Move over, Poky Little Puppy, JK's next is here

20th June 2003 at 01:00
With the fifth Harry Potter novel about to hog the bestsellers chart, Michael Thorn looks at past winners in the numbers game.

With sales of each new Harry Potter title outstripping the last, J K Rowling's series is well and truly rewriting the record books. But the "Harry Potter phenomenon" is more correctly viewed as the latest instance of a recurrent book-trade phenomenon - the runaway bestseller. Queues at midnight on publication day! Surely that's new? Actually, when Cantos III-V of Byron's Don Juan were published (1821), impatient crowds hammered on the door and windows of John Murray's publishing house in Albemarle Street.

A Victorian reading frenzy was generated by part-works publishing. Crowds lined the New York quayside in 1841 to greet the ship bringing the latest episode of The Old Curiosity Shop, shouting: "Is Little Nell dead?" The first two parts of The Bronze Soldier by GWMReynolds sold 100,000 copies on the day of publication in 1854. Combined sales of Reynolds's books reached millions, demonstrating that bestselling authors don't necessarily last.

Who has heard of him today?

Leading bestseller of the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, sold 1.5m copies in its first year (1851-52). The heightened frenzy surrounding the Potter books is associated with the changing book market (online pre-publication ordering and swift movie adaptation) and the fact that it is a children's series. The lack of a new Potter title in 2002 allowed others to hit the top spots, despite continuing healthy sales for J K Rowling's backlist. In the US, the top-selling children's hardback last year was The Carnivorous Carnival, one of the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, with sales of 726,543. Snicket also topped the hardback backlist chart with his first book, The Bad Beginning (681,019), which outsold Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by some 30,000 (see

In the month before publication of the new Potter book (at midnight on June 20), Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men and Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident were battling for top place in the UK charts. No other book stands a chance of gaining the top position for weeks and probably months after June 20, so Puffin advanced the publication of the new Artemis Fowl book from June to May.

You would be hard-pressed to find information about Gertrude Crampton, reputedly the author of the third-bestselling children's book "of all time", Tootle (1942). And Number 1 to the end of 2000? The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey (1945). Admittedly this is from a US chart,, but it further demonstrates that lasting fame is not a numbers game.

Children have a feel for markets. They can understand the concept of a bestseller chart without an analysis of supply and demand. However, they may need help to distinguish between popularity polls - a recent example being the BBC's Big Read, see www.\bigread - and bestseller charts. It is important to get across the fact that sales charts are based on trading data, not votes. A commodity has changed hands; in most cases, cash has crossed the counter. An example of a money-free chart might be Best-borrowed Books of the Term, generated by the school library.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex


A supposedly real-time version of a bestseller chart can be found in the sales status of online bookseller, Each title is given a regularly updated sales rating based on current orders.

* Divide the class into four or five groups

* Assign each group a new book with good sales prospects, by authors such as Lemony Snicket, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Darren Shan

* Get the groups to check the sales ratings each morning and track the relative performance of the various books over time, using Excel or a database, producing a weeklymonthly cumulative sales chart

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