The Potion for Success

What could top the success of the boy wizard?

ByAswini Anburajan
February 11, 2009, 5:39 PM

July 16, 2007 — -- Once upon a time, there was a boy who delighted the imagination of Muggles.

Young and old, these ordinary people grabbed hold of the tale of a little boy who was tragically orphaned, could cast spells and fly a broomstick, and had a magical scar that marked him as special, and did not let go.

Until now.

July 21 marks the end of a decade-long phenomenon that marked popular culture as indelibly as Harry's lightning bolt scar marked his forehead. The Saturday release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," will seal the boy wizard's fate and leave millions of readers satisfied -- or hungering for more.

Whatever happens to Harry, his memory will live on well beyond the past 10 heady years. With wizarding rock bands, fan conventions and the tantalizing hint dropped by author J.K. Rowling that she may have more up her sleeve, the Harry Potter series will likely take on a life of its own among many future generations of readers.

But today's fans, who -- depending on how fast they can read -- will know whether Harry lives or dies in his battle with Lord Voldemor come Saturday, will soon have another question: What's next?

"It's a crapshoot," said Barry Goldblatt at Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency about the possibility of another young literary figure as captivating as Harry Potter.

"What's the next Harry Potter?" will be the catchphrase among publishers for the next ten years, said Goldblatt.

The majority of editors and agents that spoke with said that re-creating Harry Potter would be impossible.

However, there are certain qualities that any future Harry Potter-esque novels will require for success.

Arthur A. Levine, the publisher of the Harry Potter series in the United States and one of two editors who has worked with Rowling on the books, said 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 the Potter-mania that took over the world, 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.

Harry's magical world also contributed to the books' great success. J.K Rowling created a land as fully imagined as J.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis' Narnia, each with its own lexicon -- "Muggles," "quidditich," "a golden snitch."

Harry, according to Goldblatt, also had the characteristics of a universally appealing hero.

"A fish-out-of-water kid looking for a place. … It's a universal story that every human being can relate to," said Goldblatt. "Then you empower him and you give him the ability to defeat others who are in his way. And you give them an image that most people are looking for in their lives."

And yes, it did matter that Harry was a boy.

"Little boys would never read about Henrietta Potter," Goldblatt said. "Girls will read about both."

But copying such elements, of course, doesn't mean authors will have a Harry Potter on their hands. Many other factors pushed Harry into the realm of phenomenon, and many of them can't be replicated.

"No one understands why it was that series," said 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."

Rowling's personal story also appealed to readers. She was a single mother who wrote the books while on welfare, giving the author the same underdog status as her hero. Rowling's subsequent decision to hold the releases, stay tight-lipped about the endings and play fully into the mystique of Harry have also helped carry the series forward.

"The Series of Unfortunate Events," one of the most successful series to follow the publication of the Harry Potter books, was helped by a clever marketing plan, said Kate Jackson, editor in chief at HarperCollins Children's Books, which publishes the collection.

Writer Daniel Handler, who wrote the series under the pseudonym Lemony Snickett, boosted popularity by creating a persona that matched the personality of the books.

"This is how you can manufacture a hit," said Jackson. "The author, the editor and the designer on the books had a vision for what it should be from the very beginning."

Arthur Levine also warned that no matter how wild we all are about him, there should never be another Harry.

"I think that for a publisher to try to directly duplicate success is a sure way to mediocrity and failure," said 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."

In the meantime, publishers are still riding the wave of Harry Potter's success. The books gave new life to the sci-fi and fantasy genre, and placed children's books on equal footing with their adult counterparts. Young adult books for children ages 12 to 18 have become the hottest-growing market in juvenile literature.

And according to many editors, the series has opened the door for new kinds of young adult novels and stories.

"We are publishing adventurous, exciting, cutting-edge stuff that makes teenagers unafraid to read. This is the stuff that won't be assigned as homework," Goldblatt said of the young adult genre.

Which means avid young readers looking for a good read after Hogwarts closes its doors have a lot to choose from -- around 17,000 new titles are published every year in children's literature, ranging from graphic novels to chick lit.

Recent hits include the "Twilight" series by Stephanie Myers and the "Internet Girls" series by Lauren Myracle, written completely in "texting" language. "Arrival" by Shaun Tan, a graphic novel being released by Arthur Levine in the fall, has also gathered buzz.

For those kids (and adults) craving the Potter potion, "Tunnels" by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, which has already been published in the United Kingdom, features a boy archaeologist and has already generated more than $1 million in preorders on The authors have already completed the second novel and are at work on a third.

And as long as Harry stays in readers' memories, there will be aspiring authors trying to create their own literary boy -- or girl -- wonder.

Wesley Adams, the executive editor of Farrar Strauss and Giraud's children's publishing division, said that he and his editors claw their way through more than 600 submissions a month.

"Very, very few of them make it," Adams said. "And if I had the magic solution, I wouldn't be sharing it with anybody."

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