge scale, to satisfy the enormous excitement generated by the first new Harry Potter title for three years.

In the UK nearly 1.7 million books were sold on the first day alone, four times as many as on the last book. Bloomsbury is already going back for a second printing. The predicted price war broke out, with an average selling price of £10.47 (making a price reduction of £6.52 - $17.23 - or 38%). The lowest price was Asda's at £8.96 ($14.75). However the post-mortem will have to take account of the crowds drawn to shops selling at full price, such as Foyles and Selfridges. One of them, the Pan Bookshop in London, sold out.

In the US Scholastic ordered a third printing this week, bringing the total up to 9.3 million in print, 5 million of which were sold on publication day. Scholastic may have been nervous about the huge volume of books involved and the danger of over-printing, as some bookstores seem to have experienced re-supply problems. It's a sad reflection on the company that it announced 400 job losses less than a month before reaping the financial benefits of publishing the biggest book in history.

The pattern of huge first-day sales was repeated all over the world. In South Africa sales were ten times those of the previous book, the midnight launch was a huge success and there was no significant discounting. In Australia 170,000 copies sold in the first week made it the highest-selling book ever recorded. Although the New Zealand Listener described the book as 'overdue, overhyped and 700 pages', it still sold 100,000 copies.

Sales in Germany are 450,000 to date, with the German translation not available until November. Booksellers were taken by surprise by the heavy demand for the English-language edition, with many of them running out of stock. Interestingly, since the book was not subject to the usual retail price maintenance, it was heavily discounted. The cheapest price was 14.70 euros or £10.23 ($16.83).

So, the book was a huge international bonanza, in spite of the negative voices. (The Daily Mail said that the series was 'patronising to its audience, highly derivative and dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain.') But will the Harry Potter books encourage children to read other titles? Unfortunately Book Marketing figures show little sign of this. The blockbusting sales of the Harry Potter titles may not bring broader benefits for children's reading, or amount to all that much in terms of booksellers' profits, which discounting has often cut to the bone. But J K Rowling has woven her magic yet again, casting a spell of excitement and magic, and giving millions of children many happy hours of reading.