Rebecca McNally is publishing director at Bloomsbury Children's Books and part of her job is making sure the Harry Potter books the publisher creates reach out to new generations of readers. This manifests itself in projects like Bloomsbury’s recent Jim Kay-illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books. “The great thing about the children’s book world is that there are always new 8 to 9 year olds coming along who haven’t discovered the joy of Harry Potter yet,” says Rebecca.
“It’s a very powerful thing to be a children’s writer because your books are in their hands, sometimes providing an escape for them when they might be in a really dark place,” she continues. “To experience emotions, danger, thrills, darkness and love from the comfort of your armchair is the magic of reading. And it’s so potent in Harry Potter across all 7 of the books.”
Aware of the ways in which Harry Potter has managed to capture the imagination of children (and adults) worldwide, here Rebecca explains the impact of the so-called “Harry Potter Effect” and what it’s meant for the landscape of children’s publishing. Alongside Rebecca’s answers, we give you sneak peeks of some of J.K. Rowling’s annotated drafts, rough character sketches and detailed plans, giving even more insight into the creation of one of the most successful books series ever.
What do people mean when they talk about "The Harry Potter Effect"?
It's probably more accurate to talk about the effects plural. It's hard to pin down exactly, but there are some really concrete effects. One of those is the numbers from UK Bookscan [the operation that tracks till sales in bookshops in the UK]. In 1998 there were around 34 million children's books sold, by 2016 that was 64 million, so that's a very palpable Harry Potter effect. Obviously it's not the only thing that's responsible for that, but I do think Harry Potter created a paradigm shift that made it possible.
The other important and wonderful effect is the magic of reading the books themselves and the effect they have on their readers. For that first generation of readers who grew up with it, they were experiencing it completely new. No one knew what was going to happen in those books and they were waiting for the next one. Suddenly the publication of a book was made into an event.
Children's books as a field is now so full of talent, and there's a new generation of writers coming through, who were the original Potter fans, whose love of books and reading is shaped by that extraordinary experience.
In what ways has it encouraged children to continue reading?
In those early years, the Harry Potter phenomenon made books and reading a shared activity, and something that had a breadth of appeal, bringing in people who were not habitual readers.
Interestingly at the same time in the late 90s early 2000s, there were lots of really positive initiatives surrounding reading and literacy, which really helped promote this. In 1998 there was a national year of reading which had government support, then later they began to support Bookstart, which makes books available for free to preschool children.
Harry Potter itself is a beacon for the magic of reading that pulled in people from all sorts of communities – and it still works!
At what point did Harry Potter go beyond a series of books and become a cultural phenomenon? What there a turning point?
If you were to put it in brutal sales terms, it was really the publication of the Prisoner of Azkaban – everything really began to ramp up then. Later the films brought new audiences but they fed each other almost.
I think it's only now that we can really truly say that Harry Potter is an enduring, important cultural phenomenon. We are 20 years on from the publication of the first book and there are phenomena that come and go, but Harry is clearly here to stay.
What sets it apart from previous successful series like The Famous Five or Chronicles of Narnia for instance?
Harry Potter broke so many rules in the children's book world. We used to think a children's book should be never be any longer than 60,000 words, and that your characters should stay around the same age for the whole series.
Commercial series fiction was sometimes quite formulaic, though quite addictive. You expected it to deliver certain things and it did. With Harry Potter, the story took you to completely new places.
There are elements in Harry Potter that are of course in other books, but to combine things that feel very familiar with a really extraordinary explosion of imagination, alongside the confidence to explore extremely dark themes, and still feel very much like a children's book, was just incredibly fresh and different. And still is today.
The books weren't expected to be a hit at the time, why was that? What was the publishing landscape like at the time?
In 1997, when the first book was published, most big publishers liked having a children's division but no one had significant commercial expectations of it. There are many legends about Harry Potter's origins, like it being turned down by 12 publishers and then arriving at Bloomsbury. But it's not true to say that Bloomsbury weren’t ambitious for it.
I wasn't there at the time, but I do know that there was a palpable excitement about the book. But before they acquired it, the book had to get past a meeting which was chaired by our founder and chief executive, Nigel Newton. Nigel took the three chapters he was given home and gave them to his 8-year-old daughter who wrote him a note saying she wanted to read the rest straightaway. There was genuine love and excitement for the story and while it’s true that Bloomsbury didn’t pay an awful lot for it, nobody did for children’s books back then! And I guess what people thought of as a successful first children's book then, was nothing like what actually happened.
What role has it played in inspiring other YA and children's fiction?
I think there is a whole generation of writers now who are writers because they fell in love with reading through Harry Potter. But that doesn't mean that you can see a direct link between the content of Harry Potter and their work.
Of course following Harry Potter, there have been a number of really, really successful franchises like Twilight, Hunger Games, which have been phenomena in their own right. The YA phenomena are interesting because they tend to be more cyclical, for instance Twilight dominated the book charts for 3 or 4 years, and then was succeeded by The Hunger Games. Harry Potter is different from that in its enduring position. Even last year, which was its 20th anniversary, our regular edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was the 10th best selling children's book.
What are the challenges when a series of books become such a success? Can other books compete?
The thing is, books aren't really a competition. However much as a publisher or as a writer you love it when books win prizes or sell well, in the long run the value of books is really in the experience of reading them.
Nothing can really compete with Harry Potter though, because if you really want to be brutal about it, it is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. It was announced recently that the series has now sold more than 500 million books worldwide, which is an extraordinary quantity of books.
When it started to gain momentum, was there pressure to find the next big series?
At that point in time there was definitely a sense of opportunity, I think that's what Potter created in children's publishing. So you could see that as pressure or you can also see it making people see the potential of children's books differently.
Publishers got excited about the potential of a book to reach a really wide audience and the impact of that is still visible now – the children's book market has been consistently in growth for the past five years.
What one thing would you say about Harry Potter, to convince someone who hasn't read the books to read them?
For someone who hasn't read the books, I would say you have to allow yourself the time and space to have the real experience of reading the whole lot. Allow yourself to get lost in it.
Particularly for adult readers actually, sometimes the breadth and ambition of Jo's writing really becomes clear in Prisoner of Azkaban. I think there is a real leap, you can see it building in The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, but the third book is where it explodes. For me, Azkaban is my favourite, but don't tell anyone!