Is Harry Potter a sacred cow?

“Be mooooved by my sacredness!”

Today’s post is rated E for everyone, but also is rated H for Harry. As in Britain’s real Harry, Harry Potter (We all know Harry Styles is a make believe tale we tell children, like the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny).

As a middle grade fantasy writer, I, and all the other genre writers, know we pale in comparison to The Greatest Book Ever Written, My God (TGBEWMG).

How many people do you know who read the books didn’t like it? The sales, the fandom, the theme park, the movies, the story, all back up the success. It was well-written and cleverly thought out. JK Rowling is awesome with the English language, and, as I’ve said before, no one will ever recreate that level of excitement or sales success ever. I’m serious; it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime books that you just consider yourself lucky or amazed to be alive in when people lined up at midnight, in costume, to pay $30 for a hardcover book, when people around the world were begging for the next copy and crying when the series ended and then the movies too.

I was 10 the first time I had heard of HP. There were three books out and everyone in my elementary school was reading them. Only I, feeling cool, decided not to bother reading them until I think I was the last in my 5th grade class to pick up a copy. Surprisingly, it was interesting and different, more so than most other books I had read*, and I was a huge Goosebumps/Hardy Boys/Encyclopedia Brown fan growing up. Yes, I had read about other magical schools, but not to HP’s level. They really were magical.

*Did I, the video game junkie, just admit to READING?

Along with immense success comes fandom and respect. Even Fifty Shades, much maligned for being half Twilight Fanfic, half softcore porn for women, deserves credit for being able to do what no other book has done since HP and Twilight; cross the 100 million sales barrier for a series (In fact, I’m pretty sure no book will even hit 100 million again, but it’s possible a series could do it. Maybe), especially in an age where the diffusion of entertainment options, decline in reading for pleasure, and massive competition between books make finding those gems much harder.

Well, I have learned that there is a group of Harry Potter have, for whatever reason, decided that because the books were so great, now no one can write a children’s fantasy series, especially if a magical school is involved, and not automatically have either complaints or comparisons to Harry Potter. And in this case I’m referring to those who will dismiss any middle grade fantasy novel the moment they sense “similarities” between your/my story, and HP.

Don’t misunderstand, those of us who write in this genre (middle grade fantasy) would be happy with that level of respect (and sales-even a tenth of them) Rowling received. If someone wants to say “This is the best book I’ve read since Harry Potter” (and one kid DID say something like that to her parents a few months ago during a first read), I’d be thrilled.

But we who write kid’s fantasy like the genre and have our own stories, separate from HP. Will stories have similarities? Of course. There are about 12 unique story ideas in the world, and every story everywhere is a derivative of another one. Every idea builds upon another one. Even my idea, which I know for a fact has never been done before in the way it’s been done (when the story’s completed), is a cobbling of other people’s ideas synthesized with my own. It’s just “First to Market” who gets to claim originality.

Check out Viktor Kloss’ page, Middle Grade (MG) fantasy author. To be fair, I haven’t read his book just yet (will do so soon). But check out his comments- you can’t go more than a few before someone either decides: a) this is too “Harry Potter” and this is an issue, or b) has to plead with fellow posters that is is NOT Harry Potter and they should just like the book. I’d guess at minimum 40% of the commenters feel the urge to mention Harry Potter and try to argue the similarities and difference. Which wouldn’t be necessary if so many folks just didn’t get bothered by similarities.

Read the plot and tell me if it is:

“Two years ago, Ben Greenwood’s parents walked out the door and never returned. The police have all but given up finding them when Ben stumbles upon a peculiar letter addressed to his dad. “You are the most wanted man in the Unseen Kingdoms. Unless you come to us, we cannot help. For your child’s sake, tell us what you know.”

The letter is from an organisation called the Royal Institute of Magic and is dated a day before his parents disappeared. Like most people, fourteen-year-old Ben hasn’t the faintest idea what the Royal Institute of Magic is, but he has his first clue: the logo on the letter.

