On July 31, 1965, at the Yate General Hospital in South Gloucestershire, Anne Rowling née Volant and Peter John Rowling welcomed their firstborn Joanne Rowling into the world. There was nothing particularly unusual about the circumstances. No crow crowed thrice. No comet whizzed by. The baby didn’t have any freaky birthmarks, lightning-shaped or otherwise.
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The biographical details give little indication that Joanne Rowling aka J.K. Rowling would go on to have one of the most extraordinary careers in modern publishing. A book-filled childhood in Gloucestershire, loving parents determined to give her the college education they lacked, a younger sister to boss around, and all the privileges of being a citizen of a first-world country. There were shadows too: the premature loss of her mother to multiple sclerosis, a seemingly-useless Classics degree, a short-lived marriage, uncertain employment, and the shabby difficulties of being a single mother in Thatcherite Britain. By the time she finally had a novel — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — to show publishers, she was 30.
As is well known, Rowling’s debut novel was rejected by 13 publishers; this fact has long warmed the chthonic innards of struggling writers. Nigel Newton at Bloomsbury decided to take a chance on the book. Not because he’d read the sample chapter, but because his eight-year-old daughter Alice had. She’d given it her enthusiastic approval. Thus the fate of Rowling’s five years of labour was decided by the thumbs-up of an eight-year-old. The book was published on June 26, 1997 with a print-run of 500 hardcover copies.
Wait, let’s backtrack a bit. “Sample chapter”? Who sent Nigel Newton the sample chapter? Rowling? No. It was sent by Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little. She’d managed to secure an agent. Most authors never even get to that point in their careers, so Rowling was already well ahead of the vast number of other unknowns.
It’s also not uncommon for a promising debut novel to be rejected multiple times. Booker-winner Marlon James’ debut novel John Crow’s Devil was rejected 78 times. Lisa Genova’s global bestseller Still Alice was rejected over a hundred times. The all-time champ is Dick Wimmer, whose Irish Wine was rejected 162 times. In the book industry, 13 rejections practically amountto a red-carpet welcome.
Point is, Rowling seemed all set for a fairly successful career as an author. Maybe shortlisted for a book prize or two down the road; treading the litfest-circuit holding forth on topics such as Palestinian Children’s Literature; and eking out a living from anaemic royalties, articles on celebrity authors, and creative-writing workshops.
What followed however was something completely unexpected. Not only was Rowling’s debut novel a smash success, but so were all the subsequent volumes in the series. So far, more than 500 million copies of the series have been sold.
Contemplate this number for a moment: 500 million copies. It is a number large enough to have made her the world’s first author to become a billionaire. How about this statistic? A standard pine tree produces about 10,000 sheets of paper. Using this fact, the website saveonenergy.com calculated that Rowling’s seven-volume series, a total of 4,224 pages, has so far sent more than 23.5 million trees to their next lives. Or this: Rowling has outsold the next nine bestselling-authors combined .
What can explain the series’ appeal? This is where it gets tricky. It is like asking what makes a person tall. Attributes like ‘height’ depend on too many factors. Ditto for ‘book appeal’. Richard Caves, an economist who studied creative industries, refers to this as the “Nobody Knows” principle. The term references screenwriter William Goldman’s famous comment in his memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade : “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess — and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” This is also true of the book industry. Nobody knows what made Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller. Perhaps the next big thing will be Jane Austen, Vampire Hunter . Nobody knows.
This hasn’t stopped otherwise sensible people from offering definitive answers. In a gloomy and bilious essay for The New York Times , A.S. Byatt, herself no stranger to success, and perhaps of the view that she deserves it, suggested that children could be excused for liking the Potter novels — they simply didn’t know better. The real mystery is why adults like these books. The novels, she concluded, were written for “people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” The ghosts of 23.5 million trees must be feeling even more depressed.
Success breeds success
The opposite approach is to see in Rowling’s books every desirable virtue: comfort, comradeship, a thumping good adventure, immersion, escape… And why not? These are the reasons that readers themselves offer when asked why they like Rowling’s series. For example, I like her sense of humour. It’s an important part of the novel’s amiability. But there is good reason to be wary of such reasons. Social psychologists have demonstrated that such reasons follow our preferences and not the other way around. We make up reasons, we are unaware we have made up reasons, and then we double down on the reasons when questioned.
At the same time, success breeds success. For example, Richard Bachman had exactly the same genetic inheritance, writing skills and experiences as Stephen King. Yet Bachman’s debut novel sold only 28,000 copies. What does Stephen King do for the reader that his alter ego Richard Bachman does not?
So is it all just a fluke then? Not quite. It is true that Rowling’s extreme success with the Potter series is both contingent and unexpected. But we can’t thereby conclude that she is irrelevant to that phenomenal success. That is not what ‘random’ means in mathematics. A random number is one that is its own most economical description; there’s no simplifying it further. What ‘random’ means for publishing is that if we wish to replicate Rowling’s particular success, then we’d need to replicate everything else associated with it. And that is impossible to do. You can’t simply duplicate aspects of her work and expect things to play out the same way. Her success is random in the sense that it’s the product of unique and un-substitutable causes. It is, one might say, magical.
However, it is a different magic from the magic in the Potter series. In the series, a magic spell can be cast by any suitably trained person and provided it is done correctly, the spell has a fixed consequence. The person casting the spell and the target object are quite independent of the spell itself. In this sense, the magic spells work like toasters and light switches.
The spell cast by fiction isn’t that kind of magic. Here, it is the author’s words, the reader, the reader’s social context, why, the entirety of the world, that jointly determine whether the spell will work. Our marketing shamans can gaze at the gizzards of numbers all day and see nothing. But an eight-year-old child may, without obvious effort, open possibility’s door.
Perhaps the remarkable thing isn’t that J.K. Rowling was able to cast a spell to create that door, but rather, that she showed such a possibility still exists. Aren’t we told that we now have a shorter attention span than that of a goldfish? That people don’t read any more? That the age of the novel is over? All probably true, and all quite irrelevant. What Rowling has achieved is a sort of existence proof. There is still magic in this world, and the story can still effect its old miracles.
Author of Half Of What I Say , the writer has a collection of short stories forthcoming from Hachette.