Member only
Episode
262

JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter

May 13, 2022
Arts & Culture
-
17
minutes

On 26 June 1997, an unknown author published a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Harry Potter would go on to become the best-selling series in literary history, selling over 500 million copies worldwide.

The journey to get there, however, was far from simple.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter.

[00:00:30] It’s a story of magic and mystery, misery and hope, a story of loss, of perseverance, and ultimately, how fairytale endings aren’t always what you might think.

[00:00:43] And I’m not talking about the Harry Potter books, but rather the story of what it took to publish these books, the story of the creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling.

[00:00:55] OK then, JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter

[00:01:02] On June the 26th of 1997, if you were to walk into a bookshop in the UK and head to the children’s section, if you looked carefully you might see a book with a dark red cover. 

[00:01:18] There was a drawing on the front of a train with the words “Hogwarts Express”, and a confused looking boy with large round glasses and floppy hair.

[00:01:31] The title of the book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

[00:01:37] Although you wouldn’t have known it, this book would go on to change the world and turn its writer, JK Rowling, into the best selling author in history.

[00:01:49] The journey getting there, however, was far from simple.

[00:01:55] Joanne Rowling, or JK as she is known in the books, was born on July 31st of 1965, the same day of the year as her most famous creation, Harry Potter.

[00:02:10] She was the first born child, and her parents were far from happy that they had had a daughter. They had hoped for a son, and proceeded to treat young Joanne like a young boy, dressing her up in boy’s clothes and keeping her hair short, even after the birth of her younger sister.

[00:02:30] She grew up in a village in south west England, she lived a middle class life, not completely unlike Harry’s. 

[00:02:39] From an early age she was obsessed with books, and had even written her first short story when she was six years old.

[00:02:49] Tragedy struck the young Joanne when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a devastating disease of the spinal cord and nervous system. Joanne was only 15 years old.

[00:03:03] Like many teenagers, she sought escapism in everything from fantasy to music, but was by no means a badly behaved teenager - indeed, she was head girl at her school, and went on to study French & Classics at Exeter University, a prestigious university on the south west coast of England.

[00:03:27] After graduating, as she spoke French, she used her language skills to pick up a job as a bilingual secretary, but her true passion, her real dream, was to become an author.

[00:03:41] She had written some stories, but by her own admission, they weren’t very good.

[00:03:47] It was to be in the summer of 1990, on a delayed train from King’s Cross Station in London to Manchester that she was hit by a flash of light, a flash of inspiration, for the story that would change her life forever.

[00:04:04] All of a sudden this vision came to her in incredible detail about this boy and the magical world he lives in. Now, if you’ve read Harry Potter or seen the films, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But even if you haven’t, you probably have some kind of idea.

[00:04:23] Rowling started developing this idea of Harry and the world he lived in, imagining his friends, teachers, enemies, the magical spells, everything that would later become part of the books.

[00:04:38] The only problem was that Rowling had brought nothing with her on the train - not a pen, nor a piece of paper to write with. Once she returned to her flat in Clapham Junction in London, where she was living at the time, she began writing everything down as quickly as she could, a process which would continue pretty much for the next 17 years.

[00:05:02] During all this time, however, her mother’s condition was getting worse and she died at the end of 1990. Rowling had never told her mother about what she was working on.

[00:05:15] Filled with grief and at a loss for what to do, she moved to Porto, in Portugal, and took a job as an English teacher. Now, an English teacher is of course an incredibly valuable profession, and no doubt Rowling was able to help people improve their English. 

[00:05:33] But it wasn’t her calling, it wasn’t what she felt she was destined to do. All the time, she had this burning idea for Harry building inside her.

[00:05:45] On a personal level, she met and married a Portuguese journalist, and they had a child together, Jessica. But it was not a happy marriage. Her husband was abusive, and the relationship ended with Rowling fleeing back to the UK with her infant daughter in tow.

[00:06:05] She moved to Scotland, to Edinburgh, to be precise, where her younger sister was living.

[00:06:11] Picture this situation for a minute. Joanne Rowling is 28 years old with a small child, she has no job and no income, and is reliant on social support. Yet deep inside her she knows that she has this magical story that the world needs to hear.

