Over at The Mary Sue, they have an interesting article on Amazon’s report that The Hunger Games has overtaken Harry Potter as their best-selling series ever. They ask what we might attribute this success to, beyond the simple popularity of the books. Much is being made about the ascendancy of ebooks. Harry Potter lagged on that front, in part because, as one comment pointed out, it first appeared on the market in 1997. Ebooks were not yet a thing. (For that matter, Amazon itself wasn’t much of a thing yet.) J.K. Rowling did not release digital versions of the book until her launch of Pottermore this year. That being said, The Hunger Games have also overtaken HP on print sales. The madcap midnight release parties were such visible markers of HP’s popularity. They were also a bit of a last hurrah for brick and mortar bookstores before the die-offs that came with the increasing popularity of online shopping regardless of medium.
Though I’m sure these issues of medium availability and online purchasing are influential, I think a bigger point is being missed: the success of Harry Potter may well have been the necessary groundwork for the series that followed it, including but not limited to The Hunger Games. One of the credits given to Rowling, quite correctly in my opinion, is that she made reading cool again. Forget digital formats for a moment; reading itself became a thing again.
Rowling managed to draw in an enormous audience of all ages, create an international fandom, and make the release of new books something that was announced during news programs on television and radio. When was the last time that was true? Who was the last author to so catch the imagination of youth? In particular, who else could contend for the title of official author to that generation, coming of age in the new millennium? Rowling became that touchstone author of my generation, I think. Even if you were not a fan (I was a latecomer to the books on account of being a sneering prat during junior high and high school), you knew who she was. You probably knew something about the plot, even if you wished you didn’t. Rowling ruled.
I’m not suggesting that subsequent books have simply ridden in on the coattails of Harry Potter. There have been excellent books and there have been appealing books (not always the same thing). There have been pretenders to the throne as well, books lauded as “the next Harry Potter,” which failed to hold up under such oversize expectations. However, all of them received, at the very least, the boost of having an audience already waiting, hungry for the next world in which they could get lost.
I think the next question is not simply “who will unseat the current top seller?” but “just how high can authors reach?” However good the numbers may be, The Hunger Games has not yet reached the same level of international, fanatical popularity that Harry Potter enjoyed. What book will manage to reach or surpass that level, where it takes root in the storytelling heart of the world? Who will be the next icon?