Fourteen years, seven books and blockbuster films later, the Harry Potter brand, valued at over $15 billion, is still going strong.
Over 400 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide and translated into 67 languages, making Rowling the first billionaire author.
She didn't get there just by writing a few good books.
Looking back on her career, Rowling emerges as an incredibly shrewd businesswoman. Although the eighth and final Harry Potter movie comes out this week, expect her to keep money rolling in for years.
Book editor Arthur Levine took a chance on Rowling with a $105,000 contract
Although she was an unknown author, readers were immediately drawn to J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard.
"I wasn't neglected. I didn't sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. My family loves me," Arthur Levine tells The Washington Post.
Levine is the Scholastic children’s book editor who famously bought the rights to the Harry Potter series for $105,000 after reading the first book.
"That doesn't mean I didn't feel invisible and I didn't feel powerless and I didn't have the fantasy that I would be recognized someday. This is something we all share," says Levine in explaining why he took a chance on Rowling.
"I remember loving the humor, thinking she is so funny," Levine continues, "and thinking that here's a rare range of talents in a writer: somebody who can engage me emotionally and yet who can make me laugh. And whose plot is really driving me forward."
Separate book covers were created to get more adults on board in addition to children
Adults love reading the Harry Potter books, but few want to be seen toting around a child's book.
To make it easier for adults, Bloomsbury Publishing, the British publishing house that first bought the rights to Rowling's books, published a second version of the books with "adult" (i.e., less colorful and more boring) book covers.
Another popular technique was to leave the book covers at home.
Midnight releases, pre-orders and other promotions brought the Harry Potter frenzy to new levels
Starting with the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, crowds of people wearing black robes, ties and round-frame glasses began showing up at bookstores for midnight release parties in 2000.
Customers who feared their local bookstore would run out of copies responded by pre-ordering over 700,000 copies prior to the July 8, 2000 release date, according to Gunelius.
The seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series became the fastest-selling book in history, reports The New York Times, with more than 11 million copies sold during the first 24 hours in three markets alone.
Though at first Warner Bros resisted it, fan blogs propelled “Harry Potter” to greater fame
Some of the first Harry Potter fan sites, such as MuggleNet.com and The Leaky Cauldron.org, were started by young fans as a way to share information about the books and later the movies and speculate about upcoming storylines.
Initially, Warner Brothers tried to put a stop to the many fan blogs that were popping up with numerous lawsuits. Fans fought back and eventually Warner Brothers realized its mistake: the wiser move would be to encourage fans to continue talking about Harry Potter.
The number of Harry Potter fan pages is estimated to be in the thousands in multiple languages. They include everything from news, photos and videos to podcasts, contests and merchandise.
“When Harry Potter first came out the Internet was just getting started and big corporations didn’t understand how it worked,” says Jeff Gomez, president and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment. “They’re finally starting to realize that it’s important to allow customers to personalize the way they experience a brand.”
Rumors that Harry Potter books promote witchcraft fuels curiosity about the brand
Religious groups and individuals in the United States and other countries started to question the topics in Harry Potter, calling them inappropriate and an attempt to involve children in witchcraft.
Some schools, such as St. Joseph's School of Wakefield Mass, banned the Harry Potter books from their classrooms.
Controversy sells, notes Gunelius and instead of hurting book sales, the added attention appears to have attracted more readers, "many of whom may not have picked up a Harry Potter book before their curiosity was piqued."
J.K. Rowling is discerning about merchandising deals -- she famously said "no" to McDonalds
Rowling has been known to veto merchandising suggestions that she did not consider appropriate for the Harry Potter brand.
One of the more public examples was her objection to a McDonald's Harry Potter Happy Meal.
"J.K. Rowling went on record stating that 'fast-food kids meals would be her worst nightmare,' said Diane Nelson, executive vice president of global brand management for Warner Bros.," reports the Los Angeles Times. "'She made it clear she had an aversion to it. We ... decided internally it was not the right way to approach the brand.'"
"Considering that fast-food tie-ins are an extremely lucrative method of merchandising a brand, this was a bold, protective move on Rowling's part," writes Gunelius in “Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon.”
The stories about a boy wizard and his friends spurred young people's interest in reading -- and more book sales
Besides breaking publishing and movie ticket records, Harry Potter's greatest achievement, say parents and teachers, has been to persuade young people to pick up a book and read it, even if the effects were limited.
No comprehensive studies of the effect of the Harry Potter books in the United States have been done, however the U.K.-based Federation of Children's Book Groups released figures showing that 59 percent of U.K. kids think the books have improved their reading skills and 48 percent say the books are why they read more, reports USA Today.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios has drawn in millions of visitors
The theme park opened in June 2010 and six months of Harry Potter was already enough to lift Universal Orlando's full-year attendance by 20 percent, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
Universal said it drew 11.2 million visitors in 2010, an increase of nearly 2 million from 2009, as huge crowds descended on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in the resort's Islands of Adventure theme park.
Tourists plunking down cash for food, magic wands, and other Potter-themed souvenirs also helped push the annual revenue up 41 percent to $1.1 billion.
J. K. Rowling's compelling personal story has also fueled interest -- she was once a single-mother living on welfare who is now richer than the Queen of England
J.K. Rowling's own rags-to-riches story of a young mother trying to support herself and her baby through her writing is nearly as well-known as her books.
"When it [publishing the first Harry Potter book] first happened I didn't immediately become very rich," Rowling tells BBC News. "The biggest jump for me was the American advance...And I didn't feel guilty, I felt scared at that point. Because I thought I mustn't blow this: I've got some money, I mustn't do anything stupid with it. And then yeah, yeah, I felt guilty."
"I mean at least I could see cause and effect. I knew I had worked quite hard for quite a long time. Of course the rewards were completely disproportionate but I could see how I got there so that made it easier to rationalise."
Pottermore.com promises even more Potter is yet to come
Sam Jordison at The Guardian calls it the "perfect 21st century marketing campaign."
Last month, a "coming soon" web page popped up promising something unique would be happening soon.
It was soon revealed that J.K. Rowling and her marketing team had dreamed up a new way to extend the Harry Potter brand even further through e-books.
"The most impressive thing of all, though, is the way Rowling has managed to present the whole thing as an act of altruism," writes Jordison. This isn't necessarily hogwash: at this stage in her fantastically lucrative career, money presumably isn't the driving force for Rowling and there's every chance that she does love the fans who have made her so successful."
Jordison also notes, "Everyone knows the most important rule of selling is to convince the sucker who's paying that you're doing them a favour ..."
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