Anelli, Melissa. Interview of Arthur Levine. PotterCast #22, 23, & 24, January-February, 2006
This interview of Rowling's American editor Arthur Levine was broadcast over three episodes of The Leaky Cauldron's PotterCast. Transcript courtesy of PotterCast. If you wish to listen, each podcast is linked separately.
PotterCast #22, "The Origins of Harry
Potter," Jan 17, 2006 [audio]
Arthur Levine (AL): Glad to be here!
MA: (laughs) ...for that we thank you.
AL: Well done, by the way! You got all of that right!
MA: (laughs) Well, hopefully, hopefully, if there's anyone who can get it right, it's the, it's the crazy fansites. So, anyway, thank you very much. We're excited to have you. I guess let's just start! There's a lot of confusion. You've told the story a million times, but there's a lot of confusion about exactly how this happened - what portion in the time line did you buy the rights, how popular was it in Britain at that time, you know, which books have been published? A Potter fan says they know the story, buy you ask them and they, they'll get it wrong.
AL: Okay, so this is for the permanent record.
MA: For the permanent record.
AL: This is great, because you're right - I have said this about eight billion times.
AL: But I will say it eight billion and one! (MA laughs) This is, this was the chronology. So, this was just around the time that I had started my imprint, Arthur Levine Books, at Scholastic. And that's significant because it speaks to what I was thinking when I went to Bologna that year. So this is the first year I went to the Bologna International Children's Book Fair...
AL: ...as a representative of my own imprint. So, this was this spring of 1997.
AL: March 1997, I believe. And my imprint was gonna publish its first book in the fall of 1997.
MA: Which book was that?
AL: It was called When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer.
MA: I've heard of it.
AL: Still in print! (MA laughs) Proud of it! And I had... This was a very important fair for me because this is where publishers from all around the world get together and they talk about books and authors that they're excited about and try to figure out what they can publish in their countries or languages. And since I very much wanted my - one the hallmarks - of my imprint to be about bringing the best of the world's literature to American kids, this is going to be a very exciting fair! It's the first time I got to go and to start a new adventure. And I had all of these meetings, 'cause that's how the fair works; you have half hour meetings where you go from publisher to publisher, then generally you talk to the subsidiary rights director. Publishers talk to rights directors, usually.
AL: Although, you know, we all have our friends who are fellow publishers that we have dinner with, or lunch, or we have a cappuccino in between meetings. And you kind of have this conversation where the rights director says, "Well, this is what we have." And the editor says, "Okay, well, I might be interested in that or not be interested." We have a conversation. So, of course, one of the companies I was excited about seeing is, was little Bloomsbury, who had recently, also recently started. They've been a few years old, publishing very wonderful books. They had a varied literary identity. I felt a very strong affinity for what they were publishing and what they were trying to do, and I was as always looking forward to meeting with Ruth, the rights director.
AL: So we had our, we had our meeting. A lovely meeting, although nothing that Ruth was presenting was the perfect fit for me right at that moment.
AL: So at the end of the meeting - she's got a great sense of humor and she's a fabulous rights director - she kind of crossed her arms and went, "Well, you know, so if none of those things were perfect, then what exactly is it that you are looking for?" So I give her my little speech about what my, what I wanted my imprint to be about.
AL: I wanted it to be the best of the world's literature and looking to publish some books that kids will remember for the rest of their lives, as, "Oh, that was my favorite book from my childhood! Oh, I still have that on my shelf!" You know? This book was just the book that I read to the pieces. And she said, "Well, we're about to publish a book by a very exciting new writer that we think you might like! We don't actually even control the rights. You know the agent does." That may be another technical thing you want to explain separately to your readers...
MA: Right, right.
AL: ...but she said, "Here is a set of galleys. I think you'll really like it. Why don't you read it on the, on the trip home." And that, of course, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling, and that was the first time I read it. It was not yet published...
AL: ...in England, so there was no, there was no, you know, it wasn't popular, it wasn't known. There was nothing that had happened yet.
MA: And this was the big point of misconception: people think that it was just because it was known and...
AL: It was not, no. It was not known. She was unpublished.
AL: It was, you know, there was the enthusiasm of a credible literary publisher behind her, at that point. So that's not nothin'!
AL: You know, at that point, (unintelligible), a lot of respect for Bloomsbury, and that rights... Ruth is saying to me, "This is really, this is something we are really excited about." You know, I'll pay attention to that. And I did! I actually read it on the plane home, which I wouldn't have had I not had the level of respect for her. But, there was no international moment going on. I brought it home, and I read it on the plane, so I was extremely excited about it, and just loved it! It was exactly what I was looking for! Exactly those qualities! It was, it had the sense of being a book of enduring quality, a book for the ages, not just for now. It was funny, it was exciting. It was, you know, a lot of things that was a very rare find in one book...
