Book Merch: A rant about literacy, capitalism… and foul-tasting beans

I’ve never been a big fan of book-related merchandise, either as a reader or as a writer.

Most of the ‘merch’ I have owned, I did not buy, but received as prizes or gifts from fellow indie authors – stickers, bookmarks, even a mug and coaster. In other words, items which are cute, useful, or both.

As an author, however, I have never been tempted to produce any myself, which, to be fair, is probably a genre thing as much as it is a sign of fiscal responsibility on my part. It would be rather odd, not to mention grossly offensive, for a novel criticising the government’s immigration policy to come with some sort of branded flotation device, or for a book critiquing capitalism and advertising to have a section at the back hawking, well, any sort of consumer goods.

To my recollection, I have only ever purchased two book-related products, and, as luck (or more likely, statistical odds) would have it, both were Harry Potter related.

Potter: The ‘gateway’ drug

Now, to be clear, I would not consider myself a ‘Potter head’ (a nickname which certainly evokes addiction). I started reading the series as a child, and while I quite enjoyed it, I only ever read each book in the series once, and couldn’t get past the first of the however many films.

My first purchase of a Harry Potter-themed product was entirely unintented. Back then, I was living in the city, and Borders was still a thing. In fact, there was one just down the street from me. So I was at Borders to purchase the seventh book in the series, not long after its release. The table was covered in small stuffed owls, which had no price tags, and no sign regarding cost from what I could see. Everyone who was purchasing the book had one of these owls – it seemed to be a package deal. So, I grabbed one.

It was, however, very much not a package deal, and the owl ended up costing me almost as much as the book.

And that is one good reason not to follow the crowds!

Rock bottom

My second purchase was far more recent – and, unbelievably, far more ill-advised, even though the cost involved was significantly lower.

I was, as I often do when I venture out of the house and into what I now think of as the ‘city’ to go shopping, browsing the discount table. And what did I find, but a packet of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, heavily discounted, to just 50c.

The regular price is $4.95 for a tiny, tiny packet – an outrageous sum, I’m sure you’ll agree, given that, in the wizarding world, an entire box of Bertie Botts sells for six sickles (which, the Harry Potter Wiki informs me, works out to $4.02 AUD). Still, even $4.95 seemed like a bargain, compared to the $20.95 the store was asking for a single chocolate wand. That’s what I’d expect to pay at an overpriced theme park, not a discount big-box store with all the atmospheric magic of an overlit warehouse.

From the Harry Potter books, I was given to understand that the ‘Every Flavour’ in Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans is quite literal, with odd flavours like spinach, and even non-food (and nauseating) flavours like ‘dirty socks’ appearing from time to time. And who can forget how poor old Dumbledore was traumatised by happening across a ‘vomit’ flavoured bean in his youth?

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the overwhelming frequency of such disgusting-tasting beans. The manufacturers, Jelly Belly (presumably subcontracted by Bertie Botts to distribute their product in the muggle world) list the flavours which might appear in your pack on the back of the package – and fully HALF of the flavours listed are revolting, like ‘rotten egg’ or ‘earwax’.

And yes, Dumbledore’s feared vomit flavoured bean is among them.

In fact, I got TWO of them.

The way vomit flavoured beans are referred to in the books, you get the impression they’re a rare occurrence – and isn’t that what is supposed to make sharing a pack of Bertie Bott’s with your friends a ‘thrilling game’? To see who will be the unlucky one to get the disgusting bean?

An objective exploration of ‘disgusting’

Now, you might object that ‘disgusting’ is a bit of a subjective claim. After all, while most people will agree that ‘booger’ or ‘dirt’ is not a flavour they want to see listed on something they’re about to consume, flavours like ‘black pepper’ or ‘sausage’ might be okay. In another context, like what to put on a steak, or what to eat with mashed potato, they’d even be welcome.

So, perhaps a fairer categorisation is as follows:

  • Sweet (the sort of fruity and dessert-type flavours jelly beans typically come in)
  • Savoury, and
  • Non-food

Precisely half of the flavours in the packet were sweet, the other half (which I referred to as ‘disgusting’ above) falling into the savoury and non-food camps. But where I think the makers have gotten the numbers all out-of-whack is in the savoury to non-food ratio.

There are FOUR TIMES as many revolting non-food items (like soap) as there are savoury items on the flavour list. This is a big shift away from how the beans are described in the books.

