Thousands of Americans are queueing to meet JK Rowling, the single mum who conjured up apprentice magician Harry Potter from inside an Edinburgh cafe. She is the only author to take the top three slots on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. Stephen McGinty reports on literary wizardy.
The queue began before dawn in Manhattan. On the pavement outside Books of Wonder, businessmen stamped their feet, mothers sipped coffee from flasks and the children yawned sleepily. At 11am, a long black Lincoln pulled up. The 800-strong crowd cheered as JK Rowling climbed from the car.
It was her third appointment of the day. At 7am the author of the Harry Potter novels was a guest of Katie Couric, the presenter of the Today Show, America's most popular breakfast programme. Two hours later Rosie O'Donnell, the actress and chat-show presenter was applying the same warm treatment. By mid-morning Rowling had already been beamed into the living rooms of 10m Americans.
At Books of Wonder, however, the change in Rowling's status from just another famous author doing a book tour to global phenomenon was more obvious. Rowling, in a black top and grey slacks, smiled and laughed with her army of young and not-so-young fans. She signed more than 1,000 copies of her new novel, The Prisoner of Azkaban, in just two hours.
There to record her every squiggle were photographers, a camera crew and dozens of journalists. "The atmosphere was electric," said Jennifer Lavonier, the store's manager. "Men and women and children were all delighted to get their copies signed. It's the nearest I've ever seen to Beatlemania with books."
THE comparison rings true. Just as the Beatles stunned America when they stole the top three places in the American music charts in the 1960s, so Rowling has rocked the literary establishment. For the first time in history the top three slots in the New York Times bestseller list are taken up by the same author: Rowling.
The United States is just wild about Harry Potter. Each night millions of children drift off to sleep to the tales of the 10-year-old apprentice magician and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. To meet the frenzied demand for the three existing Potter books, six printing presses across the country run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Potter has also been granted another accolade: a Time magazine cover.
To date 8.2m copies of Rowling's golden threesome - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - have been sold in America. Yet the first book was published just over a year ago in September 1998. Then, a signing session by Rowling at Books of Wonder drew fewer than 100 fans.
Last Monday Rowling launched a three-week, coast-to-coast tour, a round of signings, interviews and television appearances that would exhaust a president. A trip to see The Lion King on Broadway on Wednesday night was a short break before two television shows and three bookshop signings the next day.
On the Today Show Rowling admitted the phenomenon was a little hard to believe. When she began writing the first book her wildest dream extended only to having it published. "When you imagine what will happen you think of seeing the book in print and maybe doing well. Nothing could have prepared me for what has happened."The response in America has left her stunned. "In my wildest fantasy I could not have imagined anything like this. I could not come even close."
Despite the crowds, the phenomenal sales of her books and the proliferation of websites dedicated to Harry Potter, not everyone is captivated with her bespectacled hero. Some American publishers are considering banding together to insist that The New York Times bar the books from their bestsellers list. They say the books are children's stories and ineligible. The real reason is professional jealousy: they just can't compete.
Another twist to Rowling's extraordinary celebrity in America came when the board of education in South Carolina agreed to review whether Harry Potter should be permitted in schools after a group of parents complained. Elizabeth Mounce, one of the parents calling for the ban, argued that the books "have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil". The American Library Association reported that there had also been attempts in New York and Michigan to remove the books from schools.
Again there are parallels with the Beatles. Their records were burnt at mass rallies throughout the Bible Belt in 1967 after John Lennon imprudently claimed the band were "more popular than Jesus".
Rowling defends her work with confidence. On NBC television's Today Show she said: "If you're writing about evil, you genuinely have a responsibility to show what that means and that's why I'm writing them the way I'm writing them."
Her latest book is considered darker than the previous two, with characters called dementors, who suck up souls, and an evil wizard, Sirus Black, who tries to kill Potter. Yet she has already explained that in her next book a popular central character will die. "I am writing about someone who is evil. And rather than make him a pantomime villain, the only way to show how evil it is to take a life is to kill someone the reader cares about."
Pressure from the Christian right is something Rowling's American publishers can easily withstand, cushioned as they are by the tens of millions of dollars the books pull in. They hold her work in the highest of regard. Judy Corman, vice-president of corporate communications with the publishing house Scholastic Press, said: "They will be seen as modern classics of children's literature for years to come, along with books like Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia."
ROWLING's staggering success can be seen when compared with other great children's works. The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954, has sold 50m copies in the intervening 45 years. But neither JRR Tolkien nor CS Lewis enjoyed such swift success. To date there are 17m copies of the Harry Potter books in print in more than 30 languages, with the latest novel outselling Stephen King and John Grisham in Britain. Only Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs, has sold more copies in Britain this year.
Rowling's agent, Christopher Little, said never before had an author sold so many copies so quickly. "In publishing history we've never seen anything like Harry Potter. The works of Tolkien and CS Lewis might be comparable in tone but their success was built over many years. The word of mouth on Harry has been like lightning round a playground.