[00:06:30] By this time she had already written most of the first Harry Potter book, and indeed she had also written the last chapter of the very last book of the series as a way to inspire her to not give up hope, that she had this huge task that needed to be done.

[00:06:48] Now, as anyone who has had a young baby knows, finding some quiet time alone to do anything is pretty tough, so Rowling would push her daughter around in her pram until she fell asleep, then she would go to a café to continue working on Harry Potter.

[00:07:07] By 1995 the first book was complete. 

[00:07:12] It was unlike other children’s literature at the time, as it was filled with dark, complicated material. 

[00:07:20] Harry is an orphan, his parents are dead. He is different, he has near misses with death. There are people who betray him, his friends even. There is a huge amount of detail in the books, from the names and recipes for magic spells through to prices of goods in shops. 

[00:07:40] It’s also pretty long, at 223 pages.

[00:07:46] So, when Rowling tried to send it out to publishers, as you may well know, it was not immediately snapped up, it wasn’t an immediate hit.

[00:07:56] In fact, the first 12 publishers she sent it to rejected it. 

[00:08:01] It was too long, it was full of too much detail, it was too dark for children, it was set in a boarding school, which is a type of school that only a tiny proportion of children go to.

[00:08:14] The publishers, who were of course adults, and not the target reader, simply didn’t understand.

[00:08:22] One publishing house, however, did.

[00:08:25] It was called Bloomsbury. But had it not been for the daughter of one of the publishers, a man called Nigel Newton, perhaps Bloomsbury too would have rejected the book.

[00:08:37] Rowling’s agent, a man named Christopher Little, had taken a sample of the book to Bloomsbury’s offices. The head of Bloomsbury Publishing, Nigel Newton, didn’t read the sample, instead taking it home and giving it to his 8-year-old daughter, Alice.

[00:08:56] Alice, so the story goes, took the book upstairs, and returned an hour later saying “Dad, this is so much better than anything else.”

[00:09:07] Newton agreed to publish it, and paid Rowling a £2,500 advance. £2,500 is about €5,000 in today’s money. 

[00:09:20] Not so bad, perhaps, but a tiny amount compared to how much work had gone into it and certainly tiny compared to how much of an impact the books would have.

[00:09:31] It was enough to pay for rent and nappies for a few months, but certainly not enough to provide a large financial cushion for Rowling.

[00:09:41] Indeed, one of the publishers from Bloomsbury, a man named Barry Cunningham, later said in an interview that he was worried about Rowling’s ability to continue to support herself, as she was a young mother without a job, living on benefits. 

[00:09:57] He told her she would never make any money from publishing children’s books, and even encouraged her to get a day job.

[00:10:05] It might seem ridiculous now, but at the time it was very rare for children’s authors to make enough money to support themselves. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case with Joanne Rowling.

[00:10:18] As you will know, the book wasn’t published under the name Joanne Rowling, as the publishers thought young boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a female author. So, Joanne chose the gender-neutral initials, JK, with K coming from her paternal grandmother’s name, Kathleen.

[00:10:40] When the book was eventually published, in June of 1997, there was no great fanfare, no great celebration across the country. It was a children’s book like any other children’s book.

[00:10:53] But sure enough, as kids across the country began to pick it up and news began to spread, more and more copies were sold every week. 

[00:11:04] Without any real marketing behind it, the book was becoming a sensation. It was simply so good that kids told other kids, parents told other parents, and everyone wanted to read it.

[00:11:17] If you are my sort of age, perhaps you can relate to this. I was just 10 years old when the first book came out, and I can remember being completely captivated by it and everyone talking about it.

[00:11:32] Of course, I knew nothing about the woman behind the book and the struggles that she had gone through to publish it, but when you know about JK Rowling, a lot more of the Harry Potter books start to make sense.

[00:11:46] For example, King’s Cross Station plays an important role in the books, as that’s where the train leaves from to go to Hogwarts. It is a real train station in London, and it was the place where Rowling first had the idea for the books, and it was also the place where her parents first met.

[00:12:06] Rowling had a deeply loving relationship with her mother. She never told her mother about Harry Potter, and has publicly spoken about how much she regretted not doing this, and how much she wished she had more time with her mother before she died. 

[00:12:24] If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember that this sense of loss is something that Harry feels throughout, and he has frequent dreams and visions about his dead parents.

