The Boy Who Lived also helped breathe new life into the struggling publishing industry. Even before Harry Potter became one of the most successful movie heroes of all time, the Potter books were turning countless people into readers. But that's not all they did.
J.K. Rowling's book series about the boy wizard who's destined to confront the monster who killed his parents caught people's imaginations. Potter became an addiction, in a way that few television shows or movies ever can. And in the process, Harry Potter changed the publishing industry, and the way we think about books, forever.
Pottermania photos by Stuart Wilson, Lawrence Lucier, Stephen Chernin and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.
So here are some of the ways that the Harry Potter books changed publishing:
Potter got adults reading again.
Seriously, everybody talks lately about how Potter got children into reading. But what about adults? The Potter series got grown-ups who hadn't picked up a book, or prose fiction of any length, in years. They became vital watercooler discussion material in offices around the world, and any adult who didn't want to seem hopelessly out of the loop had to buy into Pottermania. The more recent adult obsessions with books like Hunger Games all started with Harry. A.S. Byatt, writing somewhat disapprovingly about the popularity of Harry among adults, speculated in 2003:
Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.
But I think Byatt was selling the imaginative strength of the Potter books, and their value as a gateway drug, short. With Potter, adults who had not exercised their imaginations, in the way that only a book can really facilitate, were suddenly given a workout. Grownups who had switched themselves off from the imaginative possibilities of fiction were suddenly reconnected. Speaking of which...
Potter helped create the huge niche of young adult novels
As we've written about before, a lot of the most interesting, most challenging storytelling right now is happening in young-adult novels. Including genres that are far from Harry's wheelhouse, like dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures. The Potter books helped to prove that books aimed at middle-grade and young-adult readers could gain a sizeable audience, of all ages — and that they could deal with fantastical and speculative topics. As Tamora Pierce told Malinda Lo in 2009:
Publishers discovered with Harry [Potter] that kids will read a lot of fantasy, and they'll read big books. And rather than just publishing books like Harry, they just started to publish fantasy and take chances on unusual fantasy. So we are really having a golden age.
Just by themselves, the Potter books forced the New York Times to add a children's bestseller list, because they were crowding out other titles on the regular bestseller list. Potter was "a gateway book" for a lot of young readers, Michael Fox with the Joseph Fox Bookstore in Philiadelphia told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
They brought book cosplay into the mainstream
Cosplay has been with us since the dawn of civilization, probably — but cosplay based on a book property, rather than a movie, TV series, comic book or cartoon, is arguably a bit rarer. You could probably go to any science fiction convention, going back decades, and see people dressed up as characters from Philip Jose Farmer novels or whatever. But the idea that people dressing up as characters from a book series would become a public phenomenon, at bookstores, at Halloween or whenever, is pretty extraordinary. And yet there are plenty of press photos of public Hogwarts cosplay, going back to well before the first movie came out. Which brings us to...
The "release date party" phenomenon
People do all sorts of hullaballoo for a movie's release, including premiere parties and red carpets (and probably Satanic rituals.) But book events have been pretty low-key affairs, even for books aimed at younger readers. The idea of having a giant party, in bookstores all over the world — and opening at midnight before the release date, to let everybody buy the book early — was pretty revolutionary. It helped people treat books more like events and less like things that just sort of emerged into the world. And this especially helped smaller independent bookstores, which were struggling to compete with larger sellers like Amazon that offer deep discounts. Independent bookstores had to offer something that Amazon couldn't — and cool celebrations were a big part of that.
Harry Potter helped bring a new generation to fan-fiction
A lot of people got into writing fanfic as a result of Harry Potter, and some of the most ambitious fanfic projects of the past decade or so have involved expanding the world of Hogwarts and adding new depth to characters like Snape and Draco Malfoy, among others. A lot of writers have transitioned from writing Potter fanfic into creating their own successful young-adult book series, helping to expand the huge list of authors who were inspired or launched by Potter.
The books showed that a series could grow up with its readers
As Dana Gioia told the Newshour in 2007:
I think that's almost unique with this series, that someone has written a series of books in which the characters age as the readers age, and as the level of the difficulty of the books increases with the age of the readers.
The books become longer and more complicated, and the characters get darker and the issues they deal with get more tricky. The idea that a book series could take for granted that its readers were growing up along with it was new, but is sure to gain some imitators.
Pottermore could create a new model for e-book sales
J.K. Rowling's website Pottermore was a huge letdown when she finally announced it — we were all expecting an MMO, or a new Potter book, or maybe a digital Hogwarts with online classes. But Pottermore could still change the way big authors sell e-books. The site is basically a sales platform for the e-book versions of the Potter books, bypassing iTunes and Amazon.com, with a digital watermark to (slightly) discourage piracy. (But no DRM, hurray!) But to get you to come to the site and hopefully buy new copies of the books you already have in physical format, Rowling is offering tons of immersive content, including a digital Sorting Hat and Wand Chooser, and tons of newly written material about Hogwarts. You can follow Harry's journey from the first book onwards through a series of "moments" (with new illustrations) that let you join Hogwarts as Harry does. Even if this site winds up being a bit of a disappointment, it will probably sell a ton of e-books, and prove that publishers don't need to go through the main existing retail channels, for a property with enough buzz.
Additional reporting by Gordon Jackson.