Armed with nothing but his wits and the help of his good friend Charlie, Ben sets out to find the Institute and, through them, his parents. To succeed, he will have to navigate a land filled with fantastic creatures and Spellshooters, where magic can be bought and sold, to unravel an ancient family secret that could hold the key to defeating an evil the Institute has been fighting for the last five hundred years.”

Sure, you could argue his magic or parts of plots come from other sources…Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, et cetera. But notice in the comments what one book gets mentioned as being “too similar” or “this book is NOT Harry Potter! Only a few similarities please like it!”

*Update: Victor sent me a blogpost. I’m glad he got some people who like it the way they liked Harry Potter, which he notes. But he also has to feel the urge to specify how his book is a) NOT Harry Potter and b) not using concepts not already used, such as the “world within a world”. Apparently some Harry Potter fans also believe the ideas in the novels were original to her, and forget about the great writers before her who shared ideas which laid down the groundwork.

I write this because your humble, lonely, merely “aspiring” author has written his own book, also MG fantasy, also with a character who is sent to a preparatory academy, who also receives a letter (in her tree-shaped mailbox) saying she and her sister were accepted to this school, which is not for everyone. That’s honestly about it for the similarities. I have no wizards, witches, dragons, ghosts, trolls, or elves in mine (In book 1, the only one written), no one picks where they live at school, the main character has a separate life than Harry, and the main villain is not an evil wizard who wants to live forever/destroy the world (in fact it’s not even human). In addition to writing my own ideas, I did as much as possible to avoid the comparisons, and I would think and hope on its merits the book will be well-received, or poorly received if it sucks that bad. If anything, I might guilty more of being too influenced by Naruto than Harry Potter.

I can only wonder, though, if my editor was right after she read my first draft, and I’m just going to get the “Harry Potter did it! Harry Potter did it!” comments. If you think this doesn’t matter to a MG fantasy writer, picture review after review of people wasting time talking about how this book is/is not like TGBEWMG, as opposed to saying what it is about my book they liked/disliked, independent of other works.

The thing is, the series I’m writing has no relation to Harry Potter, or Naruto, other than some occasional similarities. But will readers give book 2 a chance if book 1 is a “knockoff?”

For the record, I wonder how many of these “You just stole from Harry Potter” types thought the same when Hunger Games was accused of ripping off Battle Royale, or when Divergent was accused of ripping off Hunger Games (to be fair, I did not read Divergent, nor do I know what the plot is about; it’s anecdotal what I’ve heard from readers). Somehow that didn’t impact sales for Suzanne Collins or Veronica Roth. So why do some Harry Potter fans treat the series like it’s a sacred cow that cannot be replicated in any way?

(Okay, rant over, off the soapbox. Now time to get back to work)

Please someone, prove me to be a ranting jackass. Find me proof of diehard Potterfans who WANT to find a new MG Fantasy series to fall in love with, the way they fell in love in Harry Potter.

Image is from www.robertscottbell.com. I have no ownership rights, and I am not making money or benefiting from using that image.

The Obvious Answer to Why Boys Read Less than Girls

I love switching out planned topics for new ones at the last minute. Answering this question “Why don’t boys read as much as girls?” Is one of those unexpected but elephant-in-the-room questions when it comes to kids books.

Today’s pondering article, from The Book Seller: (spelling differences left in their original form).

“The children’s book market is in fantastic health. As The Bookseller have reported, in 2014, children’s book sales were up by almost 10 percent, year-on-year — particularly impressive in the context of an overall decline in print book sales — and this shortlist shows why: it’s a brilliant selection of books, demonstrating how much imagination, creativity and talent exists in children’s publishing at the moment.

Selling books to boys is difficult. As has been discussed elsewhere, only 3 of the 18 authors on the Waterstones shortlists are men (one of them, G.R. Gemin, is a Nosy Crow author, shortlisted for his fantastic debut novel Cowgirl).