AL: ...and I really wanted it. Now, the fact was that several other American publishers also really wanted it. And they, too, read - based on the same factors that was the center of my enthusiasm - I had read it! (laughs)
MA: (laughing) It's a big point.
AL: People were excited about the book that they had read. I'd assume, but I have no evidence of this, they all, you know, had a sense of credibility of Bloomsbury behind them...
AL: ...um, but nothing else! And then we had this, this auction.
MA: A rights auction, right? That's...
AL: A rights auction!
AL: So the agent, Christopher Little, held an auction for the US rights, and I think there were a beginning seven publishers and then as auctions go it dropped down it dropped down dropped down...
AL: ...and, you know,I won that auction...
AL: ...so that's why I got to publish it.
AL: Now, I will say that the auction itself was a moment in the, in what happens to the book...
AL: ...because that, there was a lot of coverage of that auction, in England.
MA: Mmm-hmm, press coverage you mean?
AL: Yes, a lot of press coverage. And that was partly because of the back story - you know that at that time, Jo was, had been on public assistance, you know, like many writers, was struggling...
AL: ...to make a living so that wasn't her very unique position but it was the position that she was in: that she was a single mother, a young daughter. So, it's a really great story that a person in that situation has persevered and managed to get her first book published, then has this windfall, you know, of a uh, you know, a six-figured sum from an American publisher. So this was like, this was big, sexy news and I think that was part of what made people in England sit up and say, "Oh, maybe this is something we need to read!"
AL: You know, brought the book to their attention. And it is notoriously hard to make people pay attention to first novels, especially first childrens' novels. So there's a lot of things like that.
AL: And that was the chronology. So, I think, Bloomsbury published their book in July of 1997.
MA: Yeah. Okay, when did the auction happen?
AL: In April.
MA: Around April. So but, but as the bidding went up, had you ever paid this much money? What was the sum again? I forget. Was it 125,000?
AL: 105,000 [US dollars].
MA: 105,000. So, what was the closest you've ever paid to that for another book?
AL: You know, I don't remember.
AL: I mean I do remember that that was by far the most I'd ever paid for a first novel.
AL: And, it was, it was, a lot more than I've paid for almost any other novel. And that's still true. That is a huge amount of money.
MA: Yeah. (MA and AL laugh) You say it like, it looks like you're remembering what that was like. Because it must have been nerve-racking.
AL: Well, it was nerve-racking, you know this was my, my first big risk at, I mean my first huge risk at a new publisher. So, you know, the rest of the publishing houses going along with me, they were supporting me, "Yeah, okay, sure go ahead" you know? "Keep going, stay in it if you're passionate." Yes I am, so they were all behind me, it wasn't a matter of I had to convince reluctant people, but having brought the company along with me, it's then my responsibility whether this works or not. And, there wasn't a lot of reason, other than my belief in the author and the writing...
AL: ...to think that it would work to the extent that it would need to work to pay back a $105,000.00 advance. That, that has to be a substantial hit. And, what I thought at the time was, this is such a good book that it will be around for a long, long time. And, maybe we won't earn back this advance in two or three years, but we will earn it back in five years. You know, in the long term we will be fine. And, I am confident.
AL: So, that's what I was thinking.
MA: At that point, what did you know about the books? Only the first book? Did you know anything about the rest of the series?
AL: I mean, I only knew that she saw it as a seven part story. That it was, that this was the first, that she was going to tell us, write a book for every year that this young man, Harry, was going to be in school. So it's a story of his training and coming of age.
MA: Right, but there was no indication that it would be this over-arching, massive, masterfully plotted mystery kind of thing. For all you knew it could have been a serial, you know, like, sort of disconnected.
AL: Well, I'm not, I'm not sure what the difference is there. I mean, you can't know in advance how...
AL: ...something is going to fall into place...
MA: Well, a lot, a lot of...
AL: ...I'm mean, you're right, I didn't know what it would be, just seven adventures of a particular character, or, I mean it is that.
AL: So, I think that, you know, as the books went along, it had, you get to know what the character, characteristics are. I mean, I knew he would get a year older. I mean, if you look back, I knew all of those things, I knew he would get a year older in each one. And, so, if I thought that, thought that through I would think well okay so it's getting the characteristics of the books are gonna to develop along with the character. But, in fact it's very, that turns out to be a very unusual characteristic of the books that they, while they retain their essential J.K. Rowling character, the characters really do grow up and change and therefore the some of the themes the plots the sub-plots change with them.
MA: Yeah. I think the thing that people are most interested to know - which I think you've answered - is that those, that first sale, that initial interest was based on, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone alone, that it was just on the Stone and it was not, "Well, and there we have six more coming..." And, surely it factored into the decision but it was the strength of that book that, that fueled the sale.