Reality is grosser than fiction

According to the Harry Potter Wiki list of known flavours (at time of writing), 50% are sweet, just like the real beans you can buy, and 30% are savoury – some of which, quite honestly, sound kind of nice, like bacon. This leaves just 20% non-food items, which vary in their revoltingness.

If all of the flavours were produced and distributed equally, in the wizarding world, you’d have an 80% chance of getting a bean that tastes like some sort of food.

Here in the muggle world, your chances are only slightly better than the toss of a coin.

The importance of equal distribution

To make matters worse, the flavours are not distributed equally.

Since I’m not privy to Jelly Belly’s production stats, I don’t know whether my packet was representative. Perhaps these bags were discounted for a reason! But just over a third (16/47) of the beans in my bag were sweet, while a whopping 31 were unusual or revolting flavours. I got at least one of every horrible flavour except ‘earthworm’, and some, like ‘pepper’ or ‘soap’, I got five or six of. By contrast, the most I got of a “nice” flavour was three.

Even then, the “nice” flavours were nowhere near nice enough to compensate for the horrible ones – and I don’t just mean that they didn’t remove the bad taste from my mouth. I tried a few of the “nice” ones first, hoping to work my way up to the awful ones, and was still unimpressed. My tasting notes for the bad flavours range from “unpleasant” to “made me feel sick” (rotten egg) and “spat out” (vomit), while for the “good” flavours, my comments were mostly “acceptable” or, in the case of ‘lemon’ and ‘cinnamon’, “horrible”.

In sum, Jelly Belly has missed the mark entirely. These beans are like playing Russian Roulette with two-thirds of the chambers loaded. There’s a reason no one likes taking risks where the odds are so clearly stacked against you, no matter how drunk or bored one might be.

‘Can’ doesn’t mean ‘should’

While the company may have been proud of how accurately they replicated the taste of dirt using ingredients one can legally sell as “food” (and let me tell you, the taste of the ‘dirt’ jelly bean is exactly what potting mix smells like), there is no need to include THREE of them in a small packet.

It is clear from the books that eating Bertie Bott’s is an overall pleasant activity, with a sliver of risk which only adds to the fun. Not a horrible slog. Would Bertie Botts really be a popular gift for those in hospital in the wizarding world if there was a 15% chance of the recipient getting a bodily-excretion-flavoured confection, as there was in my packet?

I think not.

The company has turned what could have been a largely pleasant experience with some ‘ew, yuck!’ fun thrown in into an overall nauseating experience whose monotony is instead broken by the occasional less revolting flavour. The main achievement of Bertie Botts, so far as I can discern, is an even more nauseating waste of food and plastic packaging.

And that, in a nutshell, is what bothers me about merch for the sake of merch.

Book merchandise

I don’t mind – in fact, I love receiving ‘merch’ I can actually use, like a mug or a bookmark. While custom-printed mugs are too expensive to give away en masse, and too bulky and fragile to mail at a reasonable price, bookmarks are perhaps the ideal piece of merchandise – cheap to produce and distribute, useful, book-related, keeps your book in the reader’s mind even when they’re reading someone else, and visible to other readers.

Most authors aren’t JK Rowling. We don’t have bookstores setting up displays that trick people (advertently or inadvertently) into buying stuffed versions of our characters. We don’t have companies offering to make real versions of our fictionalised foodstuffs (although, I am very open to a company producing McKing’s Number Eight Crispy Chicken Burgers!).

Not only do most authors – indie and traditionally published alike – not have people lining up to buy merchandise, but it can cost authors a lot to simply give it away. Long-time readers may remember my post about one traditionally published author who lost well over a third of a million dollars on book-related swag, promotions, and generally living the ‘writerly’ lifestyle she’d imagined following her publisher’s lacklustre and ineffectual marketing efforts.

While it might seem like an overreaction, to write a 2,000 word review of a handful of gross jelly beans that only cost me 50c, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans are, to me, emblematic of the issues I see in the publishing industry. A search for “Harry Potter” on ebay or Amazon returns more categories and stores than I can count, let alone however many thousands of different items there must be.

The roaring success of Harry Potter owes at least as much to the publisher’s and booksellers’ noticing of the sparks and fanning of the embers as it does to the magic of the stories themselves. Indeed, Barnes and Noble declared in advance that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be the largest seller in the history of the company.

How could they be so confident?

For publishers, it’s all a numbers game. A tiny handful of books (including anything with Harry Potter in the title) will sell millions of copies, and the rest – hardly any.

