“He’ll be famous – a legend – every child in our world will know his name.” So predicts Professor McGonagall in the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Breaking sales records from the beginning, Harry Potter is the biggest success in children’s publishing history, making its author, JK Rowling, one of the most famous writers in the world. But on 26 June 1997, when the first novel in the series was published – after notoriously being turned down by 12 publishers – no one had heard of her boy wizard. Behind this magical story was a team of children’s book devotees who helped Harry Potter take flight.
Barry Cunningham, head of children’s publishing, Bloomsbury (now publisher, Chicken House): One day the literary agent Christopher Little rang me and said: “I’ve got this great book, would you read it?” Although he didn’t tell me that everybody else had turned it down, I could tell from the manuscript that I wasn’t the first to see it. I took it home that night and read it. The most common question everybody wants to know is “Did I see it immediately?” I can’t pretend that I did, but I knew children would love it.
Nigel Newton, founder and CEO, Bloomsbury: I took the manuscript home but didn’t read it myself. I handed it to my daughter Alice, who was eight. She appeared an hour later in a kind of trance. She wrote a little note that said: “The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an eight- or nine-year-old could read.”
Rosamund de la Hey, children’s marketing director, Bloomsbury (now founder of The Mainstreet Trading Company, St Boswells): I was 25 and new to the job, and the very first manuscript I was given was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Barry handed it over with the words: “Read this. I think it’s a bit special.” I read it overnight and was completely blown away. I came back into the office slightly possessed. Before the editorial meeting I rolled the first three chapters into a scroll, shoved in a load of Smarties and tied it with a purple ribbon. The scroll was inspired by the Hogwarts school setting and the Smarties were to say, I think it will win the Smarties prize [for children’s books]. The children’s list had only been going two years, and it hadn’t been an outstanding success. We knew we were up against it.
Newton: The next day I chaired the editorial meeting and everyone was humming with excitement. We only had a tiny children’s team. Four people. They all sat on beanbags in one room on the fifth floor. Barry asked for authorisation to buy the rights and I said something like: “Alice absolutely loved it – approved!” Everybody else felt the same way. So he offered for UK and Commonwealth rights. He didn’t offer for US rights because in those days we didn’t have a US company. I learned that lesson – one year later, I started Bloomsbury USA.
Cunningham: I rang Christopher the next day and we had all of 10 minutes’ negotiation. I think it went from £2,000 to £2,500, probably the best money Bloomsbury ever spent. Unfortunately, I could only buy UK and Commonwealth rights; I didn’t have the money to buy America.
De la Hey: Barry got back really quickly because we all fell in love with it. I know several publishers had hung on to it for a long time. HarperCollins must have got wind of it because they came swooping back with an offer. Jo [JK Rowling, who is not taking part in publicity around the anniversary] very loyally said something like: “Get stuffed, I’ll go with the one who came back so quickly and has the enthusiasm.”
Cunningham: Jo came down to London and we had lunch with Christopher Little in a small restaurant in Soho. She said: “How do you feel about sequels?” I said: “Well, let’s just get on with this first one.” Then she told me the story – she had worked out everything that happens in all of the following books.
I wanted to change the title because I thought it was a bit of a mouthful. But Jo said children love unfamiliar words, so, like all good publishers, I gave way to my author. I did cut a couple of chapters.
All the stories you’ve heard are true: she had no money, and was living in Edinburgh and writing in cafes. I said to her – and she teases me about this to this day – you need to get a day job, because you’ll never make any money out of children’s books. In those days a good seller was a few thousand.
Janet Hoggarth, editorial assistant, Bloomsbury Children’s Books: I left Bloomsbury just before The Philosopher’s Stone was published, accepting a job as editor at Scholastic Children’s Books. An editor from Scholastic America rang through from an auction house in New York asking my boss if anyone knew what the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was about. He had been given the manuscript but hadn’t had time to read it. Bidding was going crazy and he didn’t understand why. I was asked to write a brief synopsis and fax it to the auction house. I told him it was going to be bigger than Roald Dahl and told him to bid the absolute top end of his budget. Splashed all over the next day’s papers was the news that Scholastic had paid out a whopping $105,000 for a children’s book, an amount unheard of in children’s publishing.