AL: Right, I mean I think at that point, you know honestly you have to, you have to say, sure, we'll see. I mean from my points, what I was falling in love with, was the author and her capability. You know, I was certainly happy to hear she had other books in mind because I wasn't interested in publishing somebody whose only going to write one book. I mean not that I should say I wasn't interested, I mean, my hope was to be finding authors.
AL: And, certainly an author as good as that, you want them to write other books, and so it's that the excitement of being there at the start of someone's career, you know, you hope that the person will have a career and develop as a writer that will be part of the pleasure of publishing that is to watch, watch as that happens.
MA: Right. So you got the rights. And, the big decision, that so many of our readers still to this day, either kvetch about or just discuss, is the changing of "Philosopher's" to "Sorcerer's." So, can you explain the process that went behind that?
AL: Sure you know that did not, did not and does seem like a big decision. And it wasn't at the time. You know, I would have been happy to call it "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." That would have been fine, but at the time that we were introducing it here within our own company and thinking about introducing it to American readers, many people who heard the title and then read the books said "Oh, this is really a different book than I thought it would be with the title "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone""
AL: You know, I'm a literary imprint - I can publish a book called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" or, you know, called "The Philosopher's Stone."
AL: But what readers now do not have the benefit of the, that point of view that we had at that point. Which is: this is an unknown author. She is, at the time that I'm publishing this, I'm publishing a British author is not, you know, is not something that is considered commercially a plus. The fact that an author is from England, you know, is maybe, you know, a strike against it.
MA: Is that in the market, in the consumer marketplace? Is that why?
MA: Or is it...
AL: ...well, and frankly, with reader feedback as well.
AL: With people there was an idea that kids are not, don't want to read about people who are not like them. So, anyway. While I know what a philosopher's stone is, and many people, probably many others do now, particularly since Harry Potter is such a big phenomenon that it has probably induced many people to find out what a philosopher's stone is.
AL: If you think about marketing a book, it is possible that someone hears "Philosopher's Stone" and thinks it's a book about philosophy.
AL: So our idea was we would really like to make sure that the title of the book invokes in kid's minds the nature of the book itself.
AL: So we're trying to make sure that in the general consumer's mind they get what they think they're getting.
AL: And we didn't think Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was necessarily the best title.
MA: Well there's a different connotation in England right? When people hear Philosopher's Stone in England, you do get the Sorcerer's Stone implication, is that correct?
AL: You know that's possible. But it's also, think about England, their publishing a person they paid 3,000 pounds. They, you know, they're a literary publisher and their goal is to just launch the book and launch the author and it's really fine if they sell 300, 500 copies. You know, I'm making, I'm just making that number up.
MA: I think the first is about 500.
AL: A really small number of copies. I know that they paid something like 3,000 pounds, so it's really fine if they get a very small audience That's all they're thinking they're going to get.
AL: Now me, on the other hand, are thinking, well actually we think there's a bigger audience for this particular book. How can we convey that? How can we convey the nature of the book? So I went to, went back to Jo. This is also, by the way, an extremely common occurrence in books that come from other countries, that we say, is this the best title? It's also an extremely common occurrence for books that we originate.
AL: An author sends in a manuscript that has a given title. It's one of the favorite things for a sales and marketing departments to discuss.
AL: Because it seems like a big thing and if they can get the title that they want then it gives them confidence going into the market selling the book to book sellers, etcetera. And giving the people who are selling the book confidence is an important part of a successful publishing effort. Whether you want to do that, if you can accomplish that while keeping the author happy, then you do it. It's only, it only makes sense.
AL: So, the next step is to go to the author because whatever you do, it's the author's book.
AL: And she has to be happy with the title. So, I went back to Jo and I remember the conversation, what the title that I suggested was, how about "Harry Potter and the School of Magic?" Because it seems like Hogwarts is a very important part of this.
MA: Right, especially that first year.
AL: And she thought about it and said, "I'm not really sure about that. How about, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?" And I said, "Oh, Sorcerer's Stone, okay." That evokes magic more directly and obviously. Why don't I take that back and I took that back and everyone was like, oh yes, that's great that's great. (MA laughs) So, oh, okay, so the sales and marketing department are happy the author is happy. The book goes out.
AL: You know P.S. - there are two P.S.'s. P.S. number one, I think that it worked (laughs).
MA: Maybe. (laughs)
AL: Uh, you know, I feel. Well, not maybe.
MA: (laughing) No, I'm just kidding.
AL: Oh, right, right. I'm thinking maybe is, maybe it would have been fine with "Philosopher's Stone."
AL: I certainly think that if Book four had been called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone," that would be no problem.
AL: Oh, we would, I mean, absolutely. Whatever she wants to call it she can, you know, would be absolutely fine. Because, again, fans are there. She's...
AL: No one will take the title as an excuse to skip the book.
