07 February 2007

The True History of Harry

Back in December 2005, Publishers Weekly reported:

Earlier this week, members of the child_lit listserv have been having a lively conversation about the Harry Potter books. The discussion began with questions about how many times Rowling’s first manuscript was rejected before it got published, then went on to cover when and under what circumstances the U.S. rights were sold. Members are now discussing how the books became so popular--was it marketing and hype, or word-of-mouth among children that grew to reach adults? As one poster wrote, he's looking to sort out the historical truth of Harry Potter.
Well, reader, that poster was I. On the 15th I’d sent a message to Child_Lit with the subject line “Rowling’s US rights sale - how significant?” It noted:
...the US rights deal occurred and was publicized just as HP1 hit stores in the UK. Those news stories brought unusual attention to this unknown author and her new book. How much, I wonder, did that attention itself influence the first book’s early success? In other words, how much did Scholastic's big gamble on US rights turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Since then, the Potter fan site Accio-Quote.org has archived more of the early British press attention for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the summer of 1997. And it’s even more obvious how little of that ink was expended on reviews, and how much of it on Rowling’s sudden financial turnaround. The earliest stories are:
This is how Harry Potter made its newspaper debut, in the Glasgow Herald:
THREE years ago Joanne Rowling landed in Edinburgh with a baby under one arm and a dog-eared manuscript under the other. Apart from the proverbial battered suitcase, she owned nothing else. . . .

Rowling recounts those dark days as she sits in a sunlit cafe in Nicolson Street, and already they have an aura of long long ago. In the previous few days two American publishing houses had been bidding for the American rights to that manuscript, now her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published in Britain this week by Bloomsbury at £4.50. The bidding was well into six figures.

Dollars not pounds, says Rowling in that sort of wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) manner which also characterizes her writing. OK, but this is still very big bucks indeed for a first book, a children's one at that, written by a lone mum for whom less than three months ago, the prospect of a £2500 grant from the Scottish Arts Council was manna from heaven. . . .

If this sounds like the stuff of fantasy, it is and it isn't. Joanne's own story is for real, even if just now it feels like a dream she is afraid to wake from. Harry Potter's story is a fantasy but one leavened with enough everyday life to give it an authentic feel.
The Scotsman started its article with a rave review for Harry’s story, but then it quickly got into that rags-to-riches backstory for his creator:
IF you buy or borrow nothing else this summer for the young readers in your family, you must get hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowley [sic] (Bloomsbury, £4.99). This is a book which makes an unassailable stand for the power of fresh, inventive story-telling in the face of formula horror and sickly romance.

The story of the book's origins is a fairy-tale all of its own. This first novel from an Edinburgh-based author has just received a six-figure advance in America. Yet it was written in snatches by an unemployed single mother. Joanne Rowling arrived in Edinburgh penniless following the break-up of her marriage.
The other articles’ headlines make clear how they focused on Scholastic’s six figures (“dollars not pounds”) and Rowling’s status as single mother. Thus, most British newspaper readers learned about her book primarily not as a great story for kids, but as a source of sudden wealth for an adult.

Why is this significant? Because Harry Potter came out with an aura of magic. Not the physical magic that appears in many other fairy tales for kids. Rather, the financial magic that people dream of when they play the lottery. Harry Potter had made someone rich overnight (or so the articles implied, not noting how slowly money moves in publishing).

In contrast, the stories behind most other books are quite similar, and quite boring: a rather quiet person typed for a very long time, and then some other people read the typing and liked it. That was how Rowling earned her book contract. That was how Arthur Levine of Scholastic and several other US publishers came to bid on her manuscript. But then the ground shifted, with the concatenation of the US rights auction and the UK publication date. After that, people didn’t have to read J. K. Rowling’s words to believe that there was something magical about them.

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