Boys don’t read as much as girls. Tempting as it might be to dismiss that statement as a gross generalisation, it is objectively, statistically the case. Recent research by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) found that more parents of girls said that their child read daily than parents of boys (75 percent vs 68 percent). Parents of girls were also more likely than parents of boys to report that their child enjoyed stories “a lot” (83 percent vs 74 percent). And girls are almost twice as likely as boys (18 percent vs 10 percent) to read stories more without than with an adult.

This is what motivated us (please excuse the shameless self-promotion) to create our Jack and the Beanstalk app. More than any of our other apps, Jack and the Beanstalk is aimed at reluctant boy readers. It has an emphasis on reading for pleasure, built within a “game-like” architecture — a non-linear narrative, a “scoring” mechanism, multiple endings — that we think works well at encouraging boys who love on-screen gaming to participate in a reading experience.

I don’t mean, by all this, that because we’ve found ways of using screens to engage some boys with reading that we can give up on print (and it would be foolish to think so: while the children’s print market enjoyed its meteoric growth last year, digital revenues remained stubbornly small).”

Um…I can answer this question. And no, non-linear books on e-readers won’t solve the problem.

When I was a kid I read a lot of books in: Goosebumps, Fear Street (R.L. Stine’s Teen series), Hardy Boys,  Encyclopedia Brown, Harry Potter, and some sci-fi books like Ender’s Game and my favorite, Boat of a Million Years (not a kid’s book but still a good read). Later in my teens I read more manga like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Worst,and Elfen Lied. What did they all have in common? Other than HP, which was more mystery-oriented plots, all the other books had more action and drama and less “feeling” about characters. Action and mystery, not narrative prose, drove the plots.

Heck even my video games had more substance than the teen books offered to me as “bestsellers”. I was simply not interested in Twilight and general romance novels, or the typical BS which may win critical acclaim but sell few copies (like how many Oscar winners are well-received by critics but rarely do well at the box office) which is a lot of what is published as Young Adult (teen readers). So the Japanese mange gave me: ninja fights, pirate fights, ghost soul fights, high school street brawls, etc.

All of these series, the English and Japanese, still had emotion and character development as part of their backgrounds, but the action drove the plot, not “literary prose” (writing about how one feels about something) which tends to be more published. Granted, there are also thriller novels but most of the more interesting ones are adult-oriented, and thrillers often lack deep character development needed to sell a great series. Go look up the rejection histories of Dr. Seuss, HP, and Chicken Soup if you want to see how great series are not even given the time of day while what the “literary community” wants rarely sells well.

So then, why don’t boys read:

Answer: Too many kid’s books are “female-friendly”. Focused too heavily on romance and “how someone feels” about something, or poltiical correctness (minority books with minority settings- I am Latino but I don’t want to read a book about some Hispanic kid living in racist White America trying to get by- how about a Hispanic kid who swings powerful swords and is cocky but brings the heat when it matters? Saves the day because he’s badass and not because he’s Hispanic/Latino? (hmmm). Most literary agents and acquisition editors are women with English lit or Creative Writing degrees, and action adventure books like James Bond are generally frowned upon in the academic world, especially when compared to books like The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, etc.. If you don’t believe me, compare the number of books about ninja/pirate fights published annually to “critically acclaimed” books  minorities living in 1950s racist America or books heavy on female characteristics.

I’m not against these books; they have their own appeal and their own place in literature. But if you want boys to read, how about stuff I want to read and not what adults think kids should be reading.

The Problems with Children’s Lit in 2 Graphs (Super Bowl Edition)

First off, let me say American Sniper is a 5/5 movie. Bradley Cooper surprised me by playing the part of Chris Kyle well, naturally, as though it really was Kyle and not an actor playing a former Navy SEAL. I HIGHLY recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see war through the eyes of a person who actually went to Iraq and fought.

Second, Children’s lit. Publisher’s Launch is a project of Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and PublishersMarketplace.com and Mike Shatzkin of The Idea Logical Company to provide better data analytics on the book pub world to publisher’s. Such as, who’s buying what and what the trends are for literature and literacy, two big issues I care about. Education is so important to me that I do a lot of grassroots work to improve education but that’s a post for another time.

