Some random thoughts

1. They brought it out on the solstice. Nice touch.

2. Eight million for a first US print run? Amazing! Assuming an average retail price of $25, that’s $200 million, which sounds like a movie number rather than a book number. That’s something more than 1% of the total retail value of books sold in the country in a year.

3. I guessed right about the meaning of the title.

4. From the first hundred pages (out of 850), it’s looking good.

5. I couldn’t quite figure out what Borders was trying to accomplish by organizing the midnight sale the way they did. Whatever it was, I don’t think they accomplished it.

a. Borders allowed advance reservations (unpaid, I think), which were guaranteed to be good anytime this weekend. That seems like a sensible way to reduce the crowd pressure the first night.

b. But by Friday evening, reservations were no longer being made, suggesting that they expected to sell out. Right. You don’t want to promise books you don’t have.

c. Given the prospects of selling out, though, why discount the book 30% off its $30 cover price? The other books in the series, which aren’t in short supply, weren’t being discounted, and I was told that the 30% discount was only good for the first week.

d. Instead of making people line up hours in advance, Borders handed out numbered tickets. (I don’t know when the tickets started being distributed, but I got there about 9 p.m., wandering in from a restaurant across the street to see if they had a copy of Amis’s The Green Man — they didn’t — and wound up with ticket # 157, which made me a Ravenclaw.) That was a big convenience for the customers, and potentially a way of encouraging them to buy more books, by letting them wander around the store until their numbers were called (perhaps in groups of twenty). But in fact the customers were told to line up, in numerical order, no later than 11:50. It took me almost an hour to get to the registers, and couldn’t have been further than a third of the way back, so some folks probably had more than a two-hour wait, which seems a lot longer if you’re standing in line than it does if you’re browsing around a big bookstore.

e. Okay, maybe they didn’t want to sell a lot of other books right then, because that would slow down the line compared to simply handing out the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (no more than three to a customer) and collecting the money. As it was, the line moved pretty slowly; with five registers operating, it took me 45 minutes to get to the head of the line, suggesting less than one transaction per register per minute. My actual purchase of three copies took no more than twenty seconds, even using a credit card.

f. But if the goal was to make the line move, why did the tickets offer a 10% discount on any regular-priced book? And if Borders didn’t want to encourage loading up on other merchandise, then why the deep discount?

g. If the goal was to get the midnight business done as quickly as possible, why not announce that a line ticket would serve as a reservation if presented anytime this weekend, encouraging sensible people to go home and get some sleep? Of course, some of the customers wanted to get the book tonight. But others, like me, just wanted to make sure of getting a copy and would happily have come back in the morning.

h. With several hundred people in line to buy a particular book, Borders did exactly nothing to try to cross-sell them other books of more or less the same sort. There was no display table with fantasies, or books about magic, or English school stories for that matter. When I looked for Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to show the lady behind me in line, who was talking about how her teenager loved the Potter books, I was able to find exactly one (and neither of the other two books in that set).

6. Now a question for the publisher: Since book collectors love anything special, why not have a sticker or stamp identifying the books as having been purchased on the first day of issue? First editions aren’t going to be rare, with an initial US print run of 8 million, but the “first-day cover” might have some value.

7. Despite the hour, the crowd was very patient and well-behaved. But what seemed to me like an obvious form of cooperative behavior failed to emerge. Each customer was allowed to purchase up to three books, but if the sample of people around me was at all representative while many of the people there only wanted one. So why not, once at the head of the line, buy three and sell the other two to those who were waiting? That’s what I did, and my two customers seemed very grateful. Did the rest of the crowd just not think of it, or did they think of it and decide it was somehow against the rules? Buying three copies took no longer than selling one, and there were enough to supply everyone in the store, so the other people waiting in line weren’t disadvantaged at all. Neither was Borders. And the employees of Borders got to go home a few seconds earlier than would otherwise have been the case. So it looked to me like a clear opportunity to spend one of my minutes to save three of other people’s hours, a benefit-to-cost ratio rarely available in altruistic endeavor.

The price of the book, including tax, was just about $20, and that’s what I took from the two people I sold to. One of them, after I had already given him the book and told him the price, offered me $25 instead of $20, which I interpreted as a gesture of gratitude. I didn’t take him up on it. But I wonder what the auction price of a copy would have been at that moment? I preferred doing a very-low-cost good deed to making a small profit in cash, but under the circumstances I wouldn’t have disapproved of someone else who decided to take advantage of the opportunity for arbitrage. What did bother me is what seemed like the sheer thoughtlessness of the people who only bought one book, rather than noticing, and seizing, the opportunity to help someone else out.

8. Of course that raises a question for me: instead of just making my own cheap contribution, why didn’t I try to suggest it to others as well? Answer: I probably would have when I was younger, but I’m more self-conscious about my congenital officiousness than I used to be. There’s no doubt that some people would have been offended by the suggestion: not so much by its content as by having a stranger trying to tell them what to do.

9. I’m delighted that Harry Potter is such a phenomenon. Anything much more truly “fantastic” in mood, or much more demanding as literature, probably couldn’t have made the same inroads into mass consciousness. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hope for some “gateway” effect from Rowland to the larger world of fantasy. Is there any evidence of that? I don’t know.

10. Almost all of James Branch Cabell is out of print, and largely unobtainable. What’s keeping the Library of America? In their format, the whole Biography of the Life of Manuel series would fit into four volumes, I would think, for a subscription price of about $100: about what the five Harry Potters so far would cost in hardback. The Library of America has issued complete sets of Chandler and Hammet (for which I’m grateful). Given the rank Cabell once held in American letters, and given his real literary merit, doesn’t he rate comparable treatment? Perhaps this is a question of economics rather than one of literary judgment; I don’t know how many copies the Library of America has to sell to break even, or how many it can count on selling to public and university libraries. Maybe, among the eight million people who are going to buy Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this week, there really aren’t two thousand, or five thousand, or ten thousand, or whatever the break-even number would be, who could be interested in Cabell. But it does seem a shame.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com