19 Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts About the Harry Potter Books
In Philip W. Errington’s J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, the author herself writes that the 514-page book is “slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling.” That it is: A Bibliography includes everything from original interviews and snippets of emails to errors and corrections from one edition of the Harry Potter books to the next, shedding light on the editorial process of this beloved series. Here are a few fascinating things we learned from Errington’s book about Harry Potter’s road from manuscript to sensation.
1. ONE BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEE CHAMPIONED THE BOOK IN AN UNUSUAL WAY.
Rowling’s former agent, Christopher Little, brought three chapters of what would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Bloomsbury’s Barry Cunningham, who distributed the chapters among the staff. The marketing manager on the publishing team, Rosamund de la Hey, loved it, and wanted to show the editorial team that the book was something special. So, according to Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, she made 10 copies for the staff, rolled them into scrolls, “sellotaped one end, filled it with Smarties, sellotaped the other end and put a red ribbon around the scroll. That was their way of saying to us that they thought the book would win the [Smarties Book Prize] … which funnily enough it did.”
2. THE FIRST EDITIONS FEATURED A RANDOM WIZARD ON THE BACK COVER.
The cover of Philosopher’s Stone was created by Thomas Taylor in just two days; it was his very first professional commission. Bloomsbury also asked him to “provide ‘a wizard to decorate the back cover.’ So I did,” Taylor wrote in a blog post on his website, which Errington quotes in A Bibliography. “The books are full of magical characters and sorcerers, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure up one of my own.”
Readers frequently asked Bloomsbury who the wizard was, though, so they asked Taylor to come up with a replacement. “The original picture was quickly replaced by a clearly recognizable illustration of Dumbledore, probably appearing first on the eighteenth impression,” Errington writes. Taylor said that, until the publisher asked, it had “never even crossed my mind to depict Dumbledore.”
3. THE ADULT EDITIONS WERE INSPIRED BY A BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEE’S COMMUTE.
The staff member reported that he’d seen someone on his commute reading the book behind a copy of The Economist. “One of us—it might even have been me—repeated this to a journalist … who made a thing of it,” Newton told Errington. “And then we thought, well why don’t we produce an adult edition? It was quite clear that this book was being read just as much by adults.”
The adult editions featured understated photographs instead of illustrations; the first—which had a photo of an American steam locomotive from the Norfolk & Western Railway Train on the cover—was published in September 1998.
4. THE AMERICAN VERSION OF THE FIRST BOOK COULD HAVE HAD A MUCH DIFFERENT TITLE.
Publisher Arthur A. Levine had just launched his imprint at Scholastic when he heard about Philosopher’s Stone. When he acquired the rights for the book, he knew he’d have to change the title: It needed to have a little more magic in it for American readers. “I certainly did not mind Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but I can see … why a book that is titled Philosopher’s Stone might seem more arcane or something,” Levine told Errington. Harry Potter and the School of Magic was suggested as a new title; when Levine brought the idea to Rowling, she “very thoughtfully said, ‘No—that doesn’t feel right to me … there are objects that I would like. What if we called it the Sorcerer’s Stone?’ And that completely does it.”
5. LEVINE CAME UNDER FIRE FOR CHANGES MADE TO THE ORIGINAL PHILOSOPHER’S STONE MANUSCRIPT.
According to Errington, “There were around 80 word changes and some significant alteration in the placing of commas.” Levine told him, “I did not do anything to the text. Every change was something I discussed with Jo.”
6. NEARLY HEADLESS NICK ALSO NEARLY HAD A SONG.
When the manuscript for Chamber of Secrets came in, Bloomsbury editor Emma Matthewson wrote to Rowling that the book was “going to be absolutely brilliant! … [N]o danger of the sequel not coming up to the expectations of the first.” But the manuscript was “over-long,” so some things had to go—including a song for Nearly Headless Nick, which began “It was a mistake any wizard could make …” Rowling noted during edits that “this was ‘a wrench’ but admitted it was ‘superfluous to requirements,’” Errington writes. She later posted the lyrics to “The Ballad of Nearly Headless Nick” on her website; it’s no longer there, but you can read it here.
7. A GLOSSARY WAS SUGGESTED, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.
Early in the editorial process of Chamber of Secrets, someone at Bloomsbury suggested “an ‘information/glossary/history’ at the end of the book for those who hadn’t read Philosopher’s Stone,” Errington writes. “This idea, evidently, was abandoned.”
8. THE SCHOLASTIC VERSION OF CHAMBER OF SECRETS MESSED UP A PREVIEW FOR THE NEXT BOOK.
The publisher’s blurb said it was Aunt Petunia would be inflated in the next book, but that was a gaffe: It was Aunt Marge, Uncle Vernon’s sister, who Harry accidentally inflates.