De la Hey: Just before the UK publication, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold to Scholastic in the US for $105,000, an astonishing amount of money at the time. Suddenly, rather than begging for the infinitesimal amount of review space that children’s books ever get, the story went on page three of the Telegraph. That was a game-changer.
Thomas Taylor, illustrator of the first book jacket for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: I got a phone call from Barry Cunningham while I was in the children’s bookshop in Norwich where I worked after finishing art school. He said he liked my drawings, would I like to do a book cover. I was 22 or 23. I went into London to the office of Bloomsbury, where I met Barry and he showed me this book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by an author I’d never heard of. He gave me the book, a stack of paper which had notes in the margins and chapters missing because the author was still working on it. I read it on the train home and quite enjoyed it.
Barry was very specific about what he wanted. Looking back, I don’t think there’s enough magic in there, but at the time I was just following instructions. I drew some rough sketches. Once he approved the composition I spent two days with a piece of very nice cold-pressed watercolour paper and I had my crayons and my concentrated watercolours and I created this image. I took it into London to hand it in.
Emma Matthewson, children’s books editor, Bloomsbury (now publishing director, Hot Key): I was very lucky to arrive at Bloomsbury in 1997. Barry had just left. He had acquired Harry Potter and then he left before publication to set up his own company. I remember his replacement saying to me: “Look, Emma, it’s our list now, if there are any books that aren’t published yet that we think we should cancel we should do that now.” And Harry Potter was on the list. I started reading it and it was really charming, really funny and full of magical adventures, and I said: “No, we should keep this one. Definitely.” That was the moment that yet another publisher might have failed to take on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
From the outset, Jo had written the last paragraph of the last book, which was to become Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. In her mind, it was always going to be seven books, and that was where she was going. A lot of our conversation at the beginning was about how the story was going to unfold. I wanted to get rid of the giants at one point, but she wanted to keep them because they would be important in book seven.
Lindsey Fraser, executive director of Scottish Book Trust and children’s books reviewer: There were loads of good books around at the time, but things were a bit gritty and grisly. When I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I remember thinking: “Ah, this is a breath of fresh air.” I wrote the first review as part of a roundup for the Scotsman, only about 80 words. We were lucky to get space for children’s book reviews at all at that time. Fortunately I liked it. It said something like: “This has all the signs of a classic of the future.” Thank goodness.
De la Hey: The reviews were stunning. After the Smarties prize shortlist in October I made a bet with Nigel that we’d sell 20,000 copies by Christmas and he laughed me out of town. He still owes me a case of champagne.
Taylor: We had 10 of the first hardback editions stacked up on a table at the front of the shop. I kept thinking I should buy one, but thought I’d wait for the signed copy they were going to send me. About six months after publication, I began to realise this book was becoming really quite popular. My colleagues kept saying to customers: “Do you know who this is? He illustrated the cover art.” People didn’t believe it because why would I be standing behind the till? It was very awkward and embarrassing. Of course, those 10 books all went and I didn’t buy one, so I never had a first edition.
Julia Eccleshare, children’s books editor of the Guardian (now director of Hay Children’s festival and author of A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels): I was the chair of the Smarties book prize the first year JK Rowling won in 1997. The judges chose three books and submitted them to a huge panel of children from across the country. The author judge that year was Malorie Blackman, who immediately said that she thought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the best book. As soon as we got the votes back from the children we were overwhelmed by their support for this novel.
De la Hey: I got back from the party and threw Smarties around the entire office. The win led to an interview with Konnie Huq on Blue Peter, which, because it was on TV, revealed that Rowling was a woman. Until then all the fan mail was addressed to “Dear Sir”. All of it. The first book cover proof has “Joanne Rowling” on it. Before publication, I remember saying: “This book is completely unisex, we don’t want to put off boys.” I was also aware that the children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson, hugely popular at the time, was another long female name. Emma rang Jo and asked how she’d feel about using initials. Jo said: “OK, fine, you know best.” And Emma said: “So what’s your initial?” Jo replied “K” very quickly – she doesn’t have a middle name, she just took her grandmother’s name, Kathleen.
