JK Rowling’s work has been the catalyst for copycat books, literature trends and a £9.3 billion industry. Stylist examines her magic touch.
Next Friday (8 July), the eighth and final instalment of the Harry Potter films hits British cinemas, bringing to a close the most successful film franchise of all time.
It’s set to be the first Potter movie to break the $1billion mark at the global box office, and fans are still giddily tweeting their responses to last month’s trailer, unveiled online. The movies’ trio of stars, Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint has never been hotter, with Watson currently on the cover of US Vogue, Grint gracing the cover of gay magazine Attitude while Radcliffe resides on the legendary film magazine Empire. Thanks to savvy merchandising – including a successful games franchise and The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, America – the Harry Potter brand is now worth over £9.3 billion. And it’s almost too easy to forget that behind it all is one woman, who – in the past decade – has created not just a cultural phenomenon, but an entire industry.
Success has long surrounded JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books. She was the first author to win the prestigious Nestlé Smarties Gold Award for children’s literature three years in a row (1997-1999). She was the first author to occupy the top three positions in the bestseller lists (for the first three Potter novels) in 1999. Her fourth book, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2000) was the first book to be published with a record first print run of 1 million copies for the UK and 3.8 million for the US. (It quickly broke all records as the fastest-selling book on the first weekend of publication.) Forbes has named Rowling as the first person to become a US-dollar billionaire by writing books, the second-richest female entertainer and the 1,062nd richest person in the world. In October 2010, JK Rowling was crowned Most Influential Woman In Britain by leading magazine editors. In short, she’s a revelation.
Two weeks ago, she announced her intention to take the brand even further, launching the much-hyped pottermore.co.uk – her digital publishing venture – in October. Along with creating a virtual Harry Potter world for fans, it will sell all of the Potter novels as e-books for the first time – a shrewd move that means Rowling will get the lion’s share of their royalties and will not have to deal with giant corporations such as Amazon.
As Olivia Solon, news editor of digital bible Wired magazine, says, “Rowling is without a doubt the single most significant author to have turned their back on established publishing houses at a time when the industry is in limbo. The tools are available to create meaningful and innovative digital publications untethered from a small stranglehold of publishers whose businesses are built upon the printed page.” It’s a stroke of marketing genius. Rowling will demonstrate to writers just how shrewd it is to cling on to the rights of the highly profitable, long-term revenue stream generated from their stories and characters, an astute business model for any author. It’s no exaggeration that the 20th-century model of mass market book publishing has been changed forever and that is, in part, down to Rowling.
A Story is Born
Jo Rowling makes an unlikely publishing behemoth. Born in 1965 to middle-class parents in Gloucestershire (her father was a Rolls Royce engineer, her mother was a lab technician at the local school), she had a comfortable, but quiet beginning in Tutshill, near Chepstow in south Wales. Rowling would make up and act out stories with younger sister Di and went on to prosper, but not dazzle, at school. “She was always quick to answer questions and enjoyed English very much, but she was no better at the subject than half a dozen other girls,” remembers former English teacher Steve Eddy. He discouraged her stories that were “always about elves or pixies or fairies”, telling her to concentrate on grittier, more adult subject matter.
While she’d known aged six that she wanted to be a writer, she bowed to well-meaning parental pressure – they wanted her to become a secretary – and studied French and Classics at Exeter University, going on to work as a researcher for Amnesty International in the late Eighties. It was in 1990 on a delayed train out of King’s Cross that she first glimpsed her future: a dark-haired boy who didn’t know he was a wizard popped, fully formed, into her head. She built a story around him, making him an orphan and inventing Hogwarts. As soon as she got back to her Clapham flat, she started writing.
In fact, it was when she was writing about Harry that her world fell apart. In December of that year, her mother, Anne, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died at only 45. Rowling has said she knew the news instantly the moment her father called her at 7am; a thing he’d never normally do.
Heartbroken, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English. It was there the 27-year-old Rowling met a Portuguese TV journalist called Jorge Arantes, whom she married on 16 October 1992. A year later, in 1993, the couple divorced, leaving Rowling with a daughter, Jessica [now 17]. Years later, in 2006, Arantes sold his story to the Mail On Sunday, and implied that he had helped shape the first Harry Potter.
