Harry Potter and the Big, Fat Secret

A few weeks ago, I was put in charge of banker’s box labeled “Harry Potter 7: CONFIDENTIAL.”

I knew right away that it couldn’t be the book– it’s too soon for that and when it does come, it will be hidden away in our cataloging and processing area until the big day.

So, what was in the box? Is it really a great big secret? Well, yes, and no.

The box is full of bookmarks and other marketing materials. The secret is what the bookmarks say. No, I’m not kidding.

Scholastic has launched a huge marketing campaign for the upcoming release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I would think that “Hey! Harry Potter 7!” would be all the marketing they need– we already know it’s going to break every record for number of copies sold etc. Why market at all?

But Scholastic is– “There will soon be 7” is the catch phrase of their campaign, which also features seven questions that we hope will be answered in this final installment. Every two weeks we get a new question and a new book mark. The first two are “Who will live? Who will die?” and “Is Snape good or evil?”. The next 5… well, I haven’t looked yet. (Aren’t I good? And like I’d tell you anyway, IT’S A SECRET!)

Secrecy surrounding Mr. Potter isn’t a new thing. If I thought the three pages about the bookmarks was a little overboard, think about the secrecy actually surrounding the books.

The title and release dates were both huge announcements subject to much speculation.

Usually when a new book comes out, the publisher sends Advanced Reader’s Copies to reviewers to review, and bookstores and libraries to preview for purchasing. Publishers have even started sending ARCs to blogs that review books or discuss the topic at hand. It’s probably not a surprise, but trust me, there is no Advanced Reader’s Copy for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The lid is on this story, and tightly.

When it comes to the actual book and the actual release day, libraries had to sign a contract stating that they’d limit how many staff members handle the books, and provide names and contact info for every branch manager. Bookstores have similar agreements with Scholastic.

Is all this secrecy really necessary? When it comes to the book, yes, and no.

In 2003, when we were eagerly awaiting the publication of Order of the Phoenix, the New York Post ignored the embargo and printed two legible pages of the book before midnight release. They got slapped with a huge lawsuit. Two months before the book came out British Police were already arresting people for stealing the book. That same summer, delivery trucks filled with books were stolen across England. The trucks were recovered– the books were not. One of the workers at the printing press stole pages to sell.

This was two books ago. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince blew Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix out of the water as far as sales were concerned. I think I can safely say that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will leave Half-Blood Prince in the dust.

So, on one hand, this secrecy and security is good, because who wants to have it ruined? Who wants to know if Snape is good or bad beforehand? Who wants to know who lives and who dies before they read it for themselves?

But, on the other hand, is the secrecy that Bloomsbury (the British publisher) and Scholastic have built up creating the demand for such thefts, thus creating the demand for more security and secrets in an ever ending cycle?

Or has Potter demand gotten so high that if such restrictions were not imposed, we’d all have our black-market copies read by now?

On the third hand, this secrecy builds demand–it’s an integral part of a brilliant marketing campaign–just look at my box full of top-secret bookmarks.

Of course, the secrecy is part of the campaign– it builds the hype and the suspense, and, let’s face it, the communal hype and craze over Harry is what makes him so fun.

I am keeping my bookmarks a secret even from myself, because opening up that new package every few weeks to see what it says is fun. The questions spark conversations with other people and while, from a marketing prospective, it keeps the hype up, let’s face it– the hype wasn’t going away. If anything, these small little surprises hold us over until July when we will stay up late reading this final installment and all questions will be answered for good. (We hope.)

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13 Responses to Harry Potter and the Big, Fat Secret

  1. Kevin says:

    My wife has made it *the law* that when our copy of HP7 comes in, she gets to read it first. I’m worried she’s going to take her sweet time with it to savor her advantage over me, then I’ll end up running into a spoiler like the “[character A] killed [character B]” garbage after HP6. I might have to go without Internet while she reads it. Seriously.

    And it better be good. I’m expecting nothing short of world shattering.

  2. Mike says:

    This does all sound like fun, Jennie. But I’m not quite sure how you’re supposed to use these bookmarks and other materials.

