Word came via The Mary Sue that, on Amazon, Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has outsold Harry Potter both in print and digital. The article raises the question: how is it that a young trilogy can outsell a seven-book series with a devoted generational global following?
The answer that occurred to me, and to numerous commenters on the original piece: bookstores, and how there’s still more to the bookselling world than just Amazon’s dominance.
I was an early adopter of Harry Potter, having discovered the first one when it was brand-new in one of those eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-room scenarios that normally only occur in 50s romance films and Frank Sinatra songs. I was literally across the room, and my eye snagged on that famous purple cover, and a jolt of electricity went through me. I knew I was going to love that book even before I picked it up and read the cover blurb. By the time the third one came out, I was dragging my friends to midnight release parties, standing in huge lines of kids our age and younger with lightning bolt temporary tattoos on our foreheads.
Later, I attended events at small, dedicated bookstores like Walla Walla’s Book & Game and worked huge release events for the sixth and seventh books at the marvelous Third Place Books. Those midnight release parties — they’re common enough now, but I can’t emphasize enough how revolutionary they felt at the time. Reading is often depicted as a solitary pursuit, an escape from other people, the consoling hobby of lonely kids and adults isolated by any number of factors (temperament, geography, what-have-you). Midnight release parties were where the non-literary book world showed up en masse: it’s where we looked around and recognized ourselves in others on a vast, unprecedented scale.
And if you’ll pardon me some adult language, those book events sold a metric fuckton of books over the course of an entire decade.
It’s not surprising that The Hunger Games and its sequels have sold plenty of copies: they’ve got a gripping story, compelling emotional resonance, cross-generational appeal, and the kind of kickass female protagonist I would have Quarter Quelled somebody for in high school. They’ve also been released at a time when digital reading is at an all-time high-water mark. The same is not true of Harry Potter, whose digital release was significantly delayed (though exquisitely managed — I approve full-voicedly Pottermore’s avoidance of DRM).
But popular as they are, the Hunger Games have not (or not yet) performed the kind of literary and cultural sea change that Harry Potter did. It seems like a safe bet to say that Susanne Collins’ success is very indebted to the culture of reading nurtured by J. K. Rowling. And nurture it she has — through charity work, interviews, fan events, and numerous other avenues designed to engage kids with a culture of reading, not just her own series and its brand.
The way that this news about sales rank is being framed — HUNGER GAMES NOW OFFICIALLY THE BEST BOOKS, as indicated by lots of headlines that use the word ‘surpass’ — illustrates the trouble with assuming that Amazon rankings and sales data represent the whole of the book industry or reading culture. I’d argue that most Harry Potter books are not sold via Amazon — they were picked up in print bookstores, or in airports, or grocery stores, or Walmart. I know I’ve picked up paperback copies of Harry Potter books in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Helsinki. Those sales do not, cannot factor into Amazon’s numbers. (This aside from the fact that Amazon’s data on sales can only be verified by Amazon, and not by chain or independent retailers or publishers — a sinister point that seems to get glossed over quite a bit in print-digital conversations.) And while Amazon’s promise to ship you a new release on the official day is convenient and customer-friendly, it doesn’t bring the giddy elation of witnessing two hunded black-clad wannabe witches and wizards waving wands and cheering at the top of their lungs because you’ve just sliced open the first red-taped box of Book Seven with your trusty Exact-o knife.
So, though I’m as guilty as any author of checking my Amazon sales rank like a gerbil going back for a food pellet, it bears repeating: Sales are not substance. Amazon is great at getting books into people’s hands — I’ve yet to be convinced that they’re great at getting books to change people’s lives.