Dumbledore. Hogwarts. Hermione. Hagrid. Voldemort. Muggles. Quidditch. Patronus. Gryffindor. Horcrux. None of those words were in anybody’s vocabulary back before June 1997, except one.
J.K. Rowling’s head had been full of the wizarding world of Harry Potter et al. for six years when she finally persuaded (after a dozen rejections) a publisher to roll the dice on her book. It was a small gamble: The Bloomsbury Publishing first print run was only 500 hardback copies, and two-thirds of those went to libraries.
That English first edition bore the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Executives at Scholastic Corp., which bought the American rights for publication, worried that younger readers on this side of the pond might confuse the title with philosophy, so they substituted “Sorcerer’s Stone.”
The title edit seems like a heresy now, in hindsight, especially since the book explicitly mentions French alchemist Nicolas Flamel, and the Philosopher’s Stone is a legend dating back at least 1,600 years.
But at the time the book was still relatively unknown, though proven popular in England, so license was lamentably taken. No one dreamed or predicted the ensuing phenomena.
It’s rare for a single author to literally change the world, especially one as unpresuming as Joanne Rowling. (The J.K. nom de plume was another change, courtesy of the publishing industry; her Bloomsbury agent thought a feminine name might stunt sales among male readers. Joanne actually has no middle name or initial.)
Indeed, the literary feat of the Harry Potter book series is nothing short of magical.
In Wikipedia’s list of best-selling books, which excludes those of a religious, ideological, philosophical or political nature, fewer than 10 individual volumes have sold 100 million copies or more in the annals of publishing. Every author on the list has been dead for decades, some for centuries, except one.
In the book series category, the Potter septuple set dwarfs other well-known and hugely successful competitors such as Twilight, Nancy Drew and The Chronicles of Narnia.
Collectively, Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. That’s 12 times the Divergent trilogy sales, and 20 times the Hunger Games series.
Even though it’s been eight years since the final book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) was published, its record of 11 million copies sold in the first day of release is a record of spellbinding proportions. The only rival to come close—within 2 million copies of that number—is the preceding Potter book, that of the Half-Blood Prince.
For perspective, consider the best-selling books from last year. The Girl on the Train sold more than 800,000 copies in 2016, ranking it second.
The script for the new theatrical play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (not a novelization, but the actual character lines in playwright narrative) topped the list, selling more than 4 million.
Book sales alone, while a staggering measure of stupendous accomplishment, are only part of the Harry Potter story of cultural domination.
The first book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for so long that other publishers finally pressured the Times to split its list, and distinguish between adult and children’s fiction–essentially giving the Potter book its own category.
Hollywood couldn’t resist tapping into the frenzy either, and the eight-film franchise (the Deathly Hallows novel was covered in two movies) proved as astronomically successful as the books.
Rowling had a heavy hand in their production, reserving script-approval rights and insisting on an all-U.K. cast, for example, and the results reflect favorably on her instincts. Film versions of fabulous novels often fall short; Harry Potter movies not only measured up, they raised the roof.
All of the Harry Potter motion pictures are included in the Top 50 grossing movies of all time. The last one, Deathly Hallows Part 2, earned $1.3 billion worldwide, and the total film series grossed more than $7 billion.
“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme parks are rumored to be on par with the enchanting nature of the books and movies. Merchandise sales add billions more to the revenue stream that can be traced all the way back to a single mom’s first fantasy manuscript—which 12 publishers all now greatly regret passing on.
I’m fortunate that the first two decades of the Potterverse coordinated with my own children’s coming of age.
I remember well my introduction to Rowling’s world, as a beach read that, much to my own surprise, I simply couldn’t put down. The summer releases of subsequent volumes often coincided with our family vacations, and we’d be up until the wee hours poring over the next installment.
More than once we attended a midnight viewing of the newest movie release, and though I was never in character costume for the event, I was accompanied by several who were.
The original Harry Potter generation is now old enough to start having children of their own. More than 4,000 pages of J.K. Rowling prose, and all the Hogwarts students’ adventures, patiently await them.