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Explaining Harry Potter's Lasting Magic

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" book cover.
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As the Harry Potter series wraps up this summer, we can look back at two remarkable narratives: Potter the boy wizard and Potter the cultural phenomenon.

Potter the wizard's fate will be known July 21 with the release of "Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows," Book 7 of J.K. Rowling's fantasy epic. Worldwide sales of the first six books already top 325 million copies and the first printing for "Deathly Hallows" is 12 million in the United States alone.

Potter the phenomenon doesn't compare for suspense, but like the wizard's tale, it is unique and extraordinary and well placed in tradition. Like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," it is the story of how a work of popular art becomes a world of its own — imitated, merchandised and analyzed, immortalized not by the marketers, but by the fans.

"Every phenomenon is a kind of myth unto itself, a myth about how a phenomenon becomes a phenomenon. The story of how the public embraced Potter only gives more momentum to Potter in our culture," says Neal Gabler, an author and cultural critic whose books include "Walt Disney" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

True phenomena are never planned. Not "Star Trek," a series canceled after three seasons by NBC; or "Star Wars," rejected throughout Hollywood before taken on by 20th Century Fox, which didn't bother pushing for merchandising or sequel rights. The public knew better — the young people who screamed for the Beatles or watched "Star Wars" dozens of times or carried on for years about "Star Trek" after its cancellation.

In the beginning, "Harry Potter" simply needed a home. Several British publishers turned down Rowling, believing her manuscript too long and/or too slow, before the Bloomsbury Press signed her up in 1996, for $4,000 and a warning not to expect to get rich from writing children's books. An American publisher had bigger ideas: Scholastic editor Arthur A. Levine acquired U.S. rights for $105,000.

"I can vividly remember reading the manuscript and thinking, 'This reminds me of Roald Dahl,' an author of such skill, an author with a unique ability to be funny and cutting and exciting at the same time," Levine says.

"But I could not possibly have had the expectation we would be printing 12 million copies for one book ('Deathly Hallows'). That's beyond anyone's experience. I would have had to be literally insane."

2For the media, the biggest news at first was Rowling herself: an unemployed, single English mother who gets the idea for a fantasy series while stuck on a train between Manchester and London, finishes the manuscript in the cafes of Edinburgh, Scotland, and finds herself compared, in more than one publication, to Dahl.

"In fact, if there is a downside to Rowling's story it is the distinct danger she will be called 'The New Roald Dahl,' which would be an albatross around her slender shoulders," the Glasgow-based The Herald warned in June 1997 with publication of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," the first Potter book.

"Philosopher's Stone" was released in England during business hours with a tiny first printing. Bloomsbury suggested that Rowling use initials instead of her real name, Joanne, out of fear that boys wouldn't read a book by a woman.

The book quickly became a commercial and critical favorite and just kept selling. In July 1998, the Guardian in London noted that Rowling was more popular than John Grisham and declared "The Harry Potter books have become a phenomenon." At the time, "Philosopher's Stone" had sold 70,000 copies.

The first book came out in the United States in September 1998, renamed "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" for young Americans and promoted by "Meet Harry Potter" buttons. Potter was first mentioned by The Associated Press that November, when Rowling was interviewed in New York during a five-city U.S. tour. Potter appeared a month later in The New York Times, cited well down in a roundup of holiday favorites.

"When the Potter books first came out, we didn't know they would sell millions of copies, but we all read them and loved them and we thought they were the kinds of books that would really grab a child. We hand-sold the heck out of them, the same way we would with any book that was so well written," says Beth Puffer, manager of the Bank Street Bookstore in New York City.