A little boy named Harry Potter is working magic in the world of books. The first two Harry Potter books now topped the best-seller list and are about to be joined by a third.
BRADLEY: If you don't know it, your children almost certainly do. A little boy named Harry Potter is working magic in the world of books. The first two Harry Potter books now topped the best-seller list and are about to be joined by a third. Published in the U.S. just this week, advance orders for the new book totaled more than a million copies, a million copies of the adventures of a young wizard who is the brain child of British writer Joanne Rowling.
As Lesley Stahl discovered, all this success is just a bit overwhelming to her.
STAHL (voice-over): Joanne Rowling, a 34-year-old single mother and currently the world's most successful author, lives and writes in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.
ROWLING: The basic plot is that Harry is not only a wizard, he's a famous wizard, which he doesn't find out until he's 11. He finds out why he's got this lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. He finds out that his parents were murdered and what he's supposed to do about it, and also to confront the person who murdered them.
STAHL: Harry Potter is an old-fashioned good triumphs over evil story, but full of quirks and surprises: boys on broomsticks, owls that deliver the mail. It's set in a British boarding school just for young wizards called Hogwarts. There are a million funny names like that: Headmaster Dumbledore (ph), Evil Lord Voldemort (ph), Harry's know-it-all friend Hermione (ph). It's very apparent that Joanne Rowling was born to play with words.
ROWLING: I used to collect names of plants that sounded witchy, and then I found this, "Culpepper's Complete Herbal," and it was the answer to my every prayer: flaxweed, toadflax, fleewort, goutwort, grommel, knot grass, mugwort.
STAHL: Harry Potter was born in Jo Rowling's imagination nearly 10 years ago.
ROWLING: I did pictures of characters.
STAHL (on camera): Oh, you did?
ROWLING: Yes. No one's ever seen these before, either.
STAHL: Oh, these are your own drawings.
STAHL (voice-over): The drawings, which she once considered using in the books, are amazingly detailed; Harry, his awful cousin Dudley, Hogwarts' magical potions, Professor McGonagall (ph). Those images turned into the vivid word-pictures now captivating so many kids.
"Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox. Points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was but taken away if it had whiskers."
(on camera): It really gets into kids. It gets right into their craw and they love these. I've heard of kids that have read them seven, eight times.
ROWLING: I've met kids like that. And I met this mother in a signing queue not long ago who said to me, "My son is here and he wants to meet you, but he was too ashamed of the state of the book to ask you to sign it." And it was all wrinkly and covered in rubbish and the cover was falling off. And I made her go and get him because that is exactly the state that I want to see my books in. I have no truck with these people; these very anally (ph) people who don't crack the spine when they read a book. I say crack the spine and read it because that's what it's there for.
STAHL (voice-over): So many people are cracking the spines of her books that Jo Rowling is becoming a publishing figure of historic proportions.
EDEN ROSS LIPSON: It's unprecedented in American children's books. It's unprecedented in English children's books.
STAHL: Eden Ross Lipson is children's book editor of The New York Times.
LIPSON: There's nothing that compares to the velocity of the success of Harry Potter.
STAHL (on camera): Nothing ever?
LIPSON: No, not really.
STAHL: To have three books on the best-seller list at the same time, forget children's books.
LIPSON: Well, that is the point, that there is no precedent for three books involving the same characters to be on the adult best-seller list at the same time.
STAHL (voice-over): Christopher Little, Rowling's literary agent, says the books are now in 26 languages and 140 countries.
(on camera): Do you have any idea how many books have sold so far, or the range?
LITTLE: It's got to be over eight million today.
STAHL: Eight million?
LITTLE: But if you wait till later on today it's probably going to be more like nine.
STAHL: What makes Jo Rowling's success all the more remarkable is what it followed. In 1994, when her marriage to a Portuguese journalist collapsed, she moved here to Edinburgh, Scotland. She had few friends and fewer prospects and ended up on welfare, actually skipping meals to make sure she had enough money for her four-month-old baby. And while she thought of herself as a writer, she had never published anything.
ROWLING: Someone, a journalist, actually said to me the other day, "So you wrote your whole first novel on napkins, paper napkins?"
STAHL: Because you couldn't afford the paper.
