A Canadian book blog: Publishing, marketing, books and technology from a Canadian perspective

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Chronicling My Journey with Harry Potter


July 1998

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

This was the opening paragraph of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which I read in the morning on my way to my internship with Raincoast Books in 1998.


I was immediately hooked by the language. I love first paragraphs of novels and here, right off the bat, JK Rowling had set the stage for the most magical of books by honing in on the lack-luster imagination of this suburban middle class couple.

By the time I arrived at Raincoast (a 40 minute bus ride later), I was incapable of working. I basically told my boss that I couldn’t do any work that day because Harry Potter was trapped in the dungeon with Fluffy, the giant three-headed dog, and I needed to see how it was all going to work out.

Harry Potter was actually on the third floor of Hogwarts, but I didn’t think anyone would understand what I was talking about. They knew Harry Potter, dungeon, wizard, and that was enough.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been published in the UK the previous year (June 30, 1997).

My interest was peaked because JK Rowling had received a $100,000 advance from Scholastic to publish the books in the US, and that was a big news story at the time.

Raincoast Books, as the distributor of Bloomsbury UK, discovered that they actually had the rights to publish the Harry Potter books in Canada. (There was initially some confusion about who had the rights and Alan Macdougall, president of Raincoast, had met with Christopher Little (Jo’s agent) at Frankfurt, and they’d sorted out the deal. Raincoast, not Scholastic, had the rights in Canada. And off we went!)

So I was initially lured into reading the book because of the publicity about its author, and also because Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was set to be published in July 1998.

As my internship was coming to an end, I was working in the catalogue department at Raincoast Books. For those of you not in book publishing, publishers create a catalogue of all the books they are publishing that season. There’s a cover image of the book, a descriptive blurb, and author bio and sometimes a couple of interior shots for picture books or photography books.

Those catalogues are printed and given to sales reps who then visit booksellers and, using the catalogue, pitch the titles to the booksellers, who then determine what books will be stocked on the shelves and promoted.

My job was to find something interesting to say about the Harry Potter books because we were putting both in the catalogue and needed to give them a little push. In particular, we knew that there were 7 books in the series and series sales tended to wane as the series progressed. We wanted to see what kind of audience we could build from the beginning, assuming it was going to dwindle with each book.

(Raincoast.com 1998 website copy)

I know it’s hard to imagine a time when Harry Potter wasn’t popular, but JK Rowling attended some deplorable book readings in bookstore basements next to the toilets where trapped book browsers were compelled to listen because they happened to be nearby when she started reading to the handful of guests who’d shown up.

That was another lifetime ago.

And tonight, quite possibly 13 years later to the date of my first Harry Potter encounter, I am attending the midnight showing for the last Harry Potter film.

“I am dead excited” as the British fans like to say. And although I’m a little sad to see this part of the franchise come to an end, I am really looking forward to Pottermore and the adventures that lie ahead.

Cheers to Harry Potter, JK Rowling and the friends that I have met along the way!

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