[00:12:37] And Rowling had a deeply troubled relationship with her father. From a young age, Rowling always felt that she had disappointed him, first by being a daughter, not a son, and it seemed that nothing she could do would get his approval or make him happy. 

[00:12:56] Furthermore, her father remarried soon after his wife’s death, to his secretary no less, which Rowling found distressing, and she cut out her father completely from her life. 

[00:13:09] Again, if you remember the story of Harry Potter, there is the constant theme of a search for a father figure, of someone who will fill the gap left in Harry’s life after the death of his own father. 

[00:13:23] And especially compared to other children’s fiction the Harry Potter stories are dark and bleak. People die. There is danger throughout. A lot of it just isn’t very happy.

[00:13:36] When you know what JK Rowling went through as she was writing the stories, from the abusive relationship with her first husband through to the prolonged multiple sclerosis and death of her adored mother, then struggling to make ends meet with a young daughter, well it seems perfectly understandable that there is a lot of darkness.

[00:13:58] Indeed, she once spoke about the deep depression that she felt when she was in Edinburgh writing the first book, describing it as being “characterised by a numbness, a coldness and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the colour drained out of life”. 

[00:14:17] Now, if you remember the Dementors from the Harry Potter books, the nasty creatures that first appear in the third book, they are described as “infesting the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them”.

[00:14:39] Fortunately for Rowling, the books were to prove to be her escape.

[00:14:44] After the rip-roaring success of the first book, there was a bidding war for the publishing rights to take it to the United States. A publishing house called Scholastic paid $105,000 dollars for the rights to the first book, and it was a phenomenal success.

[00:15:02] JK Rowling had become a celebrity author, and the book series would go on to sell over half a billion copies worldwide and turn its author into the best-selling and subsequently wealthiest author in history.

[00:15:19] It has been translated into over 80 languages, including everything from Scots to Tibetan, and has been read and loved by hundreds of millions of children all over the world.

[00:15:32] Although there are plenty of criticisms that have been levelled against JK Rowling over the years, too many for us even to go into now, it is undeniable that there are few people who have brought magic and joy to as many people as JK Rowling. 

[00:15:49] She had to overcome some serious obstacles to get to where she wanted to go, but in the end she got there, and created Harry Potter, the boy with a scar on his forehead, a creation that would change the world forever.

[00:16:05] OK then, that is it for this look at JK Rowling and the battle to publish Harry Potter.

[00:16:13] In our next members-only episode we are actually going to explore this subject a little bit further, and look at how Harry Potter changed the cultural landscape, with everything from its effect on children’s literature through to its effect on fan culture and Britain’s soft power. 

[00:16:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:16:35] Are you a Harry Potter fan? What did the Harry Potter books mean to you, growing up? Or what did they mean to your kids?

[00:16:43] Did you know about the struggles of JK Rowling, and how does knowing about them affect your relationship with the books, if at all?

[00:16:51] I would love to know.

[00:16:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:01] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter.

[00:00:30] It’s a story of magic and mystery, misery and hope, a story of loss, of perseverance, and ultimately, how fairytale endings aren’t always what you might think.

[00:00:43] And I’m not talking about the Harry Potter books, but rather the story of what it took to publish these books, the story of the creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling.

[00:00:55] OK then, JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter

[00:01:02] On June the 26th of 1997, if you were to walk into a bookshop in the UK and head to the children’s section, if you looked carefully you might see a book with a dark red cover. 

[00:01:18] There was a drawing on the front of a train with the words “Hogwarts Express”, and a confused looking boy with large round glasses and floppy hair.

[00:01:31] The title of the book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

[00:01:37] Although you wouldn’t have known it, this book would go on to change the world and turn its writer, JK Rowling, into the best selling author in history.

[00:01:49] The journey getting there, however, was far from simple.

[00:01:55] Joanne Rowling, or JK as she is known in the books, was born on July 31st of 1965, the same day of the year as her most famous creation, Harry Potter.

[00:02:10] She was the first born child, and her parents were far from happy that they had had a daughter. They had hoped for a son, and proceeded to treat young Joanne like a young boy, dressing her up in boy’s clothes and keeping her hair short, even after the birth of her younger sister.

