Here's How a Trilogy Can Outsell a Septology on Amazon (and What it Means for Your Weekend)

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.

Harry Potter's Resistance To Romance

{It goes without saying—doesn't it?—that this post is an absolute font of spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.} {Update: I wrote this whole long thing before I found this hilarious post from the Awl.}

At this point it's a cliché, but I was reading Harry Potter before Harry Potter was cool. I spotted a copy in a B. Dalton one day in one of those "meeting a stranger's eye across a crowded room" moments. But I was poor in cash and rich in gift certificates, so later that day I went to the local Barnes and Noble.

They didn't have a copy, and they'd never heard of the book. The person behind the information desk—can you imagine?—had to do a computer search to find the author's name. "It looks like there's two titles," they said. "The Sorcerer's Stone and The Philosopher's Stone."

Looking back, I should have ordered The Philosopher's Stone, which is the British title. Those things go for quite a chunk of change these days.

But I couldn't wait: I borrowed some money from Mom, went to a third bookstore, found the book, and never looked back.

Harry Potter has kind of a thorny relationship with romance. The breadth and intensity of its fandom leads to great populations of what are known as shippers—folks who root for a particular couple in a work of fiction. Just like slash began with Kirk/Spock, shipping started with Mulder/Scully. So on the one hand, J. K. Rowling directs certain characters into relationships with certain other characters; any Hermione/Harry shippers are therefore working against canon when they writes stories or produce fan art in support of a Harry/Hermione romance.

On the other hand, much of the point of the Harry Potter series is that you can't always trust appearances, and small details often end up becoming hugely important in later events. There's a moment early in the first book where Sirius Black's name appears as a throwaway line—but Sirius himself doesn't show up as a character until the third novel. When the books were still being released, there was a sense of the novels as a huge puzzle inviting fans to find solutions—we learn about horcruxes, but perhaps we have seen a few in earlier books? Where does Severus Snape fall on the good/evil continuum? (Ah, the good old days of the "Snape is a vampire" theory.)

Any tiny piece of tenderness, in this world, has the potential to become the basis for a secret history of unrequited love, or a torrid affair carefully hidden from the eyes of average readers. J. K. Rowling doesn't have a problem with fans borrowing her characters to write original works of their own (unlike, say, Diana Gabaldon), though she has stated that since her books are aimed at children it may be rather inappropriate (my phrasing) to write x-rated stories about the characters.

This doesn't stop people, however—I can point you toward quite a few saucy Snape stories.

Artist's depiction of Severus Snape from Rowling's texts, and a totally different image drawn from fan-authored stories about Severus Snape. Guess which one's sexier?

Also—and this spoiler is canon—Dumbledore is gay.

However, as the above picture amply demonstrates, sometimes things go slightly … off-track in the world of fan fiction. Fan writers know their tropes as well as authors do, and when writing a romance with sex scenes it is imperative that the characters involved have something appealing about them. Severus Snape as written by Rowling is unfit to be a romance hero—despite the sexiness of the angst and his tortured soul, the word "greasy" comes up far too frequently—but it does not take many changes to make him a convincingly attractive figure. That there is value in reimagining familiar stories is proved by this sharp list of art inspired by other art—a list that includes Rent and West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

But in my opinion, there are some large obstacles in the way of romance in the Harry Potter world.

The first: our central character is really, really central.

Ginny Weasley's great and all—especially toward the end of the series, wow—but the perspective in the books unquestionably belongs to Harry. Romances are increasingly weighted equally between the points of view of hero and heroine, and to have such a one-sided depiction of the relationship hearkens back to the old Georgette Heyer days where at the end—surprise!—he loves her back! Much as I like Georgette Heyer—and much as I like Harry and Ginny's romance—I tend to prefer getting a glimpse inside the heads of both partners in a relationship.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the ending of the grand plot arc in Harry Potter is never secure.

Even when Rowling was writing the books, she didn't quite know how she was going to end them. At times she thought Harry just might have to die, and she was just about willing to do it. And the fans, obsessive and hungry for every little clue—that detective-story aspect again—knew she hadn't decided about it until about book five or so. Only the very most naive of us thought, There's no way she's going to kill Harry off! Because it was plain that she could.

And in the neverending argument about whether happy endings are vital to the romance genre (witness this thread at Heroes & Heartbreakers), I will always come down on the side of guaranteed happy ending. A series in which it is doubtful your main character will survive the last book is going to be hostile to that main character's chance at a romantic plot. (Though–what would Nicholas Sparks think? … I can't believe I just asked that.)

My point is this: despite the glowing epilogue, despite the happy relationships, despite the fanfiction, despite the insta-attraction that hit me as soon as I saw that purple cover for the very first time—the world of Harry Potter is strangely inimical to romance. (Tonks and Lupin. TONKS AND LUPIN!) At the same time, the books value loyalty, friendship, trust, and courage–all of which I consider essential to a strong romantic relationship. And they talk a lot about love—but it's platonic love, the abstract love of humanity, or the incredible power of self-sacrificing maternal love.

And some days, that feels like kind of a shame.