Twenty years ago, on June 26, a children’s book was quietly published by Bloomsbury (UK) and Scholastic (US). Little did anyone imagine that it would become a raging bestseller with six more titles to follow in the series in the next 10 years. This book came as a breath of life to a children’s book publishing industry that was wondering where to go next.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter helped them turn the corner as it was accepted by one and all. Booksellers have fascinating stories to tell about the phenomenon that was Potter. One bookshop owner nostalgically looks back at the “golden days”: “In 2003, we drove to various school-bus stops to deliver the pre-booked Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to children who obviously could not miss school. This, after picking the copies up at 5 am from the distributors. Then there were the serpentine queues at the store.” This pattern repeated itself on every subsequent Potter release. You had to have the new Harry Potter in your hand on Day One or life was meaningless.
Now, 20 years after the first book and a decade after the last in the series, are children’s publishers looking for another Rowling? Especially because of what Rowling-Potter managed to do in August 2016 with a play and a movie? “I think what great authors do is open up markets worldwide. Where Ms Rowling has been successful has been that she redefined what a book can do. But saying that publishers are waiting for the next big thing would be inappropriate, and would be going against the basic principles of publishing,” said Neeraj Jain, managing director of Scholastic India.
It was not as if nothing much was happening in the children’s book publishing trade in India. The genre grew, many titles became popular, new authors came and conquered briefly, but the Potter wave continued unabated with one new title coming out every year till 2000 and then in every alternate year. In between, Rowling came up with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. It kept readers’ appetite on the edge. And they kept devouring what Rowling served up.
Still dependent on Rowling
Look at the Rowling timeline. In 2012, she took a break from children’s books and wrote A Causal Vacancy. It had the second best-selling opening week for an adult novel in the UK after Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. In 2013, she chose to write crime fiction (in this series, which has seen three books so far, private detective Cormoran Strike solves brutal murders) under a new name, Robert Galbraith – although that cover was blown very soon. Rowling then returned to Harry Potter in 2015 with the play script ofHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, in two parts.
Published on July 31, 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child sold close to 850,000 copies in the UK in the first week and became the fourth fastest-selling title of all time (the first three are all Potters). In the US, Scolastic announced that the Cursed Child sold 2 million copies in 48 hours. Hachette UK declared an 8.1% sales surge in the first quarter of this year “led by a significant restocking of JK Rowling’s’ titles (Little, Brown).” For a script, this was a magnificent performance. Rowling had cast her spell again.
This is not to discount or discredit the other noteworthy releases that children’s books publishing threw up. If there was a Jeff Kinney with the Wimpy Kid, there was a David Walliams’s children’s books too, besides Rick Riordan with Percy Jackson. In India, Ruskin Bond is still going strong, Roopa Pai’s Taranauts series created a few ripples. New children’s publishers like Duckbill came up with newer categories and new authors. Young adult literature was picking up fast. However, there was nothing extraordinary. And the list of successes was limited.
What the numbers say
According to Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette Book Publishing India, the children’s segment in India is thriving in terms of numbers, and for most brick and mortar stores, it is the largest segment. But what kind of books is it that sell?
While low-priced books have always been the most successful in India, it’s true that parents don’t hesitate to spend on books for their children. “However,” said Abraham, “the problem is the lack of biblio-diversity and the fact that it is a non-discerning market. So, generic products with no pedagogical underpinning is dominating younger reading shelves because they are low-priced and have a smattering of colour. One doesn’t see enough range or the emergence of big Indian brands which we should have seen happening by now. In almost no store will you see a classic like Emil and the Detectives – leave alone Gay Neck by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the only Indian writer to have won the Newbery medal – or the great translations.”
Abraham’s observation reiterates how few children’s writers there are with a following in this generic, price-conscious market. It may not have been very different elsewhere in the world, prompting Barry Cunningham, who bought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at Bloomsbury for £2,000, to tell Rowling, “‘Let’s take one book at a time, and the thing is, Jo, you really ought to get a day job because you’ll never make any money doing this.”
Although Rowling, Kinney and Walliams, among others, have proved that supposition wrong, it is undeniably true that there have not been more successes like the last two in India, leave alone a Rowling-scale act. Is there something publishers can do? “It is vital that the fraternity continues to invest in the future and experiment with new voices like we’ve been doing for the last 20 years in India,” declared Jain of Scholastic.
The next breakout?
What does such success mean to publishers? “That’s always welcome, not just for the publisher in question (we were lucky it happened to be us!), but for the industry. Nothing capitalises a market like a breakout bestseller. So yes, one will always wish for something like that will break the norm,” said Hachette’s Abraham.
In the recently-released Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report, the overarching theme that emerged was that access and choice were directly linked to children reading more. “So, it comes down to how publishers, booksellers, schools and parents provide for this accessibility and choice,” said Jain.
Do those conditions exist already? Some publishers feel they do. Said Himanjali Sankar, associate publisher, Bloomsbury India: “Children’s and young adult literature is quite robust now (in India and elsewhere), maybe much more so than adult trade books.” But that isn’t enough, she added. “Harry Potter was just so perfect in its simplicity and effortless connect when it came to emotions, storyline, universal questions of good and evil – it worked at every level for every person from the eight-year-old to the 80-year-old!”
In other words, children may be reading, parents may be buying, and publishers may be actively putting books into the market, but none of this is enough. It still needs someone to hit a sweet spot the way the Harry Potter series did. And that’s not something publishers can engineer. It will need the genius of a writer.
Of course, it will still need the instinct and insight of an editor to identify that writer from the thousands who send in their manuscripts. But neither of this can take place to a plan. It can only be called serendipity.