Misleading Press Release of the Day
August 3rd, 2012

Subject header: “50 Shades Outsells Harry Potter!”

That’s from the literary PR agency (Smith Publicity) pimping publisher The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House. The flack begins her email by noting, “Earlier this morning, the news broke that the Fifty Shades trilogy has now officially outsold Harry Potter.”

Here’s the fine print:

Incredible as it may sound, J.K. Rowling’s compendium of seven Harry Potter books is no longer the best-selling book series on Amazon UK — that crown has now been passed toE. L. James’ monumentally popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. James’ books have sold over four million copies in print and on Kindle since going on sale in March 2012, making her the most successful author of all time on Amazon’s British portal.

In terms of individual books, the first novel in the series, carrying the titular name of Fifty Shades of Grey, has been outselling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by a factor of two to one in recent weeks, which has resulted in it becoming the all-time bestselling book on Amazon UK. Amazon also tells us that Fifty Shades is comfortably topping the bestseller chart in both print and Kindle editions in the US, but it doesn’t seem to have yet managed to break any records the way it has in the UK.

It’s hard to unpack all of this, but we’ll give it a try. The only hard number we’re given is that 50 Shades of Grey has sold 4M+ books (on the Amazon UK portal) since March. So what Harry Potter book is that supposedly better than? Unclear. The story says it’s been outselling Deathly Hallows by 2-1. Which is great, except that Deathly Hallows came out five years ago. On the first day of release, Deathly Hallows moved 2.65M copies just in the UK. I haven’t been able to find final numbers for the book in Britain. Is it possible that in the ensuing five years Deathly Hallows failed to sell another 1.4M copies in the UK? I guess. But that seems implausible.

Then there’s this story from 2008 claiming that the Harry Potter series has sold 400M copies, worldwide.

Again, that’s not dispositive. But I can’t really imagine how a series selling only 4M+ copies could outrank any of the HP books–unless they mean that it’s outselling them right at this minute.

I emailed the the reporter from the Verge. We’ll see what he says.

  1. Galley Friend J.E. August 3, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    “Oh, you’re supposed to verify stuff in press releases? Okay, uh, lemme get back to you on that. Shit, I hope Mechanical Turk pays me anyway.”

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  3. Mike C. August 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I’d guess that “J.K. Rowling’s compendium of seven Harry Potter books” is this release/edition:

    I agree that “right this minute” has probably been translated here to “all time”, can’t think of another explanation that makes sense; I checked and saw that the 3 books are 1-3 on the Amazon UK site for this month, so figure it’s part the telephone game, part publicity pimping.

    Also, I love the phrase: “the first novel in the series, carrying the titular name of Fifty Shades of Grey”.

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  5. Gabriel August 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I’m thinking I should buy 100 copies of my own book and then put out a press release, “Over the last tenth of a second, Climbing the Charts has outsold the Bible.”

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  8. Jonathan V. Last August 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I’ve emailed Sandra to ask for some more clarification.

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  10. Misleading Press Release of the Day — Jonathan Last Online | icsbookstore.com August 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    […] link: Misleading Press Release of the Day — Jonathan Last Online (function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = […]

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  12. Gabriel August 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    And how exactly does “This statistic was widely reported” speak to whether or not it’s misleading? On the face of it, all that “widely reported” means is you got several other SEO hungry sites besides just Verge to reprint your press release.

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  14. Sonny Bunch August 3, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Seriously. The width of reporting has little to do with the overall accuracy of the stat.

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  16. Galley Friend J.E. August 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks to widely reported reputed reports, Sandra Diaz agrees that Romney didn’t release his tax returns for 10 years.

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  18. The Verge — Jonathan Last Online August 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    […] may recall that last week a PR agency sent around a release saying that 50 Shades of Grey had outsold Harry Potter. Or […]

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  20. Dept. of Idiotic PR — Jonathan Last Online October 10, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    […] I get about 200 press releases emailed to me every day. There all pretty stupid but sometimes one of them really jumps out. […]