[00:02:30] She grew up in a village in south west England, she lived a middle class life, not completely unlike Harry’s. 

[00:02:39] From an early age she was obsessed with books, and had even written her first short story when she was six years old.

[00:02:49] Tragedy struck the young Joanne when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a devastating disease of the spinal cord and nervous system. Joanne was only 15 years old.

[00:03:03] Like many teenagers, she sought escapism in everything from fantasy to music, but was by no means a badly behaved teenager - indeed, she was head girl at her school, and went on to study French & Classics at Exeter University, a prestigious university on the south west coast of England.

[00:03:27] After graduating, as she spoke French, she used her language skills to pick up a job as a bilingual secretary, but her true passion, her real dream, was to become an author.

[00:03:41] She had written some stories, but by her own admission, they weren’t very good.

[00:03:47] It was to be in the summer of 1990, on a delayed train from King’s Cross Station in London to Manchester that she was hit by a flash of light, a flash of inspiration, for the story that would change her life forever.

[00:04:04] All of a sudden this vision came to her in incredible detail about this boy and the magical world he lives in. Now, if you’ve read Harry Potter or seen the films, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But even if you haven’t, you probably have some kind of idea.

[00:04:23] Rowling started developing this idea of Harry and the world he lived in, imagining his friends, teachers, enemies, the magical spells, everything that would later become part of the books.

[00:04:38] The only problem was that Rowling had brought nothing with her on the train - not a pen, nor a piece of paper to write with. Once she returned to her flat in Clapham Junction in London, where she was living at the time, she began writing everything down as quickly as she could, a process which would continue pretty much for the next 17 years.

[00:05:02] During all this time, however, her mother’s condition was getting worse and she died at the end of 1990. Rowling had never told her mother about what she was working on.

[00:05:15] Filled with grief and at a loss for what to do, she moved to Porto, in Portugal, and took a job as an English teacher. Now, an English teacher is of course an incredibly valuable profession, and no doubt Rowling was able to help people improve their English. 

[00:05:33] But it wasn’t her calling, it wasn’t what she felt she was destined to do. All the time, she had this burning idea for Harry building inside her.

[00:05:45] On a personal level, she met and married a Portuguese journalist, and they had a child together, Jessica. But it was not a happy marriage. Her husband was abusive, and the relationship ended with Rowling fleeing back to the UK with her infant daughter in tow.

[00:06:05] She moved to Scotland, to Edinburgh, to be precise, where her younger sister was living.

[00:06:11] Picture this situation for a minute. Joanne Rowling is 28 years old with a small child, she has no job and no income, and is reliant on social support. Yet deep inside her she knows that she has this magical story that the world needs to hear.

[00:06:30] By this time she had already written most of the first Harry Potter book, and indeed she had also written the last chapter of the very last book of the series as a way to inspire her to not give up hope, that she had this huge task that needed to be done.

[00:06:48] Now, as anyone who has had a young baby knows, finding some quiet time alone to do anything is pretty tough, so Rowling would push her daughter around in her pram until she fell asleep, then she would go to a café to continue working on Harry Potter.

[00:07:07] By 1995 the first book was complete. 

[00:07:12] It was unlike other children’s literature at the time, as it was filled with dark, complicated material. 

[00:07:20] Harry is an orphan, his parents are dead. He is different, he has near misses with death. There are people who betray him, his friends even. There is a huge amount of detail in the books, from the names and recipes for magic spells through to prices of goods in shops. 

[00:07:40] It’s also pretty long, at 223 pages.

[00:07:46] So, when Rowling tried to send it out to publishers, as you may well know, it was not immediately snapped up, it wasn’t an immediate hit.

[00:07:56] In fact, the first 12 publishers she sent it to rejected it. 

[00:08:01] It was too long, it was full of too much detail, it was too dark for children, it was set in a boarding school, which is a type of school that only a tiny proportion of children go to.

[00:08:14] The publishers, who were of course adults, and not the target reader, simply didn’t understand.

[00:08:22] One publishing house, however, did.

[00:08:25] It was called Bloomsbury. But had it not been for the daughter of one of the publishers, a man called Nigel Newton, perhaps Bloomsbury too would have rejected the book.