Jonathan Nowell of Nielsen Book had a presentation at Publisher Launch’s Launch Kids session at the most recent Digital Book World conference called “A look at the US Children’s book Market”. He posted his slideshow to the ‘net, for those of us who couldn’t go.

As someone who read a fair amount of kid’s books, and who just finished manuscript #1 for a middle grade novel, here is what’s wrong with children’s lit in 2 graphs: 

The takeaways:

1. Notice the book is missing from graph #1 for kids 14-17. For most American children once they turn 11 books drop off and YouTube and TV take its place.

2. By 14 social media and mobile devices are more important. Reading drops out of the top 8 slots and even sports drop towards the bottom. I was surprised that gaming was less interesting than Facebook and YouTube among teens. This must explain the rise in watching strangers on YouTube play video games and “commentate” rather than actually picking up the controller yourself like I did when I was a teen. Let me note: They are watching random strangers just play games and talk. Whenever I wanted to watch someone play a game and talk, I would go to friend’s houses and do the same thing! But I digress.

This sadly means it’s tougher to get kids and teens to read, which is noticeable when 80% of Young Adult books are bought by adults, for adults. Unless..

3. Graph #2 shows the rise in getting YouTube (and presumably other) internet celebrities in “writing books”. Now to be fair I’ve never heard of any of the celebrities listed on graph 2, but I found this tidbit on “Girl Online” by Zoe Sugg, who goes by the name “Zoella” online. The article notes that Zoe’s debut novel outsold other major authors like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and E.L. James. Apparently, though, her first week accounted for nearly all of her sales as she has since petered out near the 100,000 mark, surprising given that she has close to 7 million YouTube subscribers. She apparently did not actually write the novel; it was ghostwritten, a rather unusual thing for fiction novels, unless you’re bestselling author “Snooki” from the Jersey Shore.

No doubt the internet was a useful tool to help these YouTube stars, of which I am not one of them (I think I’m too old), sell books. However, in the long run, whose books sell better? The three authors Zoe beat, or Zoe? We all know the answer. Now in the short-term, getting celebrities of all stripes (internet, reality tv, etc.) is a better way of selling books than relying on little-known debut novelists with smaller platforms and fewer social media followers. You fans will go buy a book because it’s “you” and, like, you’re famous. BUT again, what are the odds of these books becoming the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games/Stephen King just because they have a celebrity’s name on it? Want to place a bet?

I can tell you why. At the end of the day it’s the product quality, not the person/people endorsing the product, which determines a product’s success. While I acknowledge I am a bit envious of my far-fewer social media follower status in promoting anything I have, I can say in the long run relying too heavily on poor-quality celebrity books, even to get kids to read, is not the answer. The kids who are not fans of these celebrities just won’t read or will go back to reading other things by established authors. I love Lord of the Rings, I consider it one of the all-time greatest fantasy series ever, but it’s a little sad to me when 2 of the top 5 best-selling Fantasy novels for January are by a man who’s been dead for 42 years, as though literally no one in the world can ever write a good fantasy book again.

Please share your thought about whether you think it’s a good idea for book publishers to rely heavily on celebrity-driven books, or take risks on little-known or unknown debut novelists. Remember. celebrity books are nothing new or bad. They can certainly boost sales at least in the short run over non-famous persons. My argument is that relying on internet & reality T.V. celebrities to “write” kid’s books is not a good long-term trend for brand development and literacy improvement.

The full report is here

SUPER BOWL PICK: I will be rooting for New England with my Pats shirt on at the bar tomorrow. Initially I had Seattle 27-16, but I’m more torn on it now. New England plays very well with the “us against the world mentality” and for that reason I leaned towards NE. But Seattle has shown the ability to do their best no matter what the other teams do, and can the Pats defense stop Lynch and Wilson?

The key players are Gronk vs. Wilson. I’ll go closer but I say Seattle 26 New England 23. Seattle’s defense has been very good at shutting down good offenses and even with the injuries in the back 7 I don’t know how good New England’s defense will be at slowing down the Seattle run game, even IF their WR’s are mediocre.