The $1 billion Potter payoff

Marketing: The book sales are nothing compared to the expected merchandizing bonanza.

July 17, 2000|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Anyone bemused by the sales of Harry Potter books - ostensibly 30 million copies worldwide and growing - might better run for cover next Monday. That is the official launch date of the first wave of a spin-off merchandise campaign that will modestly reach for $1 billion in sales.

As a matter of perspective, Scholastic Press has said that its projected American sales for the first four Potter books is in the range of $100 million - one tenth the spin-off dream number.

"Toyetic" has the industry abuzz. That coinage means merchandizers sense that Joanne Kathleen Rowling's literary output - four volumes of apprentice wizardry, with three to come - will translate well into toys and games.

Well is massive understatement. "In the trade," says Sandie Hatch, executive vice president of the Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, "they're already calling him a billion-dollar boy."

The oncoming avalanche of wizardly tchotchkes and kitsch will begin with T-shirts and mugs. But Warner Bros., which owns the rights under a contract that gives Rowling certain approval rights, has already signed 46 licensing deals for Potter-related products.

The book-publishing industry is notorious for secrecy and puffery about numbers - but no one has taken exception to the declaration by Scholastic that its 3.8 million copy first printing of the fourth book - "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" - is the largest in U.S. publishing history.

Warner Bros. is clearly intent on reaching for other records. Its first Harry Potter film - yet unwritten and uncast but with a $100 million production budget - is now planned for a Nov. 16, 2001, release. Though executives in the company are being close-lipped about details, it is clear that much of the "ancillary merchandise" now in planning stages will be portioned out in a manner designed to avoid saturation - a significant amount tied to the movie premiere.

But the company is not letting the clock tick past immediate opportunity. Warner Brothers Consumer Products' July 24 release will include a series of T-shirts and mugs - already being slickly promoted and offered for direct sale by a Web site: www.wbstore.com.

That site offers: Harry Potter Kids Quidditch Tee, Harry Potter Ravenclaw House Tee, Harry Potter Kids Logo Tee, Harry Potter Kids Slytherin House Tee, Harry Potter Kids Hufflepuff House Tee, each at $16; Harry Potter Ault Hogwarts Crest Tee, at $18; Harry Potter Logo Mug at $8; Harry Potter Hogwarts Crest Mug at $10; and - finally - Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets Book at $13.99, already marked down from $17.95.

That is the merest tickle of a beginning. Among the major contractors who have signed deals are Mattel Inc., a very major toy manufacturer and merchandizer which plans games, puzzles and collectible figures; Hasbro Inc., in the same trade; Johnson & Johnson, which plans shampoos and soaps, at least; and Lego.

There will be sunglasses by Pan Oceanic, pillows by Crown Crafts, watches by Fossil, hosiery by High Points Accessories. By this autumn there will be backpacks and other school stuff. The byproduct merchandising effort was massively launched last month at "Licensing 2000," the industry's trade show in New York. Warner Bros. put up a 3,000-square-foot booth in the form of Hogwarts school, where Harry learns the wizard's trade.

How does all this mesh with the taciturn behavior and implied austere philosophy of the author, Rowling, who grew up in relative poverty and was astonished, initially, by success?

Some conclusions might be drawn from size, which does matter: The first Harry book was 309 pages, the second 341, the third 435 and the current fourth volume is 734 pages.

Rowling has been quietly active in the development of the film and the product lines. A Mattel spokesperson has reported that Rowling has written a style guide that defines how each character should appear in such products.

In a relatively rare interview published in the July 2 Sunday Herald in Scotland, Rowling remarked that she was somewhat daunted by Mattel's plan to market stuff in 150 countries. "This is the area that I am most concerned and worried about. I can't lie about it."

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