[00:08:37] Rowling’s agent, a man named Christopher Little, had taken a sample of the book to Bloomsbury’s offices. The head of Bloomsbury Publishing, Nigel Newton, didn’t read the sample, instead taking it home and giving it to his 8-year-old daughter, Alice.

[00:08:56] Alice, so the story goes, took the book upstairs, and returned an hour later saying “Dad, this is so much better than anything else.”

[00:09:07] Newton agreed to publish it, and paid Rowling a £2,500 advance. £2,500 is about €5,000 in today’s money. 

[00:09:20] Not so bad, perhaps, but a tiny amount compared to how much work had gone into it and certainly tiny compared to how much of an impact the books would have.

[00:09:31] It was enough to pay for rent and nappies for a few months, but certainly not enough to provide a large financial cushion for Rowling.

[00:09:41] Indeed, one of the publishers from Bloomsbury, a man named Barry Cunningham, later said in an interview that he was worried about Rowling’s ability to continue to support herself, as she was a young mother without a job, living on benefits. 

[00:09:57] He told her she would never make any money from publishing children’s books, and even encouraged her to get a day job.

[00:10:05] It might seem ridiculous now, but at the time it was very rare for children’s authors to make enough money to support themselves. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case with Joanne Rowling.

[00:10:18] As you will know, the book wasn’t published under the name Joanne Rowling, as the publishers thought young boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a female author. So, Joanne chose the gender-neutral initials, JK, with K coming from her paternal grandmother’s name, Kathleen.

[00:10:40] When the book was eventually published, in June of 1997, there was no great fanfare, no great celebration across the country. It was a children’s book like any other children’s book.

[00:10:53] But sure enough, as kids across the country began to pick it up and news began to spread, more and more copies were sold every week. 

[00:11:04] Without any real marketing behind it, the book was becoming a sensation. It was simply so good that kids told other kids, parents told other parents, and everyone wanted to read it.

[00:11:17] If you are my sort of age, perhaps you can relate to this. I was just 10 years old when the first book came out, and I can remember being completely captivated by it and everyone talking about it.

[00:11:32] Of course, I knew nothing about the woman behind the book and the struggles that she had gone through to publish it, but when you know about JK Rowling, a lot more of the Harry Potter books start to make sense.

[00:11:46] For example, King’s Cross Station plays an important role in the books, as that’s where the train leaves from to go to Hogwarts. It is a real train station in London, and it was the place where Rowling first had the idea for the books, and it was also the place where her parents first met.

[00:12:06] Rowling had a deeply loving relationship with her mother. She never told her mother about Harry Potter, and has publicly spoken about how much she regretted not doing this, and how much she wished she had more time with her mother before she died. 

[00:12:24] If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember that this sense of loss is something that Harry feels throughout, and he has frequent dreams and visions about his dead parents.

[00:12:37] And Rowling had a deeply troubled relationship with her father. From a young age, Rowling always felt that she had disappointed him, first by being a daughter, not a son, and it seemed that nothing she could do would get his approval or make him happy. 

[00:12:56] Furthermore, her father remarried soon after his wife’s death, to his secretary no less, which Rowling found distressing, and she cut out her father completely from her life. 

[00:13:09] Again, if you remember the story of Harry Potter, there is the constant theme of a search for a father figure, of someone who will fill the gap left in Harry’s life after the death of his own father. 

[00:13:23] And especially compared to other children’s fiction the Harry Potter stories are dark and bleak. People die. There is danger throughout. A lot of it just isn’t very happy.

[00:13:36] When you know what JK Rowling went through as she was writing the stories, from the abusive relationship with her first husband through to the prolonged multiple sclerosis and death of her adored mother, then struggling to make ends meet with a young daughter, well it seems perfectly understandable that there is a lot of darkness.

[00:13:58] Indeed, she once spoke about the deep depression that she felt when she was in Edinburgh writing the first book, describing it as being “characterised by a numbness, a coldness and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the colour drained out of life”. 

[00:14:17] Now, if you remember the Dementors from the Harry Potter books, the nasty creatures that first appear in the third book, they are described as “infesting the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them”.

[00:14:39] Fortunately for Rowling, the books were to prove to be her escape.