“In interviews she is always humble, describing her younger self as a ‘freckled beach ball"
When Rowling later revealed that loathsome teacher Gilderoy Lockhart was based on a real person (“I have to say that the living model was worse. He was a shocker! The lies that he told about adventures that he’d had and impressive acts that he had committed”), fans speculated that he was inspired by Arantes. However, in 2004, Rowling said, “I can categorically say that he is not based on Arantes.”
In her late-20s, jobless and living in a tiny tenement flat in Edinburgh, Rowling was a divorced single mother. The Dementors from the books [prison-guards who suck out all happy thoughts] were the personification of the depression she has experienced. Asked about their resemblance to the symptoms of depression, she said, “It was entirely conscious. And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced,” she said in a Times interview in 2000.
Scribbling away in cafes with baby Jessica dozing next to her was the only thing that got her through this dark time. She sent the manuscript of The Philosopher’s Stone off to countless agents, only to hear nothing; until literary agent Christopher Little absent-mindedly picked up her manuscript on his way to lunch and read it. (In 2003, Little recalled: “The literary agency was really a hobby which started through an accident. I was helping an old friend in his writing career. I had been running it as a full-time business for about six years when Harry Potter arrived.”)
He agreed to represent Rowling, but rejection after rejection rolled in from publishing houses. After 12 snubs, Bloomsbury offered a £1,500 advance for The Philosopher’s Stone. It ordered an initial UK print run in June 1997 of just 500 copies in hardback.
When, months later, it went up for US bidding, a bidding rights war escalated thanks to its success in the UK, and Rowling, used to living on £70 benefits a week, was suddenly looking at a $105,000 advance from US publishing house, Scholastic.
“I had never paid so much for an acquisition before,” says Arthur Levine, the editor who bought the manuscript. “It was a great risk. If people believe in you and you flop, then you walk out on the plank and plunge.” It was unprecedented amount for an unknown author in 1997. Rowling later recounted, “The first words he said to me were: ‘Don’t panic.’ He really knew what I was going through. I went to bed and couldn’t sleep. On one level I was delighted, but most of me froze.”
Despite a low-budget marketing campaign, word of mouth on The Philosopher’s Stone spread, and by the time Chamber Of Secrets came out in July 1998 in the UK, demand was high. Adults snuck The Philosopher’s Stone into other book jackets, until there was a collective ‘sod it’ as everyone started Potter-ing in full public view. Cats who could sense lies, cars that can fly and candy that could jump was the perfect foil for the next few years, as the world reeled from such bleak news as the Columbine massacre and 9/11.
By early 1999, Rowling was receiving thousands of letters a week. In 1997, requests had been from the Glasgow Herald literary editor; by 2000, it was Time Magazine knocking on the door for a full-length feature. In archive interviews she was always quick to be humble, describing her younger self as a “freckled beach ball”. Today she admits she can be “somewhat po-faced” with the press, not surprising, since she’s been subjected to journalists hunting down her ex, long-lensing her in a bikini on holiday, and scraping the bottom of the barrel for headlines.
“I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen, able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous,” she has laughed, wryly in a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2003.
Potter fever intensified despite her reservations about fame. Fans from all over the world made pilgrimages to the Hogwarts Express’ station King’s Cross and it became clear to station staff that they would have to create platform nine and three-quarters just to give tourists something to look at. The Glenfinnan Viaduct in the Highlands, which the train crosses in the films, became a sightseeing destination in its own right
Publishers scrambled to recreate the “Harry Potter effect”. The children’s market, previously considered marginal, was suddenly taken seriously. “It was the equivalent of The Beatles in children’s publishing,” says children’s author Julie Bertagna. “Children’s fiction was a stagnant backwater which nobody really took very seriously at all. There’s been a revolution which is mostly due to Harry Potter.”