AL: Which is a very great possibility with an unknown author. When your introducing an unknown author to booksellers or the public, particularly booksellers. Any opportunity, any reason they have to skip it, to not order it, to not put it on their shelves, they will because there is a lot of competition. And so we do a lot of things to make it impossible for the to skip it.
MA: (laughs) Right.
AL: You want to make the price, the best price you can make it. You want to make the package the most beautiful, compelling package you can. You know all of these things are not necessarily intrinsic to the book but there part of what brings the book to readers.
AL: And that was our priority goal: Get the book to readers. And that's the whole reason. The second P.S. is: can you tell me what the title of the book is in French? The first book?
MA: The first book, no. Four, yes. But the first book, strangely, no. What is it in French?
AL: Ask your readers... Harry Potter and uh, I can't speak French, � l'�cole des Sorciers. Which is Harry Potter...
MA: Something Sorcerer...
AL: ... and the School of Magic .
MA: Oh, really? (laughing)
AL: Yes. So really, the changing of the title is not limited...
AL: ... to... You know some publishers in other countries took it directly. Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal , you know? Took it directly. Other publishers thought well, you know, we need something slightly different.
AL: And so they did. But I think what happens here is that the conversation is, becomes about things that are not, that have nothing to do with the title. This interest in the title or the title change, I think comes from other unstated questions or accusations that you know, people want to make.
MA: Right, but then after, after Book One, have, have the titles changed across the board or then after Book One has it just been the same title pretty much.
AL: Yeah, well I think there is no, there was certainly Book Two: The Chamber of Secrets.
(Prologue from the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire soundtrack begins to play)
MA: Yeah, that's powerful enough on it's own. Yeah.
AL: The Prisoner of Azkaban.
AL: Those, neither of those have a word that people could confuse and certainly, by that time, it doesn't matter.
PotterCast #23: "Changing Harry Potter,"
Jan 26, 2006 [audio]
MA: What was that like, in the beginning? What was it like to try and forge this relationship with this completely unknown - the same way it would be with any writer - but with Jo specifically.
AL: Well, it was a lot of fun, because (laughs) she's a lot of fun!
AL: You know, she's... Somebody - was it one of the fans asked what it was like to meet her?
MA: Or the initial, your initial response to her was one of our fan questions.
AL: Well, yeah, I mean, I remember, you know, my very first conversation with her, you know, after that auction...
AL: ... I was thinking, "Wow! This, you know, this woman is unknown, you know, she's... This is like the... You know, her initial advance was £3000, and this could be really shocking."
MA: Were you the one to bring her the news?
AL: Well, I would assume her that her agent...
MA: Right, probably...
AL: ...was the one who gave her that specific news...
AL: ...but I wanted to talk to her, you know, as soon as I could...
AL: ...because also, I was excited. I wanted to meet her.
AL: And I remember that first conversation, and just how charming she was, and disarming, and unaffected, and... She was just really lovely.
MA: What did you talk about?
AL: Well, I think mainly I just wanted to kind of reassure her that the amount of money was not particularly... It was not the most important thing. I mean, not that I thought she would think that, but I wanted her not to be freaked out by the kind of crazy auction that had taken place. And I wanted her to know that my interest and my passion was in her writing...
AL: ...and that it was not going to be coming from a place of "We need to earn back this big money," you know? (laughs) So...
MA: Right, "We've taken a gamble on you, and now you have to pay us back." Like that kind of thing. You wanted to discourage that.
AL: Well, yeah. I just wanted her to know how much we truly believe in her, and how we were in it for the long term, and, you know, that she should feel confident, that she shouldn't feel... And the only expression I can think of is "freaked out," because I thought that was a possibility.
MA: Yeah. Now, how do you think that the relationship has changed between you guys over the years?
AL: Well we've, you know, we've been through a lot together. (laughs) You know, just the whole crazy process of Harry Potter and its phenomenal growth, and, you know, just and all the changes in our personal lives...
AL: ...that have happened, you know, over that period of time. And becoming parents and, you know, for her again.
AL: So, I just think as with any friend, you know, as time goes by you just gain a closeness from shared experience.
AL: And I also think that it's, there's something that's very special about the fact that we knew each other before it all happened.
AL: You know? Like this was... She must know in her heart that I was interested in her and, you know, respected her, and was excited about her as a writer before she was a famous person, you know, when she was unknown. That was when I really fell in love with her writing.
AL: I think that that is a close bond to have with an author...
AL: ...you know, she must know that it's not particularly... I don't particularly care about all the fame and hoopla, really. For me, just as it was in the first one, it's mostly about the excitement of the book and the writing.
AL: And that I care about her as a person.
MA: Yeah. Well, when this all started to happen, and the books went from something that would be around forever and would eventually pay back this huge advance to something that could sell that in about ten minutes, how did things start to change? Not specifically between your relationship, but just what was all that like as all this started to explode.
