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Biggest one-day sale in history is loss-leader

23 July 2007

News Review does not usually deal with the same subject in successive weeks, but we have just witnessed the biggest one-day sale of any book in history with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and it is worth reflecting on how this blockbusting saga affects the book world.

As the doors were thrown open at midnight on Friday in 10,000 shops across the planet, we were witnessing a global phenomenon. The queue in Waterstone's in London's Piccadilly was 7,000 strong. In the US 12 million copies were ordered in advance. The five films to date have already grossed $3.5 billion (£1.7 billion) and the books are translated into 65 languages. Of the 325 million Harry Potter books sold worldwide only 21 million have been sold in the UK. It's a global audience and a huge number of these avid readers are in the US.

The reason for these stupendous figures is not hard to find. As 55 year old speed-reader Anne Jones (who read the 608 pages in just over 47 minutes) said: 'The book was great, fantastic. It was an easy read because it's a real page-turner.' Robert McCrum, the Literary Editor of the Observer, concurred: 'Rowling does that unbeatable thing: she makes it work. How exactly she does it remains the mystery, but it's to do with a primitive grasp of basic storytelling.'

Last week saw an international row about some US media reviewing the book and spoiling all the fun. Breaking the embargo, pirated extracts were available on the web. All of this highlights the way in which the global mania for J K Rowling's work has seized hold.

Author Celia Brayfield put her finger on it in The Times: 'In the lifespan of the series the publishing business has become a small adjunct to the global entertainment industry, a tiny fragment in the worldwide economy of screen, media and information… The role of a publisher has been reduced to sieving the primordial soup of writing for some viable blob of artistic matter that these risk-averse wealth creators can culture into a planet-buster.'

The Harry Potter saga shows that the book world has changed for good, and not in ways that make sense in relation to the simple equation of writer, book and reader.

Harry Potter row

In an interesting sideline to the main Potter furore, British supermarket chain Asda last week accused Bloomsbury of holding children to ransom over the price of the final Harry Potter book (which is £17.99 ($36.99) for 604 pages in hardback – not an unreasonable price in relation to other books).

Bloomsbury decided to play hardball. It threatened a writ for defamation and also said it would not supply the supermarket because of an unpaid bill. Faced with the disaster of thousands of disappointed children because it had not received its 500,000 copy order, Asda was forced to cave in and apologise. It subsequently put the book on sale for £5 ($10.28), with a limit on two copies per purchaser. Morrisons trumped this with £4.99 ($10.26) but a limitation on one copy. These prices are much less than independent bookshops have to pay to stock the book and make it a huge loss-leader.

As Will Hutton said in the Observer: 'British competition rules permit supermarkets to wreck the book distribution networks so important to publishing.' The irony, as pointed out last week, is that, in the UK at least, the book with the biggest one-day sale in history is not making any money for many of those who are selling it.