NZ Forest Native Birds
How (and Why) Harry Potter Nearly Didn't Get Published

Just ponder the following: What if Bloomsbury, the then small and very new publisher that eventually took on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone after just about every other British publisher rejected it, hadn’t 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 Rowling’s agent called at the publisher’s cramped Soho Square office with sample chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s 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 didn’t read it, which certainly doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s a normal advance for a first children’s 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 Philosopher’s Stone become such a huge seller? Here are some of my own conclusions. I’ve discussed them elsewhere, but I see no harm in repeating them here.

  • It was bound to happen sooner or later; children had been starved of fantasy for far too long. I myself couldn’t find more than two titles in the mid-eighties for an 11-year-old fantasy-mad boy. I wasn’t impressed, especially since the shelves of adult books positively groaned with fantasy titles.
  • Rowling gives children absolutely everything they could possibly want:
    1. Humour, which isn’t 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, it’s hard to imagine powerful wizards putting up with staircases that change direction willy-nilly while someone is using them! But it’s definitely funny that the wizards can’t 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.
    2. 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. It’s irresistible.
    3. Plenty of spine-chilling events. If there is one thing that rivals humour in children’s reading preferences, it’s scary stories.
    4. Lots of magic. While children’s writers of fantasy are always being exhorted to “go easy on the magic”, this is because of editorial prejudice. Either Joanne Rowling hadn’t read such advice, or simply ignored it. Most published fantasy books don’t provide enough magic for most child readers.
    5. You need a fifth reason? Come on, give me a break!
Another question to consider is why all those editors rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and why even Nigel Newton would almost certainly have done so but for his daughter’s “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 Philosopher’s Stone! They just want a good story, for goodness’ sake!

More serious are the following:

  1. 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 wouldn’t admit it now, of course.
  2. 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 Philosopher’s 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.
  3. The book doesn’t start where it should: with Harry, or “inside Harry’s head”. In a book for children the main character should be introduced either at the beginning of the book or very near it.
  4. The characters we meet at the start of the book are ones with which few readers could identify. They are far from likeable.
  5. Having fat people (especially a fat boy) depicted as unbelievably nasty would definitely be a turn-off for many editors. For a start, it’s a fact that a fat boy is more likely to be the victim of a bully rather than being the bully.
I would like to add that none of these points really worried me; I’m 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.

Now, the only burning question I have that still needs an answer is how did Rowling manage to get an agent—never mind such a prestigious one—without having the obligatory bait of a publishing contract with which to bash him over the nose?

Incidentally, it’s surprising how many editors of children’s 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 children’s 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 children’s fiction want and what children want couldn’t be more different—for the most part, anyway.

© L A Barker Enterprises
All rights reserved

Back to Top