AL: Well... (laughs) It's such a big question. It's kind of hard to kind of put that into a little cup and answer it...
AL: ...as in a draft. I think a number of things happened. It certainly... There for many years and I think, I suppose even to the present, every time a new book comes out there's once more a kind of an amazement at the size of it, and the extent of it, and the drama, and, you know, it's the fact that a book and an author are a cultural, an immediate cultural phenomenon.
AL: And that's very unusual, or I would say that's unique to, for me, the Harry Potter books.
MA: Especially in book publishing, that doesn't really happen.
AL: Right. Yeah, the fact that I can continually and each year, each time, I'm amazed that it is a book and an author that are creating this sensation in the media. Or actually this book publication is an event that is noted by the news media, by TV, by radio.
AL: You know, I, of course I wish that this were true for even more books...
AL: ...but if makes you think with pleasure about how great it is that, you know, people could actually be aware of the publication date of a book...
MA: Yeah, yeah.
AL: ...and be counting down to it, excited about it. You know, that's been, that's grown and changed and gotten bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
MA: Was there... Can you remember a specific moment where-that you felt was like a benchmark? At some point during this where you just sat back and said, "Wow, we've done something really big here."
AL: (whispers) Really big... (MA laughs) You know, it's sort of quaint to me now, for me to look back at the things that I thought were big.
MA: Because they keep getting...
AL: Yeah, I remember when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made it onto the New York Times bestseller list at number sixteen and that was, that was a fantastic accomplishment, because it was a children's book, and it was on the New York Times list, which was a combination at that time - a combination, it was an adult books list...
AL: ...And here we were, a children's book - that was showing that we could have you know, big audience and make a big difference in the world of publishing, and that was - we were really excited about that. I mean, we were really excited that we had put this first-time author on to the New York Times bestseller's list - that was huge excitement! I mean I remember we had champagne and we kind of and we had a whole bunch of toasts in there, that was very exc... and then I remember when books were number one, number two and number three (MA laughing) on that very same "combined" adult and children'd bestseller list. Then I certainly knew, "Oh this is a gigantic phenomenon.
MA: Yeah. And the moment that that even caused a split ...
MA: ...actually influenced the publication of the New York Times, you know, so that's huge. I mean really! I wanna make sure we get into - because the fans will never forgive me - the differences between the editions. I can not - well, if you want to explain the general process behind changing the britishism. A lot of people say : "Why can't you say 'jumper' instead of 'sweater'?" Do you know what I mean? So can you tell us the process behind that?
AL: Well, once again, it's a very common process that we go through when we're making a book for an American audience. In case of a translation from French, we change absolutely every single one of the words.
MA: (laughing) Yeah. Yeah.
AL: And I don't, I don't mean to be flip about that.
MA: Yeah. Yeah.
AL: German, every single word is changed.
MA: Yeah. You have too.
AL: There's no attempts to make the French book and that's - we never pretend we're making the french book "American", we're not "Americanizing" the French book, we're not "Americanizing" the German book - we are puting it in language that our readers will find comfortable and not intrusive and will allow them to have the experience the author intended, which is always your first, always your primary goal as a publisher; you want the reader - whether you're originating a book or bringing it from somewhere else - you want the reader to have the experience the author intended. So, when you have a book that's in English or Australian, you know English and it comes through, you read the text and you as an editor, you know points at which you stumble, or are confused, and you flag those. Then you say "Oh, stumble, stumble", you know, what's this? Now many - this is again pre-"the phenomenon"...
AL: ...many, I would say - this may have changed somewhat down, maybe for other, for new books, you know- everyone knows what a jumper is, but in 1997, I would say a large majority of eight year-olds - remember this is pre-marketed, we thought this was good for eight to twelve year-olds -
AL: So most eight year-old, who would have heard of the word jumper, would think of it as a dress - although a pin.. - a dress - what would you call it? A pinafore?
MA: Yeah. Yeah.
AL: This is a kind of dress. And he might say "Well, why is Harry - what is this - why is Harry Potter wearing a dress?"
MA: (laughing) This is a fair question, when you put it like that.
AL: Right. I mean - that's just so you - this is you and how you reflect - and then you say, as I did, in the end you come out with this list of incidences - I mean it could be for any reason why you've stumbled - it could the way something is written or the transition from one paragraph to another or it could be an individual word and you'd have a conversation with the author about it.
AL: So, and the conversation goes something like this - you say, "Well, is there - we're a little confused by this" or, "There's potential for a confusion, is there another way of saying it? Is there another British way of saying this?". Would it - for instance, english people use the word sweater, it's not...
MA: It's not an Americanism.
AL: Yeah. I mean we, where we more commonly use the word sweater, but if you're walking around in England, and you point you say "Ah, how much is that sweater?"...
