Just ponder the following: What if Bloomsbury, the then small and very new publisher that eventually took on Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone after just about every other British publisher rejected it, hadnt existed?
In a rare personal interview with The Independent, Nigel Newton, the chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing, which started business in 1994, tells the story of how Joanne Rowlings agent called at the publishers cramped Soho Square office with sample chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Bloomsbury was just about the last chance for Rowling to get her book published.
Newton told The Independent that he took the manuscript home but didnt read it, which certainly doesnt sound as though he had been given good reason to feel any enthusiasm for it. Instead, he gave it to his daughter Alice, then eight years old. Unfortunately, he didnt tell the newspaper his reasons for giving the manuscript to Alice instead of assessing it for himself.
The Independent reports Newton as recalling: She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying, Dad, this is so much better than anything else. She nagged and nagged me in the following months, wanting to see what came next. So Newton made out a cheque to Joanne Kathleen Rowling for £2,500. Apparently thats a normal advance for a first childrens book in the UK. In New Zealand it is more like $200. The first print run was only 500, which clearly shows that Newton had absolutely no sales expectations for the book that had roused so much enthusiasm in his daughter.
So why did Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone become such a huge seller? Here are some of my own conclusions. Ive discussed them elsewhere, but I see no harm in repeating them here.
Another question to consider is why all those editors rejected Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, and why even Nigel Newton would almost certainly have done so but for his daughters pester power, as he himself called it. Among the (ostensible) reasons for rejection were too conventional, too long, too weird or too old-fashioned. As if any of these things matter to the audience for which Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone! They just want a good story, for goodness sake!
- It was bound to happen sooner or later; children had been starved of fantasy for far too long. I myself couldnt find more than two titles in the mid-eighties for an 11-year-old fantasy-mad boy. I wasnt impressed, especially since the shelves of adult books positively groaned with fantasy titles.
- Rowling gives children absolutely everything they could possibly want:
- Humour, which isnt normally a big feature in fantasy of this type (for the plot of the Harry Potter series is every bit as dark as that of, say, Lord of the Rings) and humour is the number one preference of most children. Sometimes the humour feels out of place in the Harry Potter books. For example, its hard to imagine powerful wizards putting up with staircases that change direction willy-nilly while someone is using them! But its definitely funny that the wizards cant seem to do anything about it. So are the ghosts that inhabit the castle, all the portraits that can move and talk; and so on.
- Extreme empowerment of the child reader. Harry starts off as a downtrodden, ill-treated, unwanted child who suddenly finds he is someone so important that people address him as Mister and even bow to him. Few authors empower the child reader as strongly as this. Its irresistible.
- Plenty of spine-chilling events. If there is one thing that rivals humour in childrens reading preferences, its scary stories.
- Lots of magic. While childrens writers of fantasy are always being exhorted to go easy on the magic, this is because of editorial prejudice. Either Joanne Rowling hadnt read such advice, or simply ignored it. Most published fantasy books dont provide enough magic for most child readers.
- You need a fifth reason? Come on, give me a break!
More serious are the following:
I would like to add that none of these points really worried me; Im simply guessing they may have worried all those editors who rejected the book. (The last article I read on this subject stated that 12 publishers rejected it.) Most likely Nigel Newton did at least glance at the first page and was also turned off by whatever bothered the other editors.
- The book is slow to start. Even young readers who went on to become staunch Harry Potter fans admitted this in the beginning. They probably wouldnt admit it now, of course.
- The attention of the editor needs to be grabbed as quickly as possible; preferably with the opening sentence, but certainly before the end of the first page. The first page of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone is all what writers call telling instead of showing. My guess is editors would particularly dislike the opening sentence, though I had no problem with it myself.
- The book doesnt start where it should: with Harry, or inside Harrys head. In a book for children the main character should be introduced either at the beginning of the book or very near it.
- The characters we meet at the start of the book are ones with which few readers could identify. They are far from likeable.
- Having fat people (especially a fat boy) depicted as unbelievably nasty would definitely be a turn-off for many editors. For a start, its a fact that a fat boy is more likely to be the victim of a bully rather than being the bully.
Now, the only burning question I have that still needs an answer is how did Rowling manage to get an agentnever mind such a prestigious onewithout having the obligatory bait of a publishing contract with which to bash him over the nose?
Incidentally, its surprising how many editors of childrens books seem to dislike all the things children adore. In one of the electronic newsletters to which I subscribe, a writer with many published titles for children wrote that some of the most effective words to put in a childrens fiction title are secret, mystery, magic, witches, wizards, ghosts, dragons, naughty and rude. She was, of course, referring to these words being ones that would most attract a child reader; the sight of any one of them in a title in the slush pile is more likely to spur an editor into sending a rejection without even glancing at the manuscript. The writer concerned, by the way, would be careful to keep any of these words out of her own titles. Being firmly focused on making a career of writing for children, she writes only what publishers want. What publishers of childrens fiction want and what children want couldnt be more differentfor the most part, anyway.
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