9. PRISONER OF AZKABAN REQUIRED A LOT OF EDITING.
With its complicated time travel plot, it’s probably not surprising that the third entry in the Harry Potter series needed a closer eye than the two books that preceded it. The process took at least three months, and at one point, Rowling wrote to Matthewson, “I’ve read this book so much that I’m sick of it, I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time …” Later, she noted that “I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it.” Among the edits included bumping up the presence of the dementors.
10. GOBLET OF FIRE HAD A NUMBER OF POTENTIAL TITLES ...
They included Harry Potter and the Death Eaters, Harry Potter and the Fire Goblet, and Harry Potter and the Three Champions.
11. … AND THE TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED SOMETHING ELSE.
The Doomspell Tournament, to be exact. Matthewson suggested the change in a letter to Rowling dated March 8, 2000. (This letter also included the alternate titles.)
12. THE BOOK ALSO MARKED SOME OTHER FIRSTS.
Goblet of Fire was the first Harry Potter book released at midnight, and the first where Levine and Scholastic weighed in on edits during Bloomsbury’s editorial process.
13. NEWTON RECEIVED ORDER OF THE PHOENIX IN A “DEAD DROP” …
Newton had a clue that he would be receiving Rowling’s next manuscript when Little called him and suggested they meet for a drink at The Pelican—the same place the agent had delivered the manuscript for Goblet of Fire. Newton told Errington that he went to The Pelican “in a state of high alert. And I went in and there was a massive Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag at his feet … he said nothing about that and I said nothing … we stood at the bar and drank our pints and said nothing about Harry Potter. But when we left I walked out with the carrier bag. It was a classic dead letter drop.”
14. … AND HE WAS TERRIFIED TO HAVE IT.
The series was so huge at that point that Newton said he was “almost frightened to be in physical possession” of its next book. He couldn’t tell anyone—not even his wife and kids—that he had the manuscript, so he hid it under his bed. Then, Newton stayed up all night reading it, disguising it by putting four pages of another author’s manuscript on top. (He did eventually tell his wife what was going on.) He stashed portions in the safe as he went; the next morning, he delivered it to Matthewson. “I was so relieved to hand it over,” he told Errington. Matthewson, meanwhile, had to edit the manuscript on a computer that wasn’t connected to the internet.
15. BLOOMSBURY COMMISSIONED A “HARRY POTTER BIBLE.”
In September 2004—not long before Rowling would deliver the manuscript for Half-Blood Prince—Bloomsbury began putting together a file, called the “HP Bible,” enlisting people outside of the company to help. The file, Errington writes, “was to assist with consistency across the series.”
16. THE DEATHLY HALLOWS MANUSCRIPT HAD SOME GREAT CODE NAMES.
To keep the highly anticipated book under wraps, a file of an early set of proofs was titled Edinburgh Potmakers. “This was not the only spurious title given to the novel,” Errington writes. “Another print-out of the text in the editorial files at Bloomsbury is entitled The Life and Times of Clara Rose Lovett with the thrilling sub-title, ‘An epic novel covering many generations.’”
17. THERE WERE QUESTIONS ABOUT CONSISTENCY JUST BEFORE THE BOOK WAS FINALIZED.
In an April 23, 2007 email, Matthewson made several queries including one about Harry’s healing abilities. Writes Errington, “within paragraph four of page 11 Rowling had written ‘He had never learned how to repair wounds’ and pointed out that Harry had used ‘Episkey’ on Demelza’s lip on page 267 of Half-Blood Prince. The question was therefore asked ‘But this is ok as it is not really learning properly to repair wounds?” (It seems it was OK: The sentence stayed, unaltered.) Proofs were finalized on May 4, 2007.
18. LEVINE HAD 71 QUESTIONS FOR BLOOMSBURY DURING THE COPYEDITING PHASE.
“I truly hope it won’t be stressful for Jo,” Levine wrote to Matthewson in the email, noting that the queries “are merely a result of the absolutely PHENOMENAL level of detail in Harry’s saga, and the extraordinary depth of her imagination.”
There was also discussion of Britishisms versus Americanisms. “If you mean underpants and not trousers here,” one note from Scholastic read, “can we spell out ‘underpants’ for the U.S., so readers understand fully how embarrassing this is for Ron?” The request was granted.
19. BEEDLE THE BARD GOT AMERICANIZED.
In 2001, Rowling wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages for charity; those books, which were supposed to be Harry’s textbooks, went out with the Britishisms intact. But for Beedle the Bard, written by Rowling as Dumbledore, the publisher wrote in a note that “we’ve decided that this book seems more like the U.S. edition of a wizarding classic, and therefore we’re using American spellings.” The American edition also included a footnote from Dumbledore explaining Christmas pantomime.
This list focused on Harry Potter, but there's so much more in A Bibliography—including details on Rowling's books written under pseudonyms and things she's written for various periodicals—making it a must-have for any Rowling fan. You can buy it here.