Hoggarth: It was my job to check the final proofs before they were sent off to the printer, and as usual this was always done against the clock in a blind panic. I had inadvertently left a typo on the back cover and on page 53 as part of the Hogwarts kit list – wand was listed twice – but it was too late. Those first edition copies are now worth thousands because of my mistake!
Newton: We printed 5,150 paperbacks and 500 hardbacks. That may sound small but it isn’t. I’ve never had a first edition. I read the typescript of the next book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, en route to a family holiday in France and as I read each chapter, I’d throw it in the bin on the ferry.
Matthewson: The first time I met Jo in person was when I went up to Edinburgh for one of her first events. It was in the back room of a pub that you reached up a shadowy staircase. She turned to me and said: “I am so nervous. I am so nervous.”
De la Hey: The launch of the paperback of Chamber of Secrets, book two, in 1998, was the first to be held at King’s Cross station, London. I had contacted a bunch of potential Dumbledores through an acting agency. The guy who did it was called Jeffery Dench, who turned out to be Judi Dench’s brother.
Newton: For the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 1999, I borrowed the idea of a timed release from movie companies. We chose 3.45pm to stop children playing truant from school. There was a photograph on the front page of the Daily Telegraph of a queue of children outside The Lion & Unicorn Bookshop in Richmond. For the later books I changed it to midnight because we were having to be global.
Tony West, assistant manager of The Lion & Unicorn bookshop (now manager of The Alligator’s Mouth bookshop, Richmond): Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban must have been the first children’s book to be embargoed. We had all dressed up for the launch and I was wearing stripy trousers trying to look Dumbledoreish. With only one till in the shop, it was all hands on deck. We took out bowls of snacks to keep the crowds happy while they waited. With book four came the midnight launches, and the queue stretched right down the alley towards the green. It was a special event for all the family, children and teenagers, everyone in the crowd had dressed up as witches and wizards. I’ve been in bookselling nearly 30 years and I haven’t seen anything like it before or since.
Newton: For the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000 we hired the dining carriage in which the Armistice treaty had been signed, and put together a whole Edwardian train which left from King’s Cross.
De la Hey: We had to get special permission to paint the train scarlet and do the signs. There was practically a riot on the platform at King’s Cross. There were parents behaving very badly trying to get closer and someone stowed away in the cold storage. It was quite an epic tour of four or five days with two events a day and 500 kids at each stop. What we didn’t realise is that there’s a very big train-spotting community on the internet, so the further up the country we got we were followed along sidings. At one point between Newcastle and Edinburgh, we stopped suddenly because we had run out of coal, and a crowd began to amass.
Newton: I remember getting a phone call from Christopher Little saying: “Nigel, drink, The Pelican, six o’ clock!” And I thought: “Oh, The Pelican, that means there’s a book.” [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003.] So I drove to this pub near Stamford Bridge football ground, not too far from Christopher’s office, and he was sitting at the bar with a pint and a Sainsbury’s bag at his feet. We never mentioned Harry Potter. We just had a drink, and when I left I was carrying the Sainsbury’s bag. It was a classic dead-letter drop. I drove the manuscript home in a state of excitement and fear and put it by my bed and stuck the title page of David Guterson’s forthcoming novel on the top as we had a houseful of Harry Potter fans by then. I read the book through the night in bed. I even put it in the safe for a couple of hours. The next day I drove it to Emma’s house, and was so relieved to hand it over.
Matthewson: I had the call from Nigel, saying “Can I come round to your house?” Which is a little unusual for the CEO of the company. He turned up and said: “I have something for you,” and presented me with this bag. And I said: “Is it what I think it is?” And he said: “Yes, it is. Right, we must celebrate.”
