Levine, Arthur A. "Why I Paid So Much for a Children's Book." New York Times October 13, 1999.
Arthur A. Levine is editorial director of Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., which has published three best-selling children's books about a junior wizard, Harry Potter. Scholastic paid more than $100,000 for the first manuscript by an author who was then unknown.
I had never paid so much for an acquisition before. I bought Harry Potter in 1997 at the Bologna, Italy, book fair before it had ever been published anywhere. It's a scary thing when you keep bidding and the stakes get higher and higher. I was getting a tremendous amount of support from my company. And that's a wonderful thing, but it's a great risk. If people believe in you and you flop, then you walk out on the plank and plunge.
It's one thing to say I love this first novel by this unknown woman in Scotland and I want to publish it. And it's another thing as the bidding goes higher.
Do you love it this much? Do you love it at $50,000? At $70,000?
My first reaction was to call the author, J.K. Rowling, to tell her not to be frightened because I knew it would be a tremendous amount of pressure on her.
I called her very late, and we had a very nice conversation -- our first. I said don't be scared, and she said, "Thanks; I am." We both said now that we've paid this much we've got to concentrate on making the book work.
The thing I loved the most about reading Harry Potter is the idea of growing up unappreciated, feeling outcast and then this great satisfaction of being discovered. That is the fantasy of every person who grows up feeling marginalized in any way. Along with the imagination and the wonderful writing, that's the emotional connection that drew me to the book.
It's the experience of being a smart kid in public school and not being particularly athletic. I think any kid who has that experience is marginalized.
I was Jewish in a non-Jewish town, in Elmont, N.Y. I was a musician, and that's great among musicians, but that's not necessarily valued in public school. I was the first clarinetist. Great, that will get you a nickel. I didn't have a miserable, oppressed childhood, but I did have those feelings.
I think that the biggest lesson from the success of Harry Potter is that you need to try not to follow a trend. It's almost a cliche. You have to follow your heart. In Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard; and when the wand chooses you, you take it. You don't try to find which other books are selling, which ones are hot right now.
The thing about publishing is that we are continually mourning the changes in our industry.
We editors and publishers mourn how it doesn't work the same anymore and there are all these pressures to find books that work, and understand what makes a best seller.
The nicest thing about Harry Potter was that it was generated in an old-fashioned way -- from a discussion to publish a book that is great.
Original page date 13 March 2007; last updated 13 March 2007.