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How Harry Potter rewrote the book on reading

"Adults are living increasingly as children," a character in Lorrie Moore's very grown-up 2010 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, complains. "Reading Harry Potter while every newspaper in the country goes out of business."

They are "doing society harm," British comedian Linda Smith agreed at the height of Pottermania, identifying such sociopaths as "a tiny minority of people who should not be allowed to vote."

When not padding course lists with Harry Potter books and writing scholarly articles about them, some academics have also questioned the "cultural infantilism" that has made the classic children's series a must-read for grownup dinner guests throughout the literate world. But if any publishers share the same view, they certainly aren't saying.

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Even as the Potter era officially ends with the release of the final film of the final book, they remain spellbound and enthralled by its power.

The adventures of Harry and his magical schoolmates have not only attracted an enormous number of adult readers - one in five of the 12 million copies of the books sold in their first decade in Canada went to adults, according to their publisher - they revolutionized the act of reading and with it the entire publishing industry.

"I don't think there are any limits to the effect Harry Potter has had on the business of reading," said Trevor Dayton, vice-president in charge of the children's section at Indigo Books and Music.

As if by magic, the books led a startling reversal in what once seemed to be the inevitable decline in the number of young readers - down 20 per cent in the United States throughout the 1990s, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, but up 21 per cent by 2008.

They were the first to demonstrate the previously unimagined marketing power of social media, with the gaps between books serving as ideal breeding grounds for the kind of early Internet chatter that became equally phenomenal with the advent of Facebook and Twitter. They were the first to turn passive readers into activist fans with insatiable appetites. They made book knowledge a universal cultural requirement, a pattern repeated by the massively bestselling Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. Not the least, they made formerly separate categories of children's and adult books "almost indistinguishable," according to Dayton.

"When I started with Indigo, Kids was a relatively small percentage of the business and the teen category within that was my second-smallest category," he said. "Today it's the second-largest category in the store. Fiction is one and Teen is two."

Adults are currently responsible for borrowing a third of all Young Adult titles circulated by the Toronto Public Library, according to TPL children's advocate Lisa Heggum, up from almost nothing a decade ago. "It's a strong trend and I do think Harry Potter led the way," she said.

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Potter publishers initially encouraged the trend by introducing each new book in two editions - one with a cover aimed at children and a second with a deceptively grown-up appearance. "We thought we were being very clever," said Jamie Broadhurst, vice-president of marketing for Raincoast Books, which published the books in Canada. "What we didn't figure out was the fact that adults had absolutely no problem reading a book with a children's cover."

Spurred by Potter, the crossover appeal of children's literature continued to buoy traditional publishing as it struggled against the rising tide of electronic innovation. Hardcover sales of children's books in the United States increased by almost a third in 2009, during which time sales of adult books experienced a double-digit decline. At the beginning of 2009, adults older than 18 bought 70 per cent of all Young Adult titles sold in the country (including those bought as gifts), according to book research firm Bowker LLC. Last year, they accounted for more than three-quarters of all YA sales.

"The Harry Potter generation has taught retailers and publishers that Young Adult publishing, to be completely frank, is extremely lucrative," Broadhurst said, adding that the trend happily contradicts basic demographics. "The number of young people in Canada is actually declining, but the per-capita purchasing for each young person in Canada continues to increase," he said.

With their fervent embrace of Harry Potter, young people virtually reinvented the business of reading, according to Broadhurst. "Prior to Harry Potter, books had been viewed as subjective and reading was a solitary experience," he said. "What the Harry Potter generation showed us, certainly through social media but also through events, was that they view reading as a collective experience. They want to celebrate reading together."

The same appetite revealed itself in the success of Meyer's multi-volume Twilight books, some of which sold at an even faster rate than the Potter books, and is currently laying waste to stocks of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin's latest instalment in the never-ending series that began with A Game of Thrones ( Dragons sold 298,000 copies in North America on its first day in release this week, the majority in hardcover rather than electronic form). Growing fan love for The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is threatening to turn that series into a "full-on phenomenon" as well, according to Indigo's Dayton.

One remarkable aspect of the Potter phenomenon is that half the annual sales of each new book occurred within 48 hours of their initial release, according to Broadhurst, setting a pattern of hit-driven marketing closer to the pop-music industry than the good-for-you approach of traditional YA publishing. "Any publisher who crows about Harry Potter is mistaken," Broadhurst said. "This is something that happened because of this organic, mysterious and incredibly powerful fan base. It's wonderful when it happens but very difficult to predict when it will happen again."

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Like the Potter books, the new hits come on strong, their appeal amplified in the echo chamber of social media. But unlike the Potter books, they rarely last. All seven rank among the 70 most popular books circulated by the Toronto Public Library, according to Heggum. Although Twilight was the best-selling book in the U.S. in 2010, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows took the No. 2 spot - three years after its initial publication.

"I don't think there will ever be another Harry Potter," Dayton said. But there will be more fantasy series that garner comparable mass audiences among both children and adults - at least temporarily. "Now what happens is it doesn't sustain itself," he said.

The manic energy that sustained Pottermania no longer exists, according to Kelly McKinnon of Vancouver's Kidsbooks stores. "The momentum just isn't there," she said. But the pattern it established is now the new normal.

"The landscape underneath our feet has changed in a way no one could have predicted before Harry Potter," Broadhurst said. Prospects that once seemed bleak are now brimming with possibility. "We sold 12 million copies of Harry Potter in Canada over 10 years," he added. "I can't think of a more compelling argument for the long-term viability of reading than that."

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