In turn, “publishers would have been fools not to tap into the feeding frenzy trend effect,” says Tony Mulliken, chairman of Midas PR whose clients include the National Trust and Private Eye. And so the Potter phenomenon, coupled with the success of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, led to a glut of six-figure deals for fantasy franchises.
The Harry Potter books (and Pullman’s trilogy) also paved the way for the so-called crossover” novel, a book which straddled the teenage and adult market. Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread Book Of The Year in 2001. In 2003 Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, narrated by an autistic teenager, became the first young adult’s novel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize. In 2003, culture critic Jasper Rees wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “Adults are devouring children’s books. Meanwhile, books for young adults have never been more grown-up. The result is that the line between children’s fiction and adult fiction has blurred.” Possibly the most successful example – in terms of sales, anyway – of the crossover is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.
A TOTAL REVOLUTION
It’s not simply publishing where Rowling’s effect has been felt; the way she handled the Potter books’ transformation into movies was revolutionary too. When the film rights were snapped up in 1999 – for a seven-figure sum – by Warner Bros, many writers would have been cowed into taking a back-seat. Rowling ensured that the film was shot in Britain. That Coca-Cola donate $18 million to American charity Reading Is Fundamental if they wanted to be involved. She signed off every script and even acted as a producer on both parts of the Deathly Hallows. As ever, she is modest. “I have been allowed to make my views felt. You know, that’s not to say they’re going to take my views on board, but the conscience rests easy, if you like, knowing that I was able to sit in the meeting and say what I would not feel comfortable with.”
Rowling still maintains to this day that nothing was ‘her call’. There was even talk that her clear approach made Steven Spielberg back out of directing the first film. “Did I have a fight with him?” she said when asked about it. “No, I definitely did not. I read that in an article and was mystified. There were things he said that I didn’t agree with, there were things he said that I did agree with.”
“She never abuses her position of power and I’ve seen her genuinely embarrassed to win awards”
So what’s her secret? “I’ve met her a number of times and although she is undoubtedly very wise, she surrounds herself with great people,” reveals Mulliken. “She was lucky to land a great agent right from the start, who gave her sound advice, plus a gentle but shrewd publicist, and because the bidding escalated so feverishly, they rightly cautioned her to retain all rights. Most authors just feel bloody lucky to be published and relinquish that control early on. I like JK Rowling, she never abuses her position of power, her husband [Rowling married Neil Murray, an anaesthetist, in 2001 and the couple have two children together, David, 8, and Mackenzie, 6] is charming and I’ve seen her genuinely embarrassed to win awards.”
Today, Rowling earns £1 million every three days. Yet, her home is worth only £2 million, modest when you consider that’s a week’s pay, she defiantly had both David and Mackenzie in NHS hospitals, her 2001 wedding took place in the library at their home in a 20-minute ceremony witnessed by just 15 guests, all of her children are state-educated and her office is said to be the size of a single bedroom. “I’ve got a mental amount I can’t spend beyond,” says Rowling. “I limit myself to what I think I would be justified in spending on frivolity.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
With great sales also came friends in high places. Her close friendship with Sarah Brown made her a regular visitor to 10 Downing Street when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. In April 2009 she sat next to Michelle Obama at a banquet for the partners of the G20 global summit leaders. Later that summer she was snapped dancing with comedian Peter Kay at a charity gala at Hampton Court Palace, and outbid all rivals to pay £12,000 for a dance with David Walliams. Yet of her celebrity status, Rowling says, “I never wanted it and I never expected it and I certainly never worked for it. I see it as something I have to get through really.”
Her complex relationship with fame is yet another paradox in Rowling’s life. One of her unauthorised biographers, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “It never sat well with me that she was this accidental megastar who just wanted to write; yet she just happened to be best friends with Sarah Brown. If she was really guileless, she wouldn’t try to court famous friends.”
That said, any high-profile friendships she does have are played out in private. Rowling once said that when Potter hunger fades, she hopes to slip into blissful obscurity. Yet, she also drops tantalising hints about a monster-led ‘political fairy story’ locked in her safe. Never mind Harry. By far the most intriguing character created by Joanne Rowling is JK Rowling.
Words: Catherine Gray
Main picture credit: Rex Features