Boy wizard is Wanderful

AS THE Harry Potter series wraps up this summer, we can look back at two remarkable narratives: Potter the boy wizard and Potter the cultural phenomenon. Potter the wizard's fate will be known on July 21 ...

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Published: Sun 1 Jul 2007, 11:07 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 12:10 AM

with the release of 'Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows', Book 7 of J.K. Rowling's fantasy epic. Worldwide sales of the first six books already top 325 million copies and the first printing for 'Deathly Hallows' is 12 million in the United States alone.

Potter the phenomenon doesn't compare for suspense, but like the wizard's tale, it is unique and extraordinary and well placed in tradition. Like 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek', it is the story of how a work of popular art becomes a world of its own - imitated, merchandised and analysed, immortalised not by the marketers, but by the fans.

"Every phenomenon is a kind of myth unto itself, a myth about how a phenomenon becomes a phenomenon. The story of how the public embraced Potter only gives more momentum to Potter in our culture," says Neal Gabler, an author and cultural critic whose books include 'Walt Disney' and 'Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality'.

True phenomena are never planned. Not 'Star Trek', a series cancelled after three seasons by NBC; or 'Star Wars', rejected throughout Hollywood before taken on by 20th Century Fox, which didn't bother pushing for merchandising or sequel rights. The public knew better - the young people who screamed for the Beatles or watched 'Star Wars' dozens of times or carried on for years about 'Star Trek' after its cancellation.

In the beginning, 'Harry Potter' simply needed a home. Several British publishers turned down Rowling, believing her manuscript too long and/or too slow, before the Bloomsbury Press signed her up in 1996, for $4,000 and a warning not to expect to get rich from writing children's books. An American publisher had bigger ideas: Scholastic editor Arthur A. Levine acquired U.S. rights for $105,000.

"I can vividly remember reading the manuscript and thinking, This reminds me of Roald Dahl,' an author of such skill, an author with a unique ability to be funny and cutting and exciting at the same time," Levine says.

"But I could not possibly have had the expectation we would be printing 12 million copies for one book (Deathly Hallows'). That's beyond anyone's experience. I would have had to be literally insane."

For the media, the biggest news at first was Rowling herself: an unemployed, single English mother who gets the idea for a fantasy series while stuck on a train between Manchester and London, finishes the manuscript in the cafes of Edinburgh, Scotland, and finds herself compared, in more than one publication, to Dahl.

'Philosopher's Stone' was released in England during business hours with a tiny first printing. Bloomsbury suggested that Rowling use initials instead of her real name, Joanne, out of fear that boys wouldn't read a book by a woman.

The book quickly became a commercial and critical favourite and just kept selling. In July 1998, the Guardian in London noted that Rowling was more popular than John Grisham and declared 'The Harry Potter books have become a phenomenon'. At the time, 'Philosopher's Stone' had sold 70,000 copies.

By January 1999, the AP was calling Potter a sensation, noting in a brief item that "Joanne Rowling has gone from hard-up single mother to literary phenomenon." In July 1999, the 'p-word' appeared in long articles in the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly and the Times, which observed that "Hannibal Lecter and Harry Potter are shaping up as the summer's must reads," but then added, with a bit of a wink, "Harry who?"

By 2000, Harry was a friend to millions, the toast of midnight book parties around the world. For a time, the first three Potter books held the top positions on the Times' hardcover fiction list of best sellers, leading the newspaper to create a separate category for children's books. The fourth work, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire', had a first printing of 3.8 million in the United States alone. The release date became 12:01 a.m., sharp, "so everyone could come to it at the same time - no spoilers!" according to Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good.

Potter was pulling in all ages. Rene Kirkpatrick, a buyer for All for Kids Books & Music, an independent store based in Seattle, says the appeal to grown-ups set Potter apart. She began noticing that adults not only read Rowling, but would browse through other titles in the children's fantasy section.

"People were beginning to realise that there was some extraordinary literature written for people under 19," she says. "It doesn't feel odd anymore for adults to be seen reading children's books. "Potter has made a big difference."

Meanwhile, Potter was alive on the Internet, thanks to fan sites such as and Potter Web masters Emerson Spartz of Leaky Cauldron and Melissa Anelli of Mugglenet agree that between 2000 and 2003 the Potter galaxy exploded again, from publishing phenomenon to cultural phenomenon. Spartz notes the release of the first Potter movie, in 2001. Anelli refers to the three-year wait for book five, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'.

"I think the reason that authors write books about J.K. Rowling's works and readers buy them is because being a fan of Harry Potter is about much more than just reading and enjoying Ms. Rowling's book series," says Jennifer Heddle, an editor at Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster that is publishing Anelli and has released more than 100 'Star Trek' related titles.

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