And while Harry Potter #1 might have been a gamble, and perhaps even Harry Potter #2 to a lesser extent, Harry Potter #5 certainly wasn’t, as my post about sequels illustrates. Take a look at the sales figures (in millions):

Around two-thirds of the people who purchased HP #1 went on to purchase #2. But the drop between books #2 and #3 is much smaller. Almost 90% of those who bought book #2 went on to buy #3. More than half of those who bought the first book in the series went on to buy not only the second, but the third.

After Prisoner of Azkaban though, we see there is no further drop-off: sales remain stable for books #4 and #5 and #6 and #7. By book three, readers were invested in how the series would play out.

(For anyone objecting that Order of the Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, which B&N declared would be their largest seller didn’t sell as many copies as books #1 or #2, that is correct… but there’s nothing to say that it wasn’t B&N’s biggest seller. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering book #5 sold much faster than books #1 or #2 – in fact, the last four books in the series set records as the fastest-selling books in history).

In other words, Rowling’s publisher – and booksellers – knew they were on to a sure thing.

Addicted to reading… or to Potter?

While the series has been credited with engaging children with literature, acting as a “gateway” to “more serious” books, Dempster et al (2016) found that opportunities to learn from the books were less related to a winning combination of challenging yet exciting prose, and more related to individual families’ general discussions of words and meaning.

Indeed, 95% of young readers who had read the Harry Potter series described the books as “easy” or “okay” to read, not something they challenged themselves to read beyond their current level of literacy because they were so engaging. When asked whether he agreed with how the media portrayed the Potter books as a ‘miracle’ for children’s literacy, one boy responded “No, I think it’s… majorly exaggerated, it’s overrated”.

Although some children said the thickness of the books in particular had helped them to feel more confident in going on to read other books, the majority of British children who have read Harry Potter were already broad readers before they encountered the series.

It’s hard not to wonder how many other children’s books might have found their way to family bookshelves were the market not so saturated with one series.

How many of the hundreds of millions of copies of Harry Potter books sold were purchased by people who already had one or more editions of that book, and wanted to update the cover?

And how many times have fans read Harry Potter books, when they could have read something else instead?

On YouTube, Quora, GoodReads, and Reddit, you’ll find fans describing Harry Potters as ‘comfort books’, reporting they’ve read the entire series 3, 7, 8, 9, or even 90 times.

There are quizzes purporting to be able to guess how many times you’ve read the series (and accurately guessed ‘once’ for me).

Many adult fans say they read the series at least twice a year.

There are seven core Harry Potter books, not counting the additional nine accompanying ‘Hogwarts Library’ and ‘Pottermore Presents’ and screenplay books.

Reading just those core seven books twice means 14 books in a year – two more than the average reader does.

Make no mistake – although they’re children’s books, reading the series twice (or more) a year is no small feat – some of the volumes are quite thick. In fact, by one estimate, it takes more than 60 hours to read the entire Harry Potter series – or around twice as long as it would to read War and Peace.

In other words, Potter might not be the gateway to ‘harder books’ some hoped it might be – in much the same way pot hasn’t turned out to be the gateway to harder drugs as some feared.

Potter heads may simply remain Potter heads, reading an above average number of books a year – but perhaps far fewer new books than those who only read four.

The books we read matter.

The books we read to children especially matter. And as Ali and Lebdušková argue, although Rowling’s works demonstrate sensitivity to inequalities and social justice, her books present a rather conservative worldview to readers, especially where wealth and poverty are concerned.

We are led to prefer the poor to the rich in many stories – including Cinderella. However, as the authors point out, making the rich into evildoers and the poor into heroes may be seen to subtly reinforce the status quo. The poor in Harry Potter are more appealing, warmer, and more pleasant to be with. Consider the contrast between Harry’s experiences with the Dursleys vs the Weasleys. There is very little incentive to ‘better’ oneself financially if wealth brings evil – and no incentive at all to advocate for income equality and the redistribution of wealth.

Of course, I am not arguing against books which highlight the abuses of power committed by wealthy people. And I am certainly not arguing for books which pretend that a lack of financial assets is somehow the individual fault of the poor. I myself have written two books which arguably fit this trope – and indeed, perhaps all satire does.

The issues, rather, lie in:

  1. Presenting such stereotypes as an unchangable status quo, against which revolting is pointless or even immoral, and
  2. Over-exposure to a single set of ideas.

Burning books isn’t the only way to promote disinterest in books with challenging ideas.

Saturating the market with one highly commercial offering, and constantly releasing new films and merchandise – including foul-tasting beans – so that it remains fresh in readers minds, and they read the same narrow set of books set in the same world written by the same author is absolutely another.

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