July 31 may seem an unremarkable day to some, but not to fans of Harry Potter. It’s Harry’s birthday as well as that of his creator, J.K. Rowling. The publication of the Harry Potter books has unquestionably changed children’s literature and arguably the world. How did this genre-busting phenomenon even begin?
Potter’s beginnings are not quite as humble as many a journalist would have you believe. As the books gained popularity, various news stories came out about the author: a single mother on welfare, scrawling her children’s novel on napkins and envelopes, suddenly shooting to literary stardom.
Joanne Rowling was indeed struggling to make ends meet. She couldn’t afford daycare for her young daughter, so she chose to pursue writing instead. The character of Harry and the world of Hogwarts had been taking up space in her head for about five years at that point. Rowling would walk around Edinburgh with her daughter in a stroller, then zip into a café to write the moment the baby fell asleep. She sent a portion of her manuscript to literary agent Christopher Little (because she liked his name), who realized the story’s potential.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Harry Potter was rejected from no less than nine different publishers in the UK (all of whom rue the day, to be sure). Little finally got the manuscript into the hands of an agent at Bloomsbury, and they bought the rights for something like 2,000 pounds. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in the UK on June 30, 1997.
Even before Harry hit bookstore shelves, however, talks were in progress for American publication and movie rights. This wasn’t some surprise, overnight sensation; word had already gotten around that this book had something special. Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic, won the U.S. rights for $105,000 after an all-day bidding war. That caught the attention of the news media, and the ensuing publicity likely did more for Harry’s popularity than anything else.
The first book quickly accumulated a long list of awards and recognitions in the UK, but the U.S. was slow to take notice. The big box bookstores just weren’t promoting it like Scholastic hoped. It was the independent bookstores, who had more say in the selection they carried, that got Harry into the hands of readers.
And those readers were passionate. Thanks to the rising popularity and accessibility of the internet in the late 1990s, Harry Potter fans found online spaces to congregate and discuss their favorite book. The second installment (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) was already out in the UK, so eager fans began ordering the book on Amazon.co.uk. That was a problem for Scholastic, as every overseas UK book sale was a loss for them. Book two’s release date was pushed up several months to June 1999, and book three (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) followed just three months later in early September. The literary and pop culture worlds were waking up to the movement already underway.
By book four (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), the UK and U.S. were on an identical release schedule. Two significant things happened in publishing at that time because of Harry’s success: first, having a set publication date for a book (and the midnight release parties that it entailed) was immediately embraced by fans. Second, the New York Times Best Seller List was split eight ways for separate adult and children’s book lists, as well as paperback, hardcover, and others. Many believe this change occurred because there were some who got tired of seeing the first three Harry Potter books clog the upper rankings of the combined list.
So when someone says that Harry Potter changed the world, it’s not exactly an exaggeration. The story obviously didn’t end there, but by that time, Harry’s path in book history was set.
So happy birthday, Harry Potter! And happy birthday, J.K. Rowling. The reading world owes you one!