ROWLING: Yes, which is really going on a bit, even from me. No, I did not write on napkins. I could afford pens and paper, yes.
STAHL: But you were on welfare.
ROWLING: I was, yes.
STAHL: On the dole, as they say.
STAHL: So you were in bad straits.
ROWLING: Yes, I was in worse straits than I've ever been before or since, yes.
STAHL (voice-over): She'd been playing with the idea of Harry Potter for years by then, and she says she's always written, ever since she was a little girl growing up in southern England. Even when she worked as a teacher, she was just biding time.
ROWLING: What amused me -- I went through this last night to show you, and the funny thing was that this is my employment history. It's the back of stuff that I really should have been doing at work, and on the front you have bits of my writing. This is really old. This is a photocopy from a textbook when I was teaching in Portugal. And obviously this was what I was supposed to be doing with the children, and on the back you've got all the ghosts for Gryffindor.
STAHL: Gryffindor is one of the dormitories at Hogwarts. This may look like random scribbling, but it's actually all part of a master plan. Long before she was published, Rowling had seven Harry Potter books meticulously plotted out on grids; one for each year Harry spends at wizards school. But before you assume she's compulsively organized...
(on camera): You have to pick the box up. Is it too heavy to just show? This is the filing system.
ROWLING: one of many, many boxes in my bedroom.
STAHL: How do you find anything?
ROWLING: Well, bizarrely I do find it. I know that this is box one, so I know the kind of stuff that's in box one. But it's nice because you start rifling through it and you suddenly think, "Oh, yes, there's that." So if I filed more efficiently I wouldn't have these sort of lucky chances.
STAHL (voice-over): It's one thing to have boxes full of notes, another thing entirely to turn them into a book. Back in 1994 with a baby daughter and no money, Jo Rowling knew she had to write it quickly or forget it.
ROWLING: So I decided it was going to be my last-ditch attempt to get this book published. And so I'd walk around Edinburgh pushing her in the pushchair and wait till she fell asleep. And then I would literally run to the nearest cafe and write for as long as she stayed asleep.
STAHL: Most often, she wrote here in Nicholson's restaurant because they let her stay for hours, nursing just a cup of coffee. Finally she had a manuscript to send off.
(on camera): People turned it down.
ROWLING: Oh, yes.
STAHL: A lot?
ROWLING: Four or five publishers turned it down I think, and the consistent criticism was, "It's far too long for children."
STAHL (voice-over): Jo began looking in a directory for a literary agent. She liked Christopher Little's name.
(on camera): So one day you get this unsolicited manuscript from someone you've never heard of. What do you think?
LITTLE: These things can stand and sit in a pile for ages. They're known as the slush pile. They're the unsolicited and it's the also-rans usually. And just by chance, two days afterwards, picked up this pile and went off to a lunch because somebody was turning up late. And inside I started reading about Harry Potter and my toes curled.
STAHL: You knew right away?
LITTLE: Right away.
STAHL (voice-over): He may have known, but several more publishers turned Harry Potter down before the British company Bloomsbury finally bought it.
ROWLING: That moment when he told me that Bloomsbury wanted to take the book -- second only to the birth of my daughter -- was the happiest moment of my life.
STAHL (on camera): When did you get the first inkling that this was not going to be your everyday children's book?
ROWLING: The book sales climbed steadily from publication and that was with no publicity, really.
STAHL: No publicity?
ROWLING: No, nothing -- absolutely nothing. No one knew a thing about me. And the only explanation for this was word of mouth with children.
LITTLE: The publishers printed very few books, as they often do, and the demand came not from anywhere else but out of the playgrounds.
STAHL: So it really built by word-of-mouth from child to child?
LITTLE: Yes, out of the playgrounds.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And now everybody is, it's like a chain reaction -- everybody gets involved with them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, in my class like, "You didn't read Harry Potter?"
STAHL: You're out of it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah, like two days later, "It was so good, wasn't it?"
STAHL (voice-over): These kids in Stamford, Connecticut, are typical of the fans creating the Harry Potter avalanche.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very different. It's not like a normal, average book. It's, like, so imaginative. It's almost like -- it's so detailed. It's almost like watching the book instead of reading it.