AL: ...you know, in a window, everyone, you know - it's a common word.
AL: So, that's not a terribly intrusive thing, and so Jo might say, "Oh that's fine." Where we are particularly careful about is when such a word came up in character speech. So then, very often, even if the word could potentially cause confusion we would leave it has is, because she said, for instance, when Hagrid speaks, it's got to be in his very specific diction...
AL: ...and then we would have to try find a way to explain things. I remember there was Christmas Crackers. Now, really we don't have crackers - the only crackers - it's especially difficult when we have the word...
AL: ...in American slang or parlance, but it means something different - so, a cr... We have crackers, we use the word cracker...
AL: ...but it's a different word. So how do you convey that to American readers - because you also can't, you can't translate a word - it's called a Christmas Cracker. So in that we had to - we, meaning me and Jo - had to go look at the paragraph and say, "How can we put in? How can we put in this paragraph somewhere a phrase that explains that it is something that when pulled makes noise?"
AL: So, I remember we - I don't remember exactly how, but we worked into that the first, either the first instance of the mention of Christmas crackers - something like, you know, noise maker...
AL: ...or we put it later without changing a word.
MA: I believe - yeah.
AL: So this is - without getting into the long specifics - but the two things to keep in mind is that our goal that is, is just to make the reader comfortable, it's not to change the... We didn't make any attempt to make him seem American...
AL: We, in fact, would be avid defenders of anything that seemed, that would seem intrusive...
AL: ...and not British. But we tried wherever - that, you know, wherever it was natural to make sure that the reader wasn't stopping and stumbling. And even... This is not meant to be an educational exercise. You know, the goal in publishing a book is not to educate children about English slang.
AL: I - you know, and that's, that's not my goal now and it wasn't my goal then. My goal is to introduce J.K. Rowling to the American public, and just as a, you know, French publisher is going to try very hard to make sure that their translation reflects the author's style and intention, I tried very hard to make sure that our translations, whenever they were done, were respectful and non-intrusive. And I went over every single one of them word by word with the author...
AL: ...and we discussed them. We said, "What do you think of this?" "Oh, that's fine." "Oh, I don't like that. Is there another way that we can do it?" Or, "Here is another solution." or, "You know what? I think we just have to leave that. I really want you to leave that there." That's fine. It's always, again, it's always up to the author. Just as the change in the title is up to the author.
AL: Now, you know, I have to say that I've always had the idea in my head that as the books went along you'd have to do this less and less.
AL: Because, again, part of the problem is that there is a lot of magical language...
AL: ...that is made up.
MA: Mmm-hmm. That's another block for readers to get through.
AL: Well it's also - again, when you consider the author's original intention - an English child knows when something is, oh, a fantastic magical invention, and whether it's just, you know, common slang...
MA: Mmm-hmm. (AL laughs) Yeah.
AL: So why shouldn't American readers have that same experience? And obviously as they're more and more familiar with the world - Hogwarts, and the kind of magical linguistic playfulness that is a kind of hallmark of Rowling's writing - they'll need fewer and fewer of these translations. And I think that readers would find that that is...
MA: The case.
AL: ...the case.
MA: Ron says "shufty" in Book Six, which made me... (laughs) I was looking around for a British person to ask and luckily I had one to ask what it was. But that - it's not - I think by the time a reader is invested in Book Six they'll just say "It's British, move on..."
AL: "Whatever," right.
MA: "...Whatever," yeah. But in the beginning to get them into it, yes.
AL: And, meanwhile they've also, they've had numerous other opportunities to hear words in the context - if they've heard them in the audio or they've seen the movies...
AL: ...there has been a lot that has helped to convey this language, So...
MA: Yeah, but you're never going to have Ron walking down the halls of Hogwarts and saying "Yo!" You know, that's just not ever going to happen.
AL: Right, of course not.
MA: So, yeah. That's the point.
AL: And it doesn't happen in the first book. And you know, the thing would get me kind of on edge is when people either kind of attributed other motivations to what was happening other than really trying to convey the author's work to her readership.
AL: And it's certainly never ever done without her express permission
MA: That's important for people to know.
AL: Not just permission, even. That's the wrong word. Without (pause) her participation. Just as, you know, editors don't go in and cut things, you know, from a book. They suggest cuts.
AL: And they say to the author, "You know, I think this. I think this passage is moving a bit slowly. I don't think you need this." And then the author says either, "Why, you're right! I'll cut that out." (MA laughs) or they say, "No no, you don't - you're not understanding. This needs to - we need to have this for something later, so..."
AL: "...maybe there is something else you can cut." And that's the kind of editorial conversation.
AL: But I think the general public - and even many writers who are just starting out - have the wrong idea, a mistaken idea, of what it is that editors do. Yeah. I don't know where it comes from, but I think they have... I think what they're thinking of is teachers...
MA: I was just thinking that.