[00:14:44] After the rip-roaring success of the first book, there was a bidding war for the publishing rights to take it to the United States. A publishing house called Scholastic paid $105,000 dollars for the rights to the first book, and it was a phenomenal success.

[00:15:02] JK Rowling had become a celebrity author, and the book series would go on to sell over half a billion copies worldwide and turn its author into the best-selling and subsequently wealthiest author in history.

[00:15:19] It has been translated into over 80 languages, including everything from Scots to Tibetan, and has been read and loved by hundreds of millions of children all over the world.

[00:15:32] Although there are plenty of criticisms that have been levelled against JK Rowling over the years, too many for us even to go into now, it is undeniable that there are few people who have brought magic and joy to as many people as JK Rowling. 

[00:15:49] She had to overcome some serious obstacles to get to where she wanted to go, but in the end she got there, and created Harry Potter, the boy with a scar on his forehead, a creation that would change the world forever.

[00:16:05] OK then, that is it for this look at JK Rowling and the battle to publish Harry Potter.

[00:16:13] In our next members-only episode we are actually going to explore this subject a little bit further, and look at how Harry Potter changed the cultural landscape, with everything from its effect on children’s literature through to its effect on fan culture and Britain’s soft power. 

[00:16:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:16:35] Are you a Harry Potter fan? What did the Harry Potter books mean to you, growing up? Or what did they mean to your kids?

[00:16:43] Did you know about the struggles of JK Rowling, and how does knowing about them affect your relationship with the books, if at all?

[00:16:51] I would love to know.

[00:16:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:01] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter.

[00:00:30] It’s a story of magic and mystery, misery and hope, a story of loss, of perseverance, and ultimately, how fairytale endings aren’t always what you might think.

[00:00:43] And I’m not talking about the Harry Potter books, but rather the story of what it took to publish these books, the story of the creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling.

[00:00:55] OK then, JK Rowling & The Battle To Publish Harry Potter

[00:01:02] On June the 26th of 1997, if you were to walk into a bookshop in the UK and head to the children’s section, if you looked carefully you might see a book with a dark red cover. 

[00:01:18] There was a drawing on the front of a train with the words “Hogwarts Express”, and a confused looking boy with large round glasses and floppy hair.

[00:01:31] The title of the book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

[00:01:37] Although you wouldn’t have known it, this book would go on to change the world and turn its writer, JK Rowling, into the best selling author in history.

[00:01:49] The journey getting there, however, was far from simple.

[00:01:55] Joanne Rowling, or JK as she is known in the books, was born on July 31st of 1965, the same day of the year as her most famous creation, Harry Potter.

[00:02:10] She was the first born child, and her parents were far from happy that they had had a daughter. They had hoped for a son, and proceeded to treat young Joanne like a young boy, dressing her up in boy’s clothes and keeping her hair short, even after the birth of her younger sister.

[00:02:30] She grew up in a village in south west England, she lived a middle class life, not completely unlike Harry’s. 

[00:02:39] From an early age she was obsessed with books, and had even written her first short story when she was six years old.

[00:02:49] Tragedy struck the young Joanne when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a devastating disease of the spinal cord and nervous system. Joanne was only 15 years old.

[00:03:03] Like many teenagers, she sought escapism in everything from fantasy to music, but was by no means a badly behaved teenager - indeed, she was head girl at her school, and went on to study French & Classics at Exeter University, a prestigious university on the south west coast of England.

[00:03:27] After graduating, as she spoke French, she used her language skills to pick up a job as a bilingual secretary, but her true passion, her real dream, was to become an author.

[00:03:41] She had written some stories, but by her own admission, they weren’t very good.

[00:03:47] It was to be in the summer of 1990, on a delayed train from King’s Cross Station in London to Manchester that she was hit by a flash of light, a flash of inspiration, for the story that would change her life forever.

[00:04:04] All of a sudden this vision came to her in incredible detail about this boy and the magical world he lives in. Now, if you’ve read Harry Potter or seen the films, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But even if you haven’t, you probably have some kind of idea.

[00:04:23] Rowling started developing this idea of Harry and the world he lived in, imagining his friends, teachers, enemies, the magical spells, everything that would later become part of the books.

[00:04:38] The only problem was that Rowling had brought nothing with her on the train - not a pen, nor a piece of paper to write with. Once she returned to her flat in Clapham Junction in London, where she was living at the time, she began writing everything down as quickly as she could, a process which would continue pretty much for the next 17 years.