Newton: One tabloid allegedly sent a guy with a briefcase with five grand in it to the printers and was stopping people as they came off shift saying: “Will you go and get me Harry Potter?” The landlady of the pub where he was staying heard this and alerted us, and we got the police there. It was one of many Harry Potter theft stories. The worst one was with book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. One of the guards at the printers conducted an auction between the Sun and the Mirror. The reporter from the Sun decided to rescue the book. The guard ran after him and shot him, deliberately wide. Meanwhile, the reporter from the Mirror rang the police and it took seven of them to restrain the guard, who was a body builder. The book was saved. The next day the Sun’s front page was: “I looked down the barrel of a gun – and thought I was about to die for the sake of Harry Potter.”
Matthewson: I was given a laptop that had never been connected to the internet, so I had to back everything up on floppy disks. I would keep the manuscript and the disks under my bed. When I had friends round, if someone went up to the bathroom, I would find myself quietly following them, just in case. At that point in time reporters were going through Jo’s dustbins.
In the early days, after I finished working on it, I would take the script to a safety deposit box at Coutts bank. Eventually, Bloomsbury bought me the biggest safe that Banham could supply. It was so heavy we needed extra floor support upstairs, but at least I could go out.
De la Hey: If you could have stopped the madness at the level of book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that would have been perfect. I feel nostalgic for that time of innocence when it was us against the world, just wanting to tell as many people as possible about this incredible book. By book four it was sanctioned that only four people were allowed to read it, and by book seven nobody apart from Emma could read the manuscript, not even me.
Matthewson: Our emails were encrypted, and we would discuss small edits, but always just bits, so that it would be difficult to work out what it was. Jo and I were both pregnant at the same time, first while we were working on Order of the Phoenix in 2003 and then again while we were working on the Half-Blood Prince in 2005. By this point, there was no way that Jo was coming to London, because it was all so secret, so I would take the train up to Jo’s house in Edinburgh. I had this dog-eared manuscript in my bag, and when I went to the loo I would take it with me. Then we would work on the edits at Jo’s kitchen table, which neither of us could quite get close to. It was very intense and we both had this other very important deadline.
Newton: If you are publisher that is what you live for – to change the world by getting people to read your books. And the Harry Potter books are more popular than ever.
Eccleshare: Children who love to read used to be thought of as bookworms, a bit isolated, but that all changed. Everybody was reading the same book, talking about it became a big thing, and parents were talking to their children about it because they had read it too. Coinciding with the publication of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the success of Harry Potter gave children’s books both intellectual respectability and incredible earning power.
Taylor: I didn’t want to talk about it for a long time, because this Harry Potter shadow seemed to be constantly pursuing me. My very first piece of art has followed me around for my whole career. I am proud to have done the cover and to have had that magical start to my career, but I’m pleased to have arrived at a point where it’s OK to talk about it without it distorting everything else. I always wanted to write successful books on my own terms. I don’t do the illustrations for my own books, the Malamander series. I get asked all the time: “Why did you do the cover for Harry Potter, but you don’t do the covers for your books?”
De la Hey: I left Bloomsbury after book seven. After Jo’s all-night signing for Deathly Hallows, I went to stay with friends for the weekend. As I hadn’t been allowed to read the manuscript, I obsessively read the book the whole time – I didn’t talk to anyone. Harry Potter completely dominated my life for 10 years.
Matthewson: On the publication of the final book in 2007, I was sitting on a train and I looked up and there were three different passengers all sitting there reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I said: “I edited that!” I couldn’t resist it. They just looked at me. All they wanted to do was to get back to reading. It’s only now, after 25 years, that I feel able to speak openly about it.
Cunningham: Leaving Bloomsbury was a bit like leaving the Beatles, but I’m glad I did it, because otherwise I’d be talking about Harry Potter for the rest of my life. I am still humbled by my part in this phenomenon that has meant so much to children around the world. In Britain these books are seen as magical, entertaining and warm, but in some countries they are also about standing up to authority, being yourself and not being scared. Harry and his friends have to stick by what they believe in. Every child should believe they have something special inside them, whether it’s called magic or not. Harry Potter’s legacy is vast, and continues.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the 25th Anniversary Edition, is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.