"The only comparable book has actually been Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence because word of mouth made the book a huge success. The key to Harry's success is that it has been truly global."
Rowling is thought to have made about #4m from royalties but the sale of the movie rights and her future earnings are likely to dwarf that. Some predict that in the next 10 years she could rake in #30m. Asked to comment, Little said the figure sounded "dramatically on the low side".
The sales have also been good for Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury. The firm announced earlier this month that its gross profits had risen by 34% to #3.2m, and its share price has more than trebled in the past 12 months. Harry Potter has cast a spell over its balance sheet.
Giles Gordon, a literary agent with Curtis Brown, agrees Rowling will become incredibly rich. A father of two little girls, Lucy, 8, and Clare, 6, who will not go to sleep without hearing a few pages of Harry Potter's adventures, he believes the appeal is old-fashioned storytelling. "You read it aloud and it's not the best-written book, but it's not trendy and written with a social conscience. It's absolutely backward-looking, but very absorbing."
Today Rowling is 5,000 miles and several million pounds from a poverty stricken single mother, an image interviews and profiles endlessly replay. It is true that Rowling started writing the novels while unemployed and worked on drafts in Nicolson's, an Edinburgh cafe, while her daughter, now five, slept in her pushchair. Yet Rowling was university educated and had middle-class parents. She says the image of the "poor girl made good" is beginning to become irritating.
Despite her wealth she continues to live quietly in Edinburgh and avoids the limelight unless called on to promote her work. While she has had the occasional fan hanging around outside her home, so far she has not attracted the stalkers who have dogged writers such as Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell.
She appears shy and quiet to the Scottish literary establishment, although friends insist she is anything but. Rebecca de la Hey of Bloomsbury, who has known her for several years, insists she is neither. "The money has not changed her - she's just got even busier. She's still very good fun and incredibly charming."
Rowling admits that her life at the moment is a touch schizophrenic. As the author admitted to Couric: "I have a very weird life at the moment. Half my life is exactly as it was in the past. I spend my time doing housework, looking after my daughter and writing novels. You could describe it as dull. Then suddenly I come to America and it's wonderful. The number of people at the signings, the interviews and publicity is enough to make my head spin."
HER profile will only increase in the United States. One factor will be the release of the first Harry Potter movie in the next couple of years. Steven Spielberg has expressed a keen interest in directing and Warner Brothers, the film's backers, are already planning a theme park.
Despite earlier reports that the film was to be "Americanised" the feature is now expected to be made in Britain. This week the government swung behind plans for a nationwide search of Britain's schools for a suitable boy to play the part of Harry.
Until the movie is released the American public will clamour for each new instalment of the Potter saga. Rowling plans to write seven books - one a year. They will be awaited eagerly. This year tens of thousands of parents bought copies of the latest novel through the internet from Britain, two months before its American release.
While a small rump of the American population may fret over the "satanic" elements of Potter's magic, most teachers are simply delighted that someone is persuading children to read again.
As Jennifer Lovenier, the manager at Books of Wonder, says: "In an age of the DVD, video games and the internet it takes a strong kind of magic to get so many kids to pick up a book. I think we all owe JK Rowling something for that."
CHARMED LIFE OF THE FIRST LADY OF FANTASY
1966: Born in Chepstow, Wales; educated at a comprehensive in the Forest of Dean and at Exeter University.
1990: First gets idea for Harry Potter while stuck on a train between London and Manchester. She worked for two years with Amnesty International before completing a course in teaching English as a foreign language in Manchester.
1991-1994: Spends three years teaching English in Portugal and marries a Portuguese television journalist. Begins making notes on the first Harry Potter book.
1994: Daughter Jessica is born. Four months later Rowling leaves her husband and moves to Edinburgh to be near her sister, Di.
1996: Received #8,000 Scottish Arts Council grant, which she spent on childcare to allow her to finish her first novel.
1997: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first published by Bloomsbury. Sales quickly reach 50,000 in hardback.
Sept 1998: Philosopher's Stone published in America.
Dec 1998: The Chamber of Secrets wins the equivalent of the children's Booker, The Smarties Prize.
July 8 1999: The Prisoner of Azkaban is published in Britain. In first two days it outsells Hannibal, selling 68,159 copies. The book goes on to sell more than 500,000 copies.
Sept 8 1999: The Prisoner of Azkaban is published in America, triggering phenomenal sales. Steven Spielberg reported to be keen to direct a Harry Potter film.
Oct 4 1999: Harry Potter makes the cover of Time magazine.
Oct 9 1999: Rowling embarks on a three-week tour of America, having sold 8.2m copies of her books in the US and more than 17m worldwide.
Oct 13 1999: Parents in South Carolina disturbed by "evil" in Rowling's book.
Oct 14 1999: Rowling appears on Today show and the Rosie O'Donnell show in New York.
[Ed. -- Cannot re-confirm title or date at Newspaper website]