On June 26, 1997 a new phenomenon was born when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in London. The children’s book was instantly praised, and in 1998 it was published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As we now know, the Harry Potter series became one of the most successful children’s book series in history – producing seven books and millions of young readers – and the top grossing film series of all time.
In 1993, Joanne “Jo” Rowling was a newly single mom who was unemployed and living on welfare in Scotland. Her daughter was just an infant, and while she was napping Rowling would take her to cafes to write on scraps of paper and napkins. In these two hour writing sessions Rowling developed the character Harry Potter and the magical world that he lives in. She first thought of the character in 1990 when she worked as a teacher and was stuck on a train between Manchester and London.
Considering the overwhelming success of the series, it seems that Rowling would have had no trouble getting her book published. However, finding a publisher for her work was not an easy feat. She approached 12 publishers before lucky number 13, Bloomsbury Publishing in London, accepted her novel.
Like a number of well-known and respected female writers, Rowling used a male-sounding pen name to publish her books under. Bloomsbury Publishing famously encouraged her to use initials rather than her full name in order to appeal to a broader audience and be taken more seriously as a writer, since she was a woman writing about a male character. Rowling used her first initial and, though she has no middle name, chose the letter “K” for Kathleen – becoming J.K. Rowling.
Implications of gender inequality aside, Rowling became widely recognized as an excellent children’s writer. Less than seven years later, her net worth was estimated at £280 million. In 2003, she was the 122nd richest person in the United Kingdom – 11 places higher than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and her wealth has only grown in the last decade. In April of this year, Rowling was estimated to be worth $1 billion (J.K. Rowling is also a quite charitable woman, believing “you have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”)
The size of the Harry Potter empire Rowling created has impacted not only her own life, but created a large ripple effect in the entertainment industry. Bloomsbury Publishing’s revenue grew seven fold in the 8 years following the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Scholastic, which publishes the series in the United States, sold more than 400 million copies of the books worldwide.
The Harry Potter films are a whole different ball game. The films created thousands of jobs over the years, and the increased presence of the series generated Harry Potter merchandise sales in the hundreds of millions, and in 2012 it was estimated that the Harry Potter brand was worth $15 billion. All told, the Harry Potter series was a magical phenomenon that began when a brilliant woman was stuck on a train.