AL: ...who's job it is to kind of correct. And I say that without a great knowledge of teaching since I've never done it. But I think that, you know, I've exp... I remember you would get back a paper and there would be things, you know, red lines through it and, you know, showing you the correct way to conjugate this, whatever. But that isn't what editors do.
AL: Editors are just reacting...
AL: ...to the text and giving the author an opportunity to respond...
AL: ...you know, because I am their first reader. I am their opportunity to get a reader's response before the rest of the readers get to read it.
AL: So if I'm confused, maybe somebody else will be confused.
MA: (laughs) Yeah.
AL: Maybe not, you know? I'm the ideal reader (pause) in that... Is it going fine?
MA: Just - just making sure. I always get a little paranoid but it's there.
AL: (unintelligible) But, what I mean is that I'm the ideal reader in a sense that I know the author's work and I'm so behind it. And I... My motivation is so much out of love and the passion and respect...
AL: ...so I'm like the perfect person, you know, to read something first.
MA: Well, when you get that first draft, I mean, it's - now you're almost coming up to the last one - when you get that first draft and you're the first person in the world to see it, is - do you - is it - is it still that excitement? Or is it, or has it changed from book to book; your reaction to getting that manuscript?
AL: You know, my reaction to the manuscript is the, is absolutely the same because really, what's happened to me is that I become more and more focused on what I see as my job. You know, and my job - the most important job I have - is to be that first, that reader.
AL: You know, other parts of my job have become absorbed by the phenomenon, you know? It is no longer... I don't have to be the driving force behind the emotional energy of the publishing effort. You know, in the beginning and for most books...
AL: ...it's the publisher - the editorial director - the editor who is driving that. Who's saying to - who's introducing the book to the publishing house...
AL: ...the sales and marketing people who will then introduce the book to the world. And it's usually the editor who is conveying, and it's up to the editor to get across how fantastic, how important the book is.
AL: You know, that part of it, in kind of making sure that marketing and sales efforts stay on course for what the book needs and what the author wants. Again, it's a little bit less of my job.
AL: I certainly don't need to be generating excitement, (MA laughs) you know?
AL: That's, well...
MA: We've got you covered.
AL: ... no longer my job. And there are eight billion people who will be involved in introducing a book to the public.
AL: But what has not changed, is my orientation towards the text and my responsibility to the author. Completely unchanged. What happens to the book once it is made is completely separate from what we do. Me and Jo.
AL: Which is, it's my job. I have this manuscript. I'm the first reader. It's pure, absolutely pure. My job is to read it and react.
AL: That is all that I have to do. And I have to do it in the same, in a way that is responsible only to the text. I'm not thinking about what readers, what reviewers, critics will think, or summarize or blah, blah, blah. I'm thinking now just what do I feel, what do I think and how can I express that to Jo in a way that would be helpful to her.
MA: Yeah. Now, how does that process work? Do you just get a phone call one day and hear, "Hey, the book's here?" Does Jo call and say it's coming in a week? Do you get any notice like (laughs) one day Harry Potter is on your doorstep? How does that work?
AL: I'll never tell.
MA: Uh-oh. (laughs) It's a secure kind of thing? Cool. Well, we've touched on cuts before and there's a big question in the fandom ever since Book Six came out. And I know you know this question is coming. (laughs) I just, we're not like, "Ha-ha, we've got you!" But we want to clarify for the fans, there are some extra lines in the Book Six edition... For those who aren't familiar- Book Six Spoiler, Book Six Spoiler! (AL laughs) Shut it off if you haven't read it!
AL: I love the idea that there are some people who still haven't read it.
MA: And are listening to PotterCast. (laughs) Dumbledore says to Draco, "We can hide you, we can make Voldemort think you're dead." And those lines aren't in the British edition. There have been wild theories as to why this is. Can you...?
AL: Right. Yeah, you know. Here's the thing. So, we're human.
AL: And we can make an error like anyone else.
MA: (feigning shock) No! Not Scholastic!
AL: Yeah, no. It isn't a vast team of people making this book. It's just a few people, fewer than normal...
AL: ... because of the security issues with this book. And we are under... Once the manuscript is finished, we're under a great deal of pressure to manufacture the book as quickly as possible. So we go through many production stages, and at each stage things are proofread, and queries are run by Jo, and she makes decisions, she gets to read it and make last minute decisions like, "You know, I actually think this paragraph is too long. It should be shorter. The scene is running too long, I want to cut this." And at that point, the British and American editions are running along parallel tracks.
AL: In the manuscript stage, we're right in it together; me and Emma and Jo, a little, a really tight, very small circle. But then as the books are starting to be manufactured, other people read the books, other people comment, questions are sent to Jo, she responds, we make the changes in both of the editions, and at the end the books both come out. Well, it's possible that somehow the production stage is due back, within an hour, and lines that were supposed to be deleted didn't get deleted.