[00:05:02] During all this time, however, her mother’s condition was getting worse and she died at the end of 1990. Rowling had never told her mother about what she was working on.

[00:05:15] Filled with grief and at a loss for what to do, she moved to Porto, in Portugal, and took a job as an English teacher. Now, an English teacher is of course an incredibly valuable profession, and no doubt Rowling was able to help people improve their English. 

[00:05:33] But it wasn’t her calling, it wasn’t what she felt she was destined to do. All the time, she had this burning idea for Harry building inside her.

[00:05:45] On a personal level, she met and married a Portuguese journalist, and they had a child together, Jessica. But it was not a happy marriage. Her husband was abusive, and the relationship ended with Rowling fleeing back to the UK with her infant daughter in tow.

[00:06:05] She moved to Scotland, to Edinburgh, to be precise, where her younger sister was living.

[00:06:11] Picture this situation for a minute. Joanne Rowling is 28 years old with a small child, she has no job and no income, and is reliant on social support. Yet deep inside her she knows that she has this magical story that the world needs to hear.

[00:06:30] By this time she had already written most of the first Harry Potter book, and indeed she had also written the last chapter of the very last book of the series as a way to inspire her to not give up hope, that she had this huge task that needed to be done.

[00:06:48] Now, as anyone who has had a young baby knows, finding some quiet time alone to do anything is pretty tough, so Rowling would push her daughter around in her pram until she fell asleep, then she would go to a café to continue working on Harry Potter.

[00:07:07] By 1995 the first book was complete. 

[00:07:12] It was unlike other children’s literature at the time, as it was filled with dark, complicated material. 

[00:07:20] Harry is an orphan, his parents are dead. He is different, he has near misses with death. There are people who betray him, his friends even. There is a huge amount of detail in the books, from the names and recipes for magic spells through to prices of goods in shops. 

[00:07:40] It’s also pretty long, at 223 pages.

[00:07:46] So, when Rowling tried to send it out to publishers, as you may well know, it was not immediately snapped up, it wasn’t an immediate hit.

[00:07:56] In fact, the first 12 publishers she sent it to rejected it. 

[00:08:01] It was too long, it was full of too much detail, it was too dark for children, it was set in a boarding school, which is a type of school that only a tiny proportion of children go to.

[00:08:14] The publishers, who were of course adults, and not the target reader, simply didn’t understand.

[00:08:22] One publishing house, however, did.

[00:08:25] It was called Bloomsbury. But had it not been for the daughter of one of the publishers, a man called Nigel Newton, perhaps Bloomsbury too would have rejected the book.

[00:08:37] Rowling’s agent, a man named Christopher Little, had taken a sample of the book to Bloomsbury’s offices. The head of Bloomsbury Publishing, Nigel Newton, didn’t read the sample, instead taking it home and giving it to his 8-year-old daughter, Alice.

[00:08:56] Alice, so the story goes, took the book upstairs, and returned an hour later saying “Dad, this is so much better than anything else.”

[00:09:07] Newton agreed to publish it, and paid Rowling a £2,500 advance. £2,500 is about €5,000 in today’s money. 

[00:09:20] Not so bad, perhaps, but a tiny amount compared to how much work had gone into it and certainly tiny compared to how much of an impact the books would have.

[00:09:31] It was enough to pay for rent and nappies for a few months, but certainly not enough to provide a large financial cushion for Rowling.

[00:09:41] Indeed, one of the publishers from Bloomsbury, a man named Barry Cunningham, later said in an interview that he was worried about Rowling’s ability to continue to support herself, as she was a young mother without a job, living on benefits. 

[00:09:57] He told her she would never make any money from publishing children’s books, and even encouraged her to get a day job.

[00:10:05] It might seem ridiculous now, but at the time it was very rare for children’s authors to make enough money to support themselves. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case with Joanne Rowling.

[00:10:18] As you will know, the book wasn’t published under the name Joanne Rowling, as the publishers thought young boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a female author. So, Joanne chose the gender-neutral initials, JK, with K coming from her paternal grandmother’s name, Kathleen.

