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Rowling grabs the headlines

2 October 2012

 It almost seems as if the only thing which has happened this last week is that J K Rowling has published her first adult novel. There's been no escaping the coverage gleaned by the media from a generally unreachable author.

You can see that three pr agencies have been working on this one, J K Rowling's own Edinburgh and London firms, as well as the publisher Little Brown's team. But Rowling is always news, not just because of her great wealth and success, but also because of her rags to riches backstory which might have come out of a novel itself.

450 million copies of Harry Potter books have sold worldwide, Rowling has made a £560 million fortune and it is five years since the last book was published. But everyone remembers the image of the single mother on benefits, writing in cafes to keep warm. We can't forget the fact that 20 publishers turned down the first Harry Potter and that it was eventually sold for a £1,500 advance to Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury, who then promptly left the company to set up his own business, the very successful Chicken Shed, leaving Bloomsbury to garner the huge rewards of publishing Harry Potter. This £50m or more has enabled the publishing house to stay afloat, buy up other companies, expand and prosper.

Cunningham even claimed last week that that the character of Barry Fairbrother in The Casual Vacancy is based on him and is Rowling's jokey way of 'killing off' links to her past as a children's author.

'I can't believe it's a coincidence', he said of Rowling's choice of name for Barry, a parish councillor whose death triggers a bitter local election. 'To have your early editor disposed of in your first adult book can hardly be an accident.' 

Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian sums it up well: 'The scruffy redhead who used to write in the cafes of Leith has slowly transformed into a glossy couture blonde, unknowable behind an impregnable sheen of wealth and control. Once a penniless single mother, she became the first person on earth to make $1bn by writing books, but her rare public appearances suggested a faint ice maiden quality, less Cinderella than Snow Queen.'

But Rowling says her life has not been so easy since she became a household name: 'You don't expect the kind of problems (sudden wealth) brings with it. I am so grateful for what happened that this should not be taken in any way as a whine, but you don't expect the pressure of it, in the sense of being bombarded by requests. I felt that I had to solve everyone's problems. I was hit by this tsunami of demands. I felt overwhelmed. And I was really worried that I would mess up.'

But since the last Harry Potter she now says: 'I am the freest author in the world. I can do whatever the hell I like. My bills are paid - we all know I can pay my bills - I was under contract to no one, and the feeling of having all of these characters in my head and knowing that no one else knew a damned thing about them was amazing. It was just blissful. Pagford was mine, just mine, for five years. I loved that. I wrote this novel as exactly what I wanted to write. And I loved it... I'm not the person I was a few years ago. I'm not. I'm happier'.

It's hard to avoid feeling just a touch of Schadenfreude about her difficulties, but Rowling has paid her dues and perhaps what's more interesting is to reflect on how the Harry Potter phenomenon has changed the book world. No longer is children's publishing a quiet backwater dominated by editors. It's now seen as making a very important contribution to the corporate bottom line, especially since children's books have held up well through the recession. It's also been perhaps the most successful transition of book series to film in history (although perhaps the James Bond Books would feature here).

Perhaps most importantly, it has given unpublished authors everywhere the feeling that great success and riches though writing can be attained, no matter how difficult it might seem from where you stand.