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Is this the last Harry Potter?

16 July 2007

Pottermania is about to reach what may well be its peak, with the imminent publication of the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the just-released film of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

J K Rowling is a phenomenon, the richest and best-known writer on the planet. Her books have already sold over 325 million copies worldwide and have been translated across the globe. She is reckoned to be worth between £600 and £700 million. Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, has sold 107 million copies to date and is ninth in the list of the bestselling books of all time.

The author has long said that the seventh book will be the last, and hinted at two deaths to come. Could she be intending to kill off Harry Potter himself? For her millions of fans the thought is almost too much to bear - they are already upset enough about the idea of there being no more books.

There is even a campaign, rapidly gaining ground, to persuade Rowling to write more books in the series. The author shows no sign of succumbing to public demand, except to say that she will produce a Potter encyclopedia which will contain all the material which has not gone into the books.

J K Rowling's effect on children's publishing is notable. She has made it into a commercial arena, a place where big bucks can be made and where the author brand is everything. It's no longer a quiet backwater of publishing, where well-intentioned editors calmly go about the task of editing children's books. It's become monetised like the rest of publishing and its values are the same commercial ones.

Harry Potter's UK publisher, Bloomsbury, is widely credited with having survived because of J K Rowling's amazing success. Last year brought no new book and the firm's profits crashed by nearly 75%. In the States Scholastic have found the Potter magic nearly as important.

But have the books really encouraged many more children to discover for themselves the pleasure of reading a good story? Well, the jury's out as far as the experts are concerned, but many non-professionals - parents and the like - would agree that Potter has shown thousands of children the magic there can be in a book.

Finally, what about booksellers? Here, at least in the UK, it's a pretty dismal story, with the supermarkets pricing the book aggressively in an attempt to gain market share and independent booksellers fated to lose money on it. It's ironic that the book which is the biggest seller on the planet should be treated as just another loss leader.