In 1996, after many rejections, author JK Rowling at last finds a publisher for her first Harry Potter novel. BBC's Witness talks to editor, Barry Cunningham, who spotted the boy wizard's potential and helped create a phenomenon that would revolutionise childrens' book publishing, selling more than 450 million copies.
Watch the video and answer the questions below.
1 What was the weather like when Barry Cunningham got the manuscript?
2 Which element in the book Bill most liked?
3 Who helped Bill decide to buy the book?
4 How did Rowling react when Bill phoned her?
5 What advice did he give Rowling?
6 How long did they take to realise how big the Harry Potter phenomenon was?
7 What dream did Rowling have after her first book was published in US?
I guess the story started when I got the manuscript (1) one rainy night in Soho and I didn't know of course that it had been turned down by 22 or something other publishers. I took it home and read it at night. People often say, how much do you have to read before you know something is good? Actually, I think you know after two or three chapters. And I was just gripped, I was gripped by Harry's situation.
The thing that I really liked about the story was (2) the friendship. You know, I liked the owls and the boarding school and the magic and Hogwarts but it was the friendship between the children that really, that really moved me.
I gave the manuscript to (3) my daughter, Alice, the night I got it and she couldn't stop reading, so I had to tear it off her the next morning. So well, I think I am going to buy this, what do you think? She says, it’s a good idea.
So I rang up the agent and we haggled for ten minutes on a relatively low amount of money and I bought the first two books and that was that, really. That was the end of perhaps the most significant purchase made in publishing in the last 50 years. I laugh about it now, but, you know, I never would have guessed.
When I first rang her up, like many authors, they don’t believe it's a publisher ringing them. They think it's a joke. So after I convinced her I actually was Barry Cunningham and I actually was ringing from a publisher in London, (4) she was lost for words. I didn't know how long the journey had been, of course. I didn't know how many publishers had turned her down, and agents indeed. So, and then I invited her down to London and she said, yes, yes! I said, do my mind a little bit of a detour? She said, no, no! She said very, very nervously, how do you feel about sequels? And I said, well, you know, I think we’re just going to get the first one out first and then we’ll think about that.
Then she proceeded to tell me the story of all the books and how Harry would actually grow up. That was very kind of revolutionary in those days because mostly sequels would just be the same book set in a different environment. But I was worried, you know. She was a single mum, she had no real income, children's books weren’t the goldmine that they've become now and so I gave her the infamous advice, really, that she would never make any money out of children's books and (5) she should really think about getting a day job as well.
After we published we started absolutely to get the feedback that this was going down very well, that children were recommending it to each other, that it had a very good critical response. But, you know, I don't think we realized, I don’t think Jo realized probably for (6) a year after that that this phenomenon was growing as fast as it did. And that’s when she got a huge number of offers from the United States, and they paid very large amounts of money for the American rights. And I think it is at that point we realized that something was changing in the world of children's books.
There is no question. It is a publishing phenomenon. Some of the people here have been queueing for 18 hours.
If you like, Beatlemania for Potter world began.
I also remember that after the third book was published in the United States she said, she said (7) I had a dream last night, and it was about the first meeting that we had and it never happened, that you never took the book, you never published it. And the whole thing still seems to me like a wonderful dream. And really the story of Harry Potter is like its own story. It is a kind of fairytale.