Harry Potter and the decline of literature

Phil’s post below prompted me to offer a confession of sorts. I know I said I wasn’t interested in all the hubbub surrounding the new Harry Potter book, but I must confess I am reading it anyway. My wife bought the latest volume at the supermarket of all places. Once the book was sitting in front of me I felt like I might as well read it. To some this might be another sign of the demise of literature (buying Harry Potter at the grocery store) but so far the book is pretty interesting. (See David Montgomery over at NRO for more.)

In my defense (not that I really need one), I do read widely and across genres. And I don’t generally buy my books at the same place I buy my groceries. A look at the books coming up for review I think makes that point. Here are the book I have recently finished reading:

The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy by Peter W. Huber, Mark P. Mills.
The Bridge of Sighs by Olen Steinhauer.
Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory.
Oracle Night by Paul Auster

I also just started The Haunting of L by Howard Norman. So before anyone panics, I think it is safe to say that one can read Harry Potter and enjoy literary fiction not to mention a host of other genres plus non-fiction. Just like one can enjoy French cuisine and McDonald’s – different things for different moods.

So look for the above to be reviewed in the coming days. A nice variety in the reading pyramid . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Kevin, why would buying a book at the grocery store be part of the demise of literature? How is literature wounded by where it’s sold?

  2. Phil,

    The idea is that if supermarkets, Wal-Mart, etc. start dominating book sales that this will further skew the sales toward celebrity tell alls, self-help books, romance novels and the like thereby making literary fiction that much harder to market. It seems a safe bet that most people aren’t looking for literary fiction at the local supermarket. I don’t know if this will in fact disrupt the economics of serious fiction any more than the current situation does, but it is a understandable concern.

  3. So if these types of books sell more b/c of their availability, more of them will be published which will cause fewer literary works to be published? If it’s the availability in supermarkets that sells these books, why wouldn’t some publishers or distributers offer to sell other books in those outlets? Or if supermarkets prove to sell certain books well, wouldn’t that be carving out a niche market and free up other outlets to push other books?

    I’m having trouble understanding why the sale of certain books makes the sale of other books more difficult.

  4. The basic idea is that publishing is a zero sum game in some sense. Publishers only have so much money. If the more profitable way to go is toward mass sales at supermarkets then more of the budget is going to go toward producing and selling those type of books. This means less money toward literary fiction. If you can invest in an intelligent novel or a Princess Dianna tell-all the profit margin already leans toward Princess Di, but if the supermarket option further pushes that margin further you begin to wonder if less literary fiction will get published.

    The other issue is market share. Places like Wal-Mart have a lot of leverage and buying power. Sometimes this is good, less smut and sometimes this is bad, a tendency toward lowbrow. Bookstores make money by having a wide variety of books in one place. In this scenario they can make money from fluff and still sell, or at least stock, serious works. If supermarkets and other non-traditional stores undercut bookstores on this section of the business it means less profit to put toward literary fiction, etc.

    It is part of the general dumbing down of the market. If fluff floods the market it makes it harder to have the good stuff. I am not saying this is a verifiable economic theory or anything, I am just saying that given the dumbing down of our culture as a whole that it is worrisome that books might become like magazines and television – dominated by trashy fluff.

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