    If part of the work involves distributing them to others, isn’t it a little weird that county tax dollars are paying you to help handle Scholastic’s campaign? Or is this on par with whatever you could imagine doing for some other high-profile book release?

  3. B Barron says:

    Jennie,

    Watch your back. What if someone tries to steal the banker’s box from you?

    I just returned from my book club meeting – a group of 50-something women who read everything and get together once a month to drink wine and talk about our books. This evening, as an aside, we discussed how J.K. Rowling had progressed as a writer. But perhaps we should have discussed the progression of the HP franchise as a phenomenon.

    I agree with Mike that it seems strange that Scholastic is trying to sell this book to you, as a public librarian. Does this happen often?

    Just for the record, I believe Snape is EVIL.

  4. TheGnat says:

    Secrecy would defintely help the hype. I personally don’t care for the Harry Potter books. I once found an article on how Rowling’s writing has not improved in the manner one would expect of a budding author. The whole Harry Potter “thing” reminds me of “The Wheel of Time” – aspects of the series are certainly excellent, but the whole is far inferior to the sum of its parts. I wish I could find that article again, but alas my Google search was lost in, as expected, a glut of theories, speculation, and hype about the upcoming book.

    If however, people are still reading Harry Potter in 50 years and I’m still alive, I might give them a try again. I won’t do the same for Robert Jordan though!

  5. Sonetka says:

    I love Harry Potter – immortal the writing may not be, but I find it much more readable than the Wheel Of Time (if nothing else because Book 7 isn’t – presumably – going to be dealing with a time period spanning a day and half, in which Harry angsts about his fate and not much else). Rowling’s writing style may be lacking, but she has an eye for detail I would sack kingdoms for.

    Knowing the popularity of HP, I’m pretty sure that we probably would be reading blackmarket copies or partial copies by now if security weren’t so tight. It’s hard to know whether the demand would be so high if the security weren’t there, but I don’t imagine the initial need for security came out of nowhere. Also, it’s been known for a long time that there would only be seven books in the series, so naturally the tension gets ratcheted up for each one – naturally, Deathly Hallows is going to go nuclear.

    My main problem is that A. and I always read the new HP together, but he isn’t coming back from LA until a WEEK after the release date! I’m going to have to go hide in a cave to keep from being spoiled about the ending! (Oh, and as for Snape, I don’t really care whether he’s good or evil. I am willing to bet anyone $20 that by the end of book 7, he will dead, regardless of moral status. No way does he survive).

  6. TheGnat says:

    I can’t recall this kind of security for a book before in my life. I just don’t think it’s necessary. And honestly, I’ve found most people will get over spoilers and still read or watch something when they’re this hyped about something. (I say hyped because when a book isn’t coming out until what July? and you can’t stand the thought of waiting a week to read it…well….that’s beyond even people’s excitement about the WoW expansion…)
    It’s a book, and they’re being more secretive about it than Homeland Security and Apple combined!

  7. Dana says:

    I think publishers give marketing materials to libraries a lot, because it can be seen as material to promote literacy. I mean, you see lots of posters of children’s book characters reading in the children’s areas of public libraries all the time. I’m pretty certain those weren’t all put out by ALA (though the celebrity READ campaign is.)

    Certainly on the one hand it’s very profitable for Scholastic to be marketing Harry Potter to the public through the library, because you know that not all of those kids are going to wait for the book to be available through the library, because they’re now too impatient. They’re going to buy the books. But, on the other hand, it is making those children excited about reading, which is a large part of what libraries are about.

    Libraries and publishers aren’t actually adversaries. Libraries rely on publishers to make books that people want to read; publishers rely on libraries to get their books to a wider segment of the population than a bookstore might be able to. They both want people to read. As Jennie has mentioned before (though maybe not on this blog), the children’s book industry especially likes to be helpful to libraries because libraries actually buy so many of their books, much more than any individual family is likely to buy.

    I understand the underlying feeling of “But marketing is invading our public institution!” we feel when hearing about this, but I also think the situation actually reveals a logical partnership, and the libraries are probably happy to have the literacy-interest boost.

    (The area of the Scholastic website meant specifically for librarians is here, so you can see all the different things they do to partner with libraries.)

