Potter Publisher Predicted Literary Magic One the eve of the release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, the Scholastic editor who brought Harry Potter to the U.S. looks back on a lucky find that he knew would make literary magic.
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Potter Publisher Predicted Literary Magic

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Potter Publisher Predicted Literary Magic

Potter Publisher Predicted Literary Magic

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

A storm of excitement building over the release of the seventh and final "Harry Potter" novel next weekend. Some 12 million copies will be published in the U.S. alone. We thought it might be interesting to visit the man who brought J. K. Rowling and "Harry Potter" to the United States nine years ago - Arthur Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books. We wondered if he had any kind of notion way back then what was in store, so to speak.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Nine years ago, October 1998, J. K. Rowling came to the United States for the very first time. Arthur Levine welcomed her.

Mr. ARTHUR LEVINE (Children's Book Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books): We're celebrating the arrival of J. K. Rowling and "Harry Potter's" publication in the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

ADLER: Almost everyone, including Arthur Levine, mispronounced her name. Everyone I've interviewed says Arthur Levine has a gift for discovering great children's writers. It's not just "Harry Potter." He discovered Philip Pullman's "Dark Material" trilogy that starts with the "Golden Compass." And he was the first to recognize many other important children's books.

Levine got into publishing like many English majors. He says he loved the combination of art, poetry and story that children's books provide. But there was something more. When he started his own imprint at Scholastic in 1997, he wanted to find books that would create the same powerful emotional response that he remembered from his own childhood.

Mr. LEVINE: These were the books that if you caught me in my college dorm, that childhood book would still be there and well loved and thumbed through.

ADLER: Wanting international books as well as American ones, Arthur Levine discovered "Harry Potter" when he went to the children's book fair in Bologna in 1997. One day, he talked with a woman from the English publisher Bloomsbury but nothing really clicked.

Mr. LEVINE: And so she kind of sat back and crossed her arms and said, if none of these things were exactly right, what is it that you're looking for? And I described that thing - something that is just so wonderful and makes such a deep connection that you really remember it for 20, 30 years. She sort of bit her lip and said, well, I do have one thing that I actually really think is like that. And we don't even control the rights. You will have to go to the agent, and it's, you know, it's fantasy. So I know that people aren't really reading fantasy but we love this. And, you know, here's a galley. And she gave me a galley. And it was J. K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." And I took it home on the plane and fell in love.

ADLER: A year later, Arthur Levine brought out the galley of the first U.S. Harry Potter novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone."

(Sounbite of paper)

Mr. LEVINE: Oh, my goodness.

ADLER: It's my galley.

Mr. LEVINE: This is valuable.

ADLER: It's not in perfect condition.

About 3,000 review copies were printed for reviewers and librarians. One came to me. I popped it in my bag and took it on a vacation. My family read it out loud and, like many, we became obsessed. But at the beginning of this reviewer's edition, on the first page, is a letter from Arthur Levine, which says, here is a glorious new talent but I read the last paragraph of that letter out loud to him in his office this week.

It also says that you're going to be in a quandary whether to share this with a friend or keep it for yourself, knowing how much this reader's edition of J. K. Rowling's first book will be worth in years to come.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: I've read this and I thought, at the time, what hubrus, what complete arrogance to write this, and you were right. So the question is how did you know or what in heaven's name made you write this letter?

Mr. LEVINE: I can't believe I said all those things. But I really did think that this was something special and enduring and that, I think, in my mind, what I was thinking was it would be like having a galley of "James and the Giant Peach" or having a galley of Tolkien. I guess I was not really literary thinking of monetary value.

ADLER: Now, remember, when the first book did come out in the U.S. in the fall of '98, it didn't take off immediately. For several months, it was only promoted by independent bookstores. Very few copies found their way to the big chains, until it rose on The New York Times' best-seller list.

Liz Szabla once worked at Scholastic. She is now editor-in-chief of Feiwel & Friends - the new children's imprint of Holtzbrinck Publishers. And she says Levine trusts his instincts.

Ms. LIZ SZABLA (Editor-in-chief, Feiwel & Friends): I don't believe that Arthur set out to create a best-seller. I think that what you are hearing in that letter was his passion and his connection to this book. My hunch is that he believed that it would endure. But I don't think that he had a clue. I don't think anyone had a clue that it would do what it ended up doing.

ADLER: Scholastic is now a $2-billion company. "Harry Potter" represents about 8 percent of the revenues. But for Margot Siegell, the owner of Margot Sage-EL, the owner of Watchung Booksellers on Montclair, New Jersey, where Levine lives, Arthur Levine's touch is not about financial success. Just watch him when he comes into the bookstore, she says.

Ms. MARGOT SAGE-EL (Owner, Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, New Jersey): I know he intrinsically love books. You can just see it. I don't know. Does he love the magic in it? Does he love the fact that it brings new worlds to young children? I'm not exactly sure what, but he does have a gift.

ADLER: And when Arthur Levine does read and evaluate a children's book, he describes what he does this way.

Mr. LEVINE: It's very direct and it's unfiltered. I'm just aware of how I feel and how I'm reacting. Do I love this? Am I laughing? Am I moved? Am I bored? You know, whatever, I'm just being a reader. And I trust that if my response is strong enough and powerful enough that other people will have that response. And I also trust that if I have that response, young people of the right age will have that response too.

ADLER: But are you reading it thinking about yourself as a child or thinking of yourself as an adult?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, again, I'm not thinking of myself, you know. I am just being myself.

ADLER: There's a famous story of one of the great children's book editors of all time - Ursula Nordstrom - who, apparently, when asked by a librarian what makes you qualified to publish books for children said, I am a former child. Everyone I talked to says that's exactly the kind of thing Arthur Levine might say and that maybe why, in the end, he was able to do what he did.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

SIMON: You can hear the first U.S. radio interview with J.K. Rowling from October of 1998, most of it never before aired, on our Web site, npr.org.

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