My first fantasy novel took off in a way that I had hoped, and I suddenly found myself with a number of opportunities.
First, I was working hard on my second Runelords novel, and that was my priority, but with the success of Starcraft’s Brood War (which is still played today in the final round of the world videogame championships in places like Korea and China), I suddenly had some opportunities to script games.
I’d written a Star Wars novel a couple of years earlier, and by doing so had become a “Star Wars Approved Author.” At the time, Lucas Film had a policy that if a publisher wanted someone to write in the Star Wars universe, they needed to go to an author who was eligible. I got several calls from Dark Horse comics from editors who would ask if I would pen a series for them. Each time, I said, “I’d be happy to do it!” and I wouldn’t hear from them for a month. Then I’d get a call from the next editor who had been hired, asking the same question. I never did get to write a comic for them.
But Scholastic contacted me and asked me to write a middle grade book for them. I wrote the first book in The Jedi Academy series for them, but they were very keen to have me write some little gaming books for their “Star Wars Adventure Club,” and they wanted someone who had some background in gaming design.
I turned in the first book in that little series, and my editor, David Levithan called and told me that “The managing editor just loved it. She thought it was the best thing we’ve published in thirty years.”
I had no idea what a “managing editor” was, and I assumed that perhaps she was their line editor or some kind of project manager, and I was glad that she was pleased. I had no idea that she was the president of the company.
These books were very small—just short stories, really, with some alternate story lines. A kid would be able to read the opening to the story, then the story lines would split up and give alternate paths toward an ending. The reader could use a dice to roll and take different paths through the story. It was meant to be a game that a kid could play alone, perhaps while sitting through a long car ride. (And even though the game hasn’t been around for fifteen years, I still get people who tell me how much they loved it.)
When I wrote the second little book in this series, David called again and said, “You know, our managing editor really loves what you’re doing, and she has asked if you would be willing to look at some of our books and help decide which one to push big next year.” Apparently, she knew that I was working as the lead judge for the Writers of the Future, and so she was interested to see how I could do at picking out talent. At the same time, Scholastic was coming up on a new fiscal year and was interested to see if they could launch a product big.
So she sent me two boxes of books. These were essentially boxes for holding oranges, and they held about 40 books between them, many of which were picture books.
My wife came into the room while I was opening the boxes and arranging books on the floors. She asked what I was doing, and I told her, and she wondered, “Why are you wasting time doing that?” She was right, I didn’t have time to do it that day—I had a deadline for my next book for Scholastic.
However, I had quickly picked the top three books that looked as if they would make for a good franchise, and I wanted her opinion, so I asked her to read my top pick, Harry Potter.
Now, I had already come up with some criteria for what made a hit movie or story. The number one most important question is “How well does the book or movie transport you to another time or place?” A story that does it well will far outsell others of its kind. One that doesn’t do it at all may be beautifully written on a dozen levels but will never hit truly epic sales.
But the number two criterion is, “Will it appeal to a broad audience?” In other words, will a lot of people like it? And in a case like this, that was essential to know. I like to divide audiences broadly into categories of male and female, old and young, though when I really get technical, I can divide them into smaller divisions.
So my wife took the book and began reading, and that night at the dinner table she began telling me how much she liked the book. Again, the next morning at breakfast she told me about the chapters she had read after dinner and kept raving. My ten-year-old daughter Danielle listened to her, then quietly left the breakfast table and stole the book off the reading stand in our bedroom, and then slipped it into her backpack before heading for school. I thought, “This will be good. Now I can see a middle-grader’s reaction to the book.”
That night at dinner Danielle raved about how much she liked Harry Potter too, but mom stole it back for the evening. However, at four in the morning I heard a scream and rushed to my daughter’s bedroom. She was huddling under her sheets with a flashlight, shaking in terror. When I asked what was wrong, she said, “There’s a giant three-headed dog in the book.”
I love it when a book keeps a kid up all night.
Over the next two days I finished my writing project, then checked out Harry Potter myself, eager to see if I thought that it would hold adult males and boys. With the very first chapter I recognized that Rowling was a genius at audience analysis, and that even though my wife and daughter loved the book, this was one that would be able to attract anyone.