  8. kidsilkhaze says:

    Kevin– my parents just buy 2 copies to avoid that problem. 😉

    Dana– No worries. One of the big secrets is the location of said box.

    TheGnat– sure, I’ll get over a spoiler, but it won’t be the same. I don’t want to have to and it will be that much better if I don’t have to “get over it”.

    As far as marketing in the public libraries… Dana’s right in that there is a lot of general promotion of literacy. We promote specific books all the time, but we give them away for free. Promotion of specific books allows us to use the market to our advantage to promote the library and the rest of the collection as a whole. The ALA works a lot with authors, illustrators, and publishers to create marketing materials for libraries. And public/school libraries are, I believe, the bulk of the children’s publishing market.

    In this particular instance… not all libraries have gotten this material, but we are one of the stops on the Scholastic Knight Bus tour (which is only going to libraries). And, with the timed release of the different aspects of the campaign, it keeps people coming back to the library throughout the months leading up the release.

    And, for the record, Snape is GOOD, but will not survive.

  9. kidsilkhaze says:

    Oops– Not Dana, B Barron.

    Mike– really, if publishers give us free stuff to give to our patrons, who are always looking for bookmarks and fun stuff that’s library related, we’ll take it, especially because we’re not advocating they buy the book, we’re advocating that they READ the book.

  10. Mike says:

    Good points about how libraries are promoting reading, not buying, Jennie and Dana.

    To push back a little, though: I’ve been trying to think of a newspaper analogy. Newspapers often find themselves promoting other people’s products: a manufacturer’s new car, a band’s new album, a politician’s new agenda. What we try to avoid is merely passing on their messages unedited; we wouldn’t reprint a press release word for word, and we wouldn’t report on every press release we receive.

    We’re not merely motivated by public responsibility; if we were a parrot, people would notice, and we’d become less useful in our job of filtering out the noise.

    Being a librarian is less about analysis and more about selection and arrangement, but I think the “filter” function is similar. I guess there’s no harm in having fun and including this as one of a number of books promoted over the course of a year. As long as librarians maintain their editorial independence (as it were) over what books they promote.

    The key here, I guess, is that just about everybody seems to hold Harry Potter books in high regard. They sell well on their merits, and they’d sell well if they didn’t have elaborate marketing schemes, as you mention.

    Because here’s the nightmare scenario: librarians get into bed with publishers on behalf of a high-profile, heavily marketed book that nobody actually likes. It might bring kids into libraries, but it’d be as bad as an editor pushing a reporter to write a positive story about an advertiser. Eventually, the public’s trust would erode. Right?

  11. kidsilkhaze says:

    Mike, in a word, NO.

    The analogies don’t compare.

    First of all, we promote several books throughout the year without extra help from publishers– right now I have over 100 books on display in the children’s section alone. I have a display on all the new books, Mother’s Day books, books about exercise and nutrition (May is National Exercise Month), as well as other books randomly selected from the collection. Last month I had books about Poetry, Cinco de Mayo, Gardening, and general Spring…

    Second of all, anytime you use “filter” function in a library, you run into trouble. If librarians only promoted what we culturally think of as “good”books, we’d be accused of being elitist snobs and would lose the public trust. If we only promoted books that were the best-circulating, we’d be accused of pandering. If a book is in our collection, it is worth promoting. End of story.

    That said, we don’t use everything we get– especially posters. We just don’t have the wall space for most of them (there are shelves there! With books on them!) so tend to only use the posters that are general library-related, or have several books on them. We also rotate them fairly frequently.

    I would also like to point out that it’s not like I’m shoving this material in everyone’s face. There are several bookmarks on the reference desk–3 promoting 3 different library services 3 with different types of online tips (dealing with cyberbullies etc) one where you can track the books you’ve read, and two promoting Harry Potter. They’re just sitting in the bookmark holder. I hand them out to people if I know they’re excited about Potter (like if they just asked me where Goblet of Fire was).

  12. […] Last we left, I was arguing that we needed the tight security, it built up the suspense, it was excellent marketing and kept the endings fun (or tragically heartbreaking) for us all. […]

  13. […] It makes my job a heck of a lot easier and fun. (Did I mention the tatoos?!) But, back in May I started blogging about the marketing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In my original post, […]

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