STAHL: That's what has kids turning off the TV and computer games. And it's not just kids; adults are into Harry Potter, too. So many that in Britain, there's a special grown-up edition just for them. Everyone's drawn in by the same thing: adventure and suspense, set in a wizard world that's magical and somehow still recognizable.
LIPSON: She has the parallel universe, just a little off-center, that has a banking system; it has a newspaper, it has a ministry, a ministry of magic. It is so complete. And because it's complete, she can keep pulling rabbits out of this hat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like in normal classes, they'd give you homework on math and everything. In this, it's to find out about wizardry and it's really great.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Which -- how do you kill this plant that will strangle you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: or how do you do this magical, dark, secret potion or something.
STAHL: Just the fact that both girls and boys are excited about the same book sets Harry Potter apart. In fact, Rowling's publisher originally tried to mask the fact that she's a woman by using her initials, J.K., on the books.
LITTLE: Traditionally boys don't like to read books written by girls. Girls read books written by anybody, but boys have this sort of peculiar sort of sexist thing.
STAHL: The secret's out now and kids don't care what she's called, as long as she keeps writing.
(on camera): This is getting kids who don't like to read or who have never read before -- they call them reluctant readers -- to not only pick up this book or these books and read them, but then to want to read other similar books.
ROWLING: There's nothing better than that.
STAHL: And have you been told about this?
ROWLING: Yes, I've been told about it quite a lot and I've twice met mothers of dyslexic sons and one of them who have told me that their sons did read the entire books themselves. And one of them, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," was the first book -- he was nine years old --the first book he ever read to himself. This absolutely supports my view that children are grossly underestimated.
"My dear, you have a deadly enemy."
"Everyone knows that," said Hermione in a loud whisper.
STAHL: Rowling, the ex- teacher, relishes any chance to read to children and hear their questions. This was a hometown crowd in Edinburgh.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you base anyone in the book on you?
ROWLING: On me? Yeah. I'm not very proud of it, though. Hermione. She's really annoying. And I think I was really annoying when I was 11. I loosened up a lot though as I got older -- a lot. And Hermione is going to, too. I'm writing book four at the moment and Hermione gets her first date.
STAHL: By book four, Hermione and Harry are 14.
ROWLING: Well, book four is -- I'm really enjoying writing it because it's the first time you see their hormones kick in.
STAHL (on camera): Girls.
ROWLING: Girls. Finally he's realized there are girls.
STAHL: Usually when you think about sequels...
STAHL: ... you know they're going to mess it up. It's a given.
ROWLING: But I don't really think of these as sequels. I see this as one huge novel that has been divided for the reader's convenience into seven.
STAHL (voice-over): Jo Rowling would love to be left alone to spin out the rest of her series at a quiet corner table in an Edinburgh cafe, but she's so famous now that's getting harder to do. And there's enormous pressure to turn Harry Potter into a marketing machine. Her agent says that Rowling, barely five years away from welfare, could end up making $100 million.
LITTLE: I mean we're getting over 100 inquires a day, whether it's the Sony Corporation or Microsoft or Boeing, to people that make, you know, cups and saucers.
STAHL (on camera): A hundred inquires a day from companies who want to use something from the books to help promote their products?
ROWLING: If people could see the kinds of offers I've had to use Harry in advertising and publicity and all sorts of ridiculous, frankly, things, and I've said no to absolutely all of them.
STAHL: Like what? Can you give us an example?
STAHL: Margarine. On, my goodness, no.
ROWLING: No, absolutely. Why?
STAHL (voice-over): But Jo Rowling is no longer the sole proprietor of Harry Potter. She's sold Warner Brothers the rights to put him on the silver screen and everything that goes with that.
(on camera): You've sold the movie rights, you're going to have a television series, you're going to have action figures...
ROWLING: I don't know about the television series.
STAHL: Action figures.
ROWLING: Don't say action figures.
STAHL: Well, whatever.
ROWLING: I'm a mother. I hate action figures.
STAHL: Well, what are we calling them? Dolls?
ROWLING: Yes. And I can only say now to all the parents out there, if the action figures are horrible, just tell the kids that I said don't buy them. Sorry Warners.