An oral history of The Harry Potter at 25: ‘There was practically a riot at King’s Cross.’

“Every child on our planet will know their name. He’ll be famous. A legend Professor McGonagall makes this prediction in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The most significant success in children’s publishing history, Harry Potter, broke sales records right away, making its creator, J.K. Rowling, one of the most well-known authors in the world. However, no one had heard of her boy wizard on June 26, 1997, when the first book in the series was published, despite being infamously rejected by 12 publishers. A group of children’s literature fans worked behind the scenes to make this fantastical tale come to life.

The manuscript

Head of children’s publishing at Bloomsbury and current publisher of Chicken House, Barry Cunningham: I received a call from literary agent Christopher Little one day asking if I would read a terrific book he had. I could tell from the manuscript that I wasn’t the first to see it, even if he didn’t tell me that everyone else had rejected it. That evening, I read it at home. “Did I see it immediately?” is the most frequently asked question. I can’t say I did, but I knew kids would adore it.

I brought the manuscript home, but I didn’t read it myself, according to Nigel Newton, founder, and CEO of Bloomsbury. My eight-year-old daughter Alice received it from me. An hour later, she made an oddly trance-like appearance. The excitement in this book made her feel warm within; she added a tiny remark. It might be among the best readers a child of eight or nine could read.

Children’s marketing director at Bloomsbury and current owner of The Mainstreet Trading Company in St. Boswells, Rosamund de la Hey: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the first manuscript I was given when I started my career at age 25. Read this; Barry said as he gave it to the recipient. It seems a little unique to me. I was utterly stunned after reading it the previous night. I returned to the office feeling a little crazy. I rolled the first three chapters into a scroll, stuffed a tonne of Smarties inside, and tied a purple ribbon around it before the editorial meeting. The Hogwarts school environment inspired the scroll, and the Smarties said, “I hope it will win the Smarties prize [for children’s novels].” Only two years into its existence, the children’s list had not been particularly successful. We were aware of the odds against us.

The acquisition

Newton: The editing meeting vibrated excitedly the day I presided over it. There wasn’t much of a kids’ team. 4 individuals. On the fifth level, they all sat in a single room on beanbags. When Barry requested permission to purchase the rights, I reportedly said, “Alice loved it – approved!” Everyone else shared the same sentiment. He then made an offer for Commonwealth and UK rights. He declined to request US rights at the time because no US company existed. That was a lesson I learned, and a year later, I founded Bloomsbury USA.

Cunningham: We only had a 10-minute conversation when I called Christopher the following day. It increased from £2,000 to £2,500, perhaps Bloomsbury’s best investment ever made. I could not get American rights; I could only purchase UK and Commonwealth rights.

By De la Hey We all fell in love with it, so Barry returned very quickly. I am aware that numerous publishers held onto it for a very long period. HarperCollins heard about it since they promptly responded with an offer. Get stuffed; I’ll go with the one who returned so fast and has the zeal, Jo [JK Rowling, who is not participating in the anniversary publicity], very loyally stated.

Before being published: Cunningham: Jo came to London, and Christopher Little joined us for lunch in a quaint Soho eatery. She said: “How do you feel about sequels?” “Well, let’s just get started with this first one,” I said. She then proceeded to tell me the plot, outlining every detail that would appear in the subsequent novels.

I considered the title a mouthful, so I decided to modify it. I did eliminate a few chapters. However, Jo claimed that kids enjoy new words, so like all good publishers, I ceded the stage to my writer. All the tales you’ve heard about her are accurate; she was penniless, residing in Edinburgh, and writing in coffee shops. I told her she needed a day job since writing children’s books won’t bring in any money. She still makes fun of me for saying this. A few thousand was a good seller back then.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books editing assistant Janet Hoggarth: Before The Philosopher’s Stone was released, I accepted a position as editor at Scholastic Children’s Books and left Bloomsbury. From a New York auction house, a Scholastic America editor called my boss and inquired about the plot of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The document had been delivered to him, but he hadn’t had time to read it. He couldn’t figure out why bidding was out of control. The auction house requested a quick overview, which I was to write and fax. He should bid at the top of his budget because I promised him it would be more significant than Roald Dahl. The news that Scholastic had paid $105,000 for a children’s book, a price unheard of in children’s publishing, was splashed all over the papers the following day.

By De la Hey, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was sold to Scholastic in the US for $105,000 just before it was published in the UK, which was a staggering sum of money at the time. The article suddenly appeared on page three of the Telegraph instead of pleading for the tiny amount of review space that children’s books are ever given. That changed everything.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’s initial book jacket, illustrated by Thomas Taylor. After graduating from art school, I began working at a children’s bookshop in Norwich when I received a call from Barry Cunningham. He requested a book cover since he thought my designs were good. My age was 22 or 23. Barry showed me this book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by an author I had never heard of when I went to the Bloomsbury headquarters in London. He gave me the book and a stack of incomplete papers with missing chapters and notes written in the margins. I thoroughly loved reading it on the train ride home.

The final sentence of the previous book, which would later become Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, was written by Jo from the beginning. She was going to finish seven books since that was the only number that would work in her mind. The story’s plot was a significant topic of discussion when we first started talking. At one point, I wanted to get rid of the giants, but she insisted on keeping them because book seven would require them.

