Recently I spoke to a group of fourth graders about my career as a journalist and book reviewer. We discussed lots of favorite authors -- theirs and mine -- but none caused the class to go into a state of communal frenzy like Rick Riordan, the author of the wildly popular Percy Jackson series of books. All of these kids had read the series and all of them couldn't wait for the next book.
Pint-sized Riordan fans can easily be encountered across the globe, what with his books available in 34 different languages and counting. But for those who cast him in the mold of "The Next J.K. Rowling", it's going to take a magical alchemy of luck and cultural recognition to catapult him in the same territory as the author of the Harry Potter novels. (That seven-book series has sold 400 million copies worldwide and are available in 67 languages.)
Still, it's clear Riordan is moving in an upward trajectory. His publisher, Hyperion Children's, reported recently that The Lightning Thief and the four books that followed in the Percy Jackson series, as well as two related guidebooks, have together sold more than 15 million copies in the U.S. Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks approximately 75% of total book sales, reports that The Lightning Thief has sold 1.8 million copies combined in several different editions, while The Last Olympian, the final book in the series, has sold just over 1 million copies in hardcover.
'Hermes Has a Cell Phone'
Where the globally stratospheric success of the Harry Potter novels hinged on the fusion of various wizardry and fantasy-based archetypes, Riordan went even further back in time for the source material. His son Haley was learning about Greek myths at the time, and wanted his father to tell bedtime stories about them. Once Riordan ran out of real myths, he made up new ones. It was his son who urged him to turn those stories into a book.
The product: The Lightning Thief, the first in the five-book-series starring ordinary boy-turned-extraordinary hero Percy Jackson. When it was published in 2005, few children had experienced a contemporary retelling of ancient Greek myths, where the exciting stories of godly shenanigans by the likes of Poisedon, Ares and Zeus were brought to life through Percy's current adventures. Riordan, a former elementary school teacher, not only knew his myths, but he retold them in a way that, as Sara Brzowsky explained in Parade Magazine, made the "great mythological tales believable."
"They know the story and love the fact there's a new twist - Hermes has a cell phone. Iris IMing is hilarious," says Riordan's literary agent, Nancy Gallt. Another key factor is that Percy suffers from ADHD, a deliberate choice on Riordan's part. "Percy Jackson is ADHD and dyslexic because Haley is, and as I was telling him this story as a bedtime story I wanted him to have a character that he could relate to," he told the Wall Street Journal in May. (Multiple attempts by DailyFinance to reach Riordan directly and through his publisher, Hyperion Children's, were unsuccessful.)
Riordan's Own Tale of Transformation
Riordan's career is a far cry from where he was just six years ago, near the end of a fifteen-year career teaching English and History to public and private middle school students, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and then near San Antonio, Texas, where he still resides. At the time he was best known for penning a series of detective novels featuring Tres Nevarre, a wisecracking Texas P.I. and college professor, which won a number of awards in the mystery genre field. Riordan explained in a 2000 interview with Mystery One that he had been writing "since he was about thirteen" and that the Navarre series grew out of "a collection of paths I didn't fully follow in my life -- a 'what if' version of myself."
Sales of those earlier books put Riordan firmly in mid-list territory: the most recent (and likely last) Navarre novel, Rebel Island, has sold a combined 10,000 copies in hardcover and mass market paperback, according to Bookscan. What makes this figure more curious is that the novel was published in 2007, the same year as Percy Jackson #3, The Sea of Monsters - which has sold more than 1 million copies, per Bookscan.
Riordan's public demeanor has certainly helped him to sell those books. He knows how to entertain throngs of children (and their parents) and spends hours signing books, giving each pint-sized fan precious minutes of his time and forging enough of a connection to make them feel as if he has written his books especially for them.
A Publishing, But Not Cultural, Phenomenon
Clearly, Riordan has broken out as a publishing phenomenon. But it takes something more to become a cultural phenomenon in the way that Harry Potter, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy all have. Generally, reaching such heights involves an even larger global reach and money-making movie and television adaptations.
Consider that the final Harry Potter volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 8.3 million copies on its first day of publication in the U.S., and the book before then, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sold 6.9 million copies in the U.S. on opening day. But the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, started off life in 1997 with a tiny advance and a 500-copy print run for its UK edition, and it would take another two years to sell 300,000 copies worldwide. The first book may have been a slow seller initially, but once the books caught fire and there were successful movies, book sales were off to the races.
The movie version of The Lightning Thief, directed by Chris Columbus (who helmed the earliest Harry Potter movies) was released around the world on February 12 to middling box office and, more recently, decent DVD sales. But the consensus among critics and moviegoers was that the film spent too much time on computer-generated images and not enough on the story, which seemed a natural for adaptation. The likelihood of a sequel, at this point, is low.
Will Future Sales Reach Mythic Proportions?
But Riordan has two more chances to reach that cultural phenomenon pinnacle: one with his latest book The Kane Chronicles, Book One: Red Pyramid, which kicks off a series revolving around gods from Ancient Egypt who are set loose in today's world. According to Bookscan, 91,000 copies of The Red Pyramid sold in the first week following the book's May 4 publication, and 322,000 copies overall. That number could balloon significantly if the books gets made into a movie.
Another opportunity lies with his next book, The Heroes of Olympus, Book One: The Lost Hero, which Disney will publish on October 12. Though Riordan never said the Percy Jackson series had to end after five books, it was heavily intimated - and as a result, Gallt was pleasantly surprised when the manuscript of The Lost Hero crossed her desk and it turned out to be set in the same world as the Percy Jackson books, featuring many of the same characters (Percy, in fact, is the "Lost Hero" in question, as his missing whereabouts are a key plot point for the series.)
Kids may have had to say goodbye to Harry Potter, no matter how much they hope J.K. Rowling will change her mind. But for now, Percy Jackson is still around and that alone, means Riordan will continue to enjoy growing success. Reaching the mythic proportions of Rowling's, however, will depend on the next chapter of Riordan's career.
Will 'Percy Jackson' Author Rick Riordan Ever Reach J.K. Rowling Territory?