[00:10:40] When the book was eventually published, in June of 1997, there was no great fanfare, no great celebration across the country. It was a children’s book like any other children’s book.

[00:10:53] But sure enough, as kids across the country began to pick it up and news began to spread, more and more copies were sold every week. 

[00:11:04] Without any real marketing behind it, the book was becoming a sensation. It was simply so good that kids told other kids, parents told other parents, and everyone wanted to read it.

[00:11:17] If you are my sort of age, perhaps you can relate to this. I was just 10 years old when the first book came out, and I can remember being completely captivated by it and everyone talking about it.

[00:11:32] Of course, I knew nothing about the woman behind the book and the struggles that she had gone through to publish it, but when you know about JK Rowling, a lot more of the Harry Potter books start to make sense.

[00:11:46] For example, King’s Cross Station plays an important role in the books, as that’s where the train leaves from to go to Hogwarts. It is a real train station in London, and it was the place where Rowling first had the idea for the books, and it was also the place where her parents first met.

[00:12:06] Rowling had a deeply loving relationship with her mother. She never told her mother about Harry Potter, and has publicly spoken about how much she regretted not doing this, and how much she wished she had more time with her mother before she died. 

[00:12:24] If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember that this sense of loss is something that Harry feels throughout, and he has frequent dreams and visions about his dead parents.

[00:12:37] And Rowling had a deeply troubled relationship with her father. From a young age, Rowling always felt that she had disappointed him, first by being a daughter, not a son, and it seemed that nothing she could do would get his approval or make him happy. 

[00:12:56] Furthermore, her father remarried soon after his wife’s death, to his secretary no less, which Rowling found distressing, and she cut out her father completely from her life. 

[00:13:09] Again, if you remember the story of Harry Potter, there is the constant theme of a search for a father figure, of someone who will fill the gap left in Harry’s life after the death of his own father. 

[00:13:23] And especially compared to other children’s fiction the Harry Potter stories are dark and bleak. People die. There is danger throughout. A lot of it just isn’t very happy.

[00:13:36] When you know what JK Rowling went through as she was writing the stories, from the abusive relationship with her first husband through to the prolonged multiple sclerosis and death of her adored mother, then struggling to make ends meet with a young daughter, well it seems perfectly understandable that there is a lot of darkness.

[00:13:58] Indeed, she once spoke about the deep depression that she felt when she was in Edinburgh writing the first book, describing it as being “characterised by a numbness, a coldness and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the colour drained out of life”. 

[00:14:17] Now, if you remember the Dementors from the Harry Potter books, the nasty creatures that first appear in the third book, they are described as “infesting the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them”.

[00:14:39] Fortunately for Rowling, the books were to prove to be her escape.

[00:14:44] After the rip-roaring success of the first book, there was a bidding war for the publishing rights to take it to the United States. A publishing house called Scholastic paid $105,000 dollars for the rights to the first book, and it was a phenomenal success.

[00:15:02] JK Rowling had become a celebrity author, and the book series would go on to sell over half a billion copies worldwide and turn its author into the best-selling and subsequently wealthiest author in history.

[00:15:19] It has been translated into over 80 languages, including everything from Scots to Tibetan, and has been read and loved by hundreds of millions of children all over the world.

[00:15:32] Although there are plenty of criticisms that have been levelled against JK Rowling over the years, too many for us even to go into now, it is undeniable that there are few people who have brought magic and joy to as many people as JK Rowling. 

[00:15:49] She had to overcome some serious obstacles to get to where she wanted to go, but in the end she got there, and created Harry Potter, the boy with a scar on his forehead, a creation that would change the world forever.

[00:16:05] OK then, that is it for this look at JK Rowling and the battle to publish Harry Potter.

[00:16:13] In our next members-only episode we are actually going to explore this subject a little bit further, and look at how Harry Potter changed the cultural landscape, with everything from its effect on children’s literature through to its effect on fan culture and Britain’s soft power. 

[00:16:31] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:16:35] Are you a Harry Potter fan? What did the Harry Potter books mean to you, growing up? Or what did they mean to your kids?

[00:16:43] Did you know about the struggles of JK Rowling, and how does knowing about them affect your relationship with the books, if at all?

[00:16:51] I would love to know.

[00:16:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:17:01] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:17:06] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]