Reviewer of children’s books and executive director of the Scottish Book Trust, Lindsey Fraser: Many excellent books were available at the time, but life was a little grim and gory. Ah, this is a breath of new air, I recall thinking when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The initial review was just about 80 words long and was written for the Scotsman as part of a roundup. At the time, we were fortunate to have room for evaluations of children’s books. Thankfully, I enjoyed it. It said something along the lines of: “This has all the makings of a future masterpiece.” We are grateful.

By De la Hey, The evaluations were outstanding. I bet Nigel that we would sell 20,000 copies by Christmas after the Smarties prize shortlists in October, and he laughed me out of town. A case of champagne is still on his account.

Taylor: At the front of the store, a table was covered with ten copies of the first hardback editions. Thoughts of buying one kept crossing my mind, but I decided to hold out for the signed one they would send me. I realized this book took off about six months after its publication. Do you recognize this person? My coworkers would repeatedly ask clients. He drew the cover image. Why would I be standing behind the register, they didn’t think. It was incredibly unpleasant and awkward. Of course, I didn’t purchase any of those ten books, so I never owned the first edition.

Currently serving as director of the Hay Children’s Festival and author of A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels, Julia Eccleshare was the Guardian’s children’s books editor. When JK Rowling won the Smarties book award for the first time in 1997, I served as its chair. The judges chose three books and then presented them to a sizable group of kids nationwide. Malorie Blackman, the author judge for that year, declared Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the finest novel. As soon as we received the results of the children’s voting, we were blown away by their enthusiasm for this book.

By De la Hey When I returned from the party, I scattered Smarties all over the office. Following the victory, Konnie Huq was invited to speak on Blue Peter, and because it was broadcast on television, Rowling’s gender was made known. All fan letter before that was addressed to “Dear Sir.” all of them. “Joanne Rowling” is written on the initial book cover proof. I recall saying, “This book is unisex. We don’t want to put off boys,” before it was published. I was also aware that another famous woman with a long name was the children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. Emma called Jo and inquired about the use of initials. “OK, OK, you know best,” Jo said. “So, what’s your initial?” Emma inquired. Jo promptly responded, “K”; she just adopted her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, as she doesn’t have a middle name.

Hoggarth: It was my responsibility to review the final proofs before they were delivered to the printer, and as usual, this was done in a panicked rush against the clock. I had accidentally listed the word “wand” twice on the back cover and page 53 of the Hogwarts equipment list, but it was too late. Because of my error, the first edition copies are now worth thousands!

Newton: We printed 500 hardcover books and 5,150 paperback books. It may seem insignificant, but it’s not. A first edition has never been mine. On the way to a family vacation in France, I read the typescript of the upcoming book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and I threw it in the trash on the ferry as I finished each chapter.

The things: Matthewson: I first met Jo when I traveled to Edinburgh for one of her inaugural events. I’m nervous; she muttered as she turned to face me. I feel very anxious. You climbed a mysterious staircase in a rear room of a bar.

By De la Hey The second book in the Chamber of Secrets series’ paperback release was the first to take place at London’s King’s Cross station in 1998. I had gotten in touch with several possible Dumbledores through an acting agency. The perpetrator, Jeffery Dench, was revealed to be Judi Dench’s brother.

Newton: I adapted the concept of a timed-release from film studios for the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, published in 1999. Because we had to be worldwide, I altered it to midnight for the latter volumes. We decided to stop kids from skipping school at 3.45 p.m. The Daily Telegraph featured a picture of a line of kids outside Richmond’s Lion & Unicorn Bookshop on its first page.

Tony West, former assistant manager of Richmond’s The Alligator’s Mouth bookstore and current manager of The Lion & Unicorn bookstore: The first children’s book to be embargoed must have been Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I wore striped pants while looking like Dumbledore because we were all suited up for the launch. It was all hands on deck because there was only one till in the store. We brought bowls of goodies to keep the masses occupied while they waited. The midnight releases for book four brought a long line that snaked down the alley and toward the green. Everyone in the crowd had dressed up as witches and wizards because it was a special event for the entire family, including kids and teenagers. I’ve been selling books for almost 30 years and have never seen anything like that.

Newton: For the 2000 release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we assembled an entire Edwardian train that departed from King’s Cross and chartered the dining car where the Armistice pact had been signed.

De la Hey: We needed special clearance to paint the train scarlet and create the placards. On the King’s Cross-platform, there was essentially a riot. Someone stowed away in the cold storage while parents were misbehaving and attempting to get closer. Five hundred students were present at each location over the four or five-day epic tour, which featured two events. We have trailed down sidings the higher up the country we went because we were unaware of the big online train-spotting community. We abruptly stopped because we were out of coal somewhere between Newcastle and Edinburgh, and a crowd started to assemble.

Cunningham: Quitting Bloomsbury was similar to leaving the Beatles, but I’m pleased I did it because if I hadn’t, I would have spent my entire life gushing over Harry Potter. I continue to feel humbled by my contribution to this phenomenon, which has meant a great deal to kids worldwide. In Britain, these novels are seen as remarkable, enjoyable, and comforting, but in other nations, they also teach lessons about defying authority figures, being yourself, and not being afraid. Harry and his buddies must stand by their convictions. Whether or not it is called magic, every youngster should believe they possess something unique. The legacy of Harry Potter is extensive and enduring.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books is the publisher of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: The 25th Anniversary Edition.

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