June 26, 1997, will be forever etched in the memories of Harry Potter fans as the day that marked the beginning of a new era in young adult literature – the day a scrawny bespectacled 11-year-old boy materialized from under the stairs of the Dursleys’ residence to cast a spell on all the “muggles’ across the world. Not only children but adults were also swept away in this magical tsunami.
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was the first of the seven-book-series by J.K Rowling to have graced the shelves of bookstores – not for long, though, as they were emptied out soon enough as word of mouth spread like wildfire.
Published by Bloomsbury, the Philosopher’s Stone registered respectable sales winning a Smarties Award in the UK along with highly gratifying initial reviews like – “a hugely entertaining thriller” – “the most imaginative debut since Roald Dahl” with “all the makings of a classic.”
However, it wasn’t until Scholastic Corporation, an American multinational publishing company, bought the US publishing rights for $105,000 and released the first American edition re-titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” that the popularity of Harry Potter started taking astronomical proportions.
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone” and the subsequent six books in the series, translated into 73 languages, went on to sell some 500 million copies earning it the historical distinction of being the highest selling book series ever – the last four Harry Potter books consecutively registering the fastest sales in history with over 11 million copies of the seventh and final instalment selling in a matter of twenty-four hours after its release.
Not only did the books witness unprecedented success but with eight film adaptations, spin-offs, and Harry Potter Merchandise, the total net worth of the franchise is a staggering $25 billion.
The beginning of the Harry Potter journey was no less magical than the story itself. It was not all smooth sailing for this runaway fairytale success which was first thought of by the author, Joanne Rowling, in 1990 while commuting from Manchester to London on a crowded train.
In Rowling’s own words: “I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
Rowling completed the book in 1995 and handed it over to ‘Christopher Little Literary Agents’ who submitted the manuscript to several publishers but there were no takers as, according to Deakin University senior lecturer Dr. Michelle Smith, fantasy stories had fallen out of favor by then with popular books well-entrenched in reality.
“Nobody wanted to touch fantasy stories — they were seen as old-fashioned,” she observes.
“Some people have said, basically, the plot of Tom Brown’s School Days is exactly like Harry Potter, but there was no magic,” says Dr. Smith.
If Dr. Smith is to be believed, it was the magical element in the Harry Potter tale that made all the difference to a not-so-unique story, and it kind of heralded the revival of the fantasy genre in children’s literature.
“There was no Quidditch but there were school rugby games — Harry Potter really picked up on that older tradition of stories about kids at boarding school.
“They’d become a bit daggy and out-of-fashion when Harry Potter came along, but the addition of witches and wizards and magic gave new life to that formula.”
“Now we see so many series [read fantasy series], whether they’re based on more Gothic themes like Twilight or set in a future dystopia like the Hunger Games,” Dr. Smith notes.
Well, coming back to Potter’s humble beginnings, it was London-based Bloomsbury that saw some potential in the story – which others had missed to their detriment – and agreed to publish the book – and, as we know, the rest is history.
The immense popularity and unprecedented success of Harry Potter, however, can’t just be attributed to one factor or another. There were many things going on for the series and there are so many different analyses and theories in regards to the phenomenal financial harvest the Harry Potter books and franchise have reaped over the past two decades.
Ilene Cooper, contributing editor of Booklist, is of the opinion that it is difficult to explain the phenomenon – such a thing “just happens; it’s not something you can put into a formula.”
Briana Shemroske – editorial assistant in the youth department at Booklist explains:
“There’s no doubt Harry Potter combines several irresistible elements — unflappable friendships, the triumph of good over evil, love over hate, humor, a world steeped in secrets and dazzling magic. Together, I think these things allow us to see the magic in everyday life … but then again, many of these elements have been combined before and after Potter with nowhere near the same amount of success.”
According to Dr. Belle Alderman – director of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature at the University of Canberra – it is word-of-mouth publicity that is largely behind the success of Harry Potter in so far as reaching out to kids with no interest in books is concerned.
“The easiest way to get a book in a child’s hand is a friend that they know who has read it — so many children have read them and loved them, then it’s passed around,” she observes.
Although Dr. Smith is not sure if Harry Potter will be able to maintain the status quo over the next century or so, it is evident – from all the celebrations planned by bookshops, libraries, schools and fans the world over to mark the 20th anniversary of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” – that the popularity of the series is not going to wane anytime soon.
Dr. Alderman believes it has all the ingredients of a modern classic.
“It’s well-written, it’s got characters you care about, it’s got wonderful detail — it’s sort of like a concoction that just is so delectable that you want everybody you know to read it,” she says.
“It’s so palatable, so delectable, so approved by so many people, that it has changed the world of children’s literature forever,” she adds.