So I set up a meeting with Scholastic’s managing editor, and we talked it over. I recommended that they push Harry Potter big for the new year, and she said, “Oh, the marketing department hates that book.” Now, they had already done a limited release, but we were talking about doing much more. I asked why they hated the book, and she said, “Well, it’s too long for its intended audience.”
I pointed out that she was right, and then noted that the writing level was too high for a middle-grade audience. Most sentences scanned in at a sixth-grade reading level, but many came in at a seventh-grade reading level—which was far too high for, say, a third-grader.
But I pointed out that that didn’t matter. In every classroom in the third-grade, there are kids who love to read, and they all learn to read at a sixth-grade level very quickly. The kids who don’t love to read won’t crack a book, and they’ll read at a first-grade level and bring the classroom’s curve down.
So I suspected this: Harry Potter’s opening is written in such a way that it sounds to me as if it should be read with an exaggerated British accent, as if you were reading a Monty Python script. I could envision teachers and parents reading the opening to kids. In fact, the opening is written especially to appeal to older readers (principals, teachers, critics, and parents), but then proceeds to engage children in chapter two.
So this was a book meant to be read to children as much as be read by them. I suspect that Rowling knew that adults might start out reading the book, but the kids would take it and finish it, then brag to their friends about how they just read this “ginormous book.”
In any case, I convinced her that this was the book to push for the next year, and we proceeded to outline a marketing plan. The goal of course was to push the book during the coming Christmas season by getting it advertised in the windows of the major book chains, then get pallets dropped into the centers of the bookstores. Doing this is difficult because the chains sell that advertising space, and everyone wants it. So not only does it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise, but you have to create proposals for the chains and urge them to let you be the lucky book that they choose to advertise. That’s a risky proposition. And once you get that, you then have to order millions of copies of books out of China or Korea, months in advance, and have them shipped to the stores.
All of this made me a bit nervous. It was obvious to me that Harry Potter had been passed over by the major publishers. Scholastic is a good publisher, but they weren’t the biggest. I suspect that all of the other publishers thought that the book was too long for its audience, too.
But being “long” is a hallmark of the bestsellers in just about any genre. In order to transport a reader well, a book will often need to be a bit longer than its competitors. For example, when Lord of the Rings came out, it was a good five times longer than competing fantasy novels. Dune was much longer than any other science fiction novel. Gone with the Wind was longer than other romances, Lonesome Dove was bigger than other Westerns, and so on.
As I began to tally up the millions of dollars I was suggesting that they spend, I did get a bit worried. If this didn’t work, the folks at Scholastic would probably drop me. But I believed in the book.
The managing editor said, “You know, this is kind of a crazy plan. No one has ever re-launched a book and made it the lead for the next season before.”
“Which is why it will work,” I argued.
In any case, the managing editor decided that she liked my plan, then said that she would be meeting with her marketing department the following day to see if they would go for it. She asked if I could be available for a couple of hours to talk them into it, if needed.
So I waited by the phone the next day, but never did get a call from her. The next that I heard any news on the topic was when I was at the BEA (Book Expo-America) the following spring, and a couple of sales reps were eating lunch at a table next to me, and one of them said to the other, “Hey, have you heard that crazy news out of Scholastic? They’re buying up all of the ad space that they can to re-launch one of their books.” I just smiled as they talked about how crazy it was.
Now, the indicators were all there. I knew that Harry Potter could be a hit, but I didn’t know how big it might go. I could see the potential for movies and videogames, and I could see that that would propel the IP (intellectual property) very well. With any given property at the time, I envisioned the IP as sitting on a stool, and the three legs of the stool were 1) books, 2) movies, 3) videogames. If the IP had those three legs, then sales from one medium would support the others, and give you a good platform upon which to grow.
I could see the huge potential for the IP. In fact, I suspected that it could even become the bestselling book ever. But publishers always screw it up. They push the wrong books, or they don’t push them enough. So I felt very pleased when Harry Potter became the bestselling book of all time, and J.K. Rowling became the first billionaire to earn her fortune through fiction writing.
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