MA: Right. But it's not something...
AL: That's what happened. (MA laughs) It wasn't some sort of conspiracy. We were supposed to delete those lines....
AL: ...just as we deleted other lines and commas and things that the ultimate reader never sees.
AL: But in this case, the error is obvious because something different shows up in the British edition.
AL: But there is nothing behind it, other than the fact that oops, we goofed.
MA: Were the reasons to cut those lines were like, "Hey, just take this out." It's not that... What people want to know is, does this spoil something for Book Seven? Is it a content change rather than just a proofreading change?
AL: Yeah, well Jo has her own reasons, which I'm not going to go into, because that's between me and Jo. An editorial process is private.
AL: This is one of the things... This is sometimes why - when you are asking me what has changed and what hasn't changed - the fact that Jo is famous, that these books are famously loved, doesn't change for me the protected nature of our editorial interaction. I wouldn't go into these things for any author. And this is what I say to her when I am the reader. When it is me, the editor, and the writer talking, is between the two of us. The whole point of it is that it goes on before the book comes out.
AL: So they have a safe space in which they can talk about things, they can consider adding or cutting, or there can be a conversation and it doesn't get reflected.
MA: It's very personal and very emotional...
MA: ...for a writer to be criticized in any forum. Not that it's criticism, but the feedback. Like you said, it's a safe space.
AL: It's important that their process has an integrity. And our meeting, my and Jo's process, has an integrity. Unfortunately, a little clerical error shows a crack in that integrity, but, I wouldn't widen that by discussing... you know?
AL: Even if I knew what her motivation was or wasn't for cutting those lines. It could be anything.
PotterCast #24, "Ending Harry Potter,"
Feb 23, 2006 [audio]
MA: Well, that's another question people had, is how much do you know about Book Seven? Are you on the same slate that we all are on now, or do you know the full arc of the story? And someone suggested that if the answer is that you know the full arc of the story, it's time for me to break out the Veritaserum.
(Arthur Levine (AL) and MA laugh)
AL: Well I, by the very nature of this editorial process that we're talking about, I'm sure I know more than the average reader because I'll be asking questions all along, as I have since Book One. There are things that I have said, to give you an example without being intrusive...
AL: Just generically, I might ask a question like, "Oh, I've noticed this in Book One and Book Two, why is this so?" And Jo might answer... Or I might ask, "Well, do you think, as a reader, am I really looking for an explanation here?" And Jo has the option as the author to say, "Oh, it's great to know that you're confused. I don't want you to be confused there, so I'm going to explain it this way and make a change." However she also has the option of saying, "It's fine for you to be confused. (MA laughs) I'm happy, I want you to be confused" or, "I'm perfectly comfortable with you being confused, because in Book Six..."
AL: "... blah."
MA: "Blah..." Yeah.
AL: So now, I have many of those answers. Like, Oh! This is why she did that.
AL: So, there are some things that I know, just by inference.
AL: Although I'm not going to find that out until...
MA: Book Seven?
AL: ... Book Seven. Yeah. But I know they'll figure it out.
AL: So readers and fans who are listening to this are of the sort that have read the books so carefully that they probably can come up with, at this point, as almost as good guesses as I have, because they know what remains to be... There's only one book left and the fans know what remains to be seen.
AL: So they could probably guess almost as well as I.
MA: Has there been anything where you've said, "What's the reason behind this?" And she's said, "No, no, no. I'm not going to spoil the surprise for you?" Or do you pretty much get those answers when you ask for them?
AL: Oh, no. She tells me only when she wants me to know, (MA laughs) or when it's (unintelligible) so I could absolutely get an answer of, "You'll find that out later."
MA: Interesting. What are the things you're most interested in finding out?
AL: Well, I want to know what happens to everyone, you know? I want to know what happens to Hogwarts. You know, I'm really concerned.
MA: (laughing) Why?
AL: Well, of course I want to know what happens to Harry. Wouldn't you? Where does his life point at the end? And
obviously the same goes for Ron and Hermione. All the main characters, I love these characters. I want to know if they'll be okay. (cryingly) I want to know what happens to Lupin!
MA: (laughs) I love Lupin. He is one of my favorites.
AL: So, I'm really curious how the suggested connection between Harry and Voldemort is resolved. All of these things.
AL: I'm dying of curiosity.
AL: But, you know, also I have to say that I'm terrified of getting this manuscript. It's the last one! Oh, my God! (MA laughs) Up 'til now, it's just been, well, there's more. There's more coming. But it's like there's this very delicious meal, and you're coming up on
AL: Although I know it's going to be a great dessert. (MA laughs) A spectacular dessert, and that it'll be sweet but...
MA: It's almost over.
AL: ... it'll be gone.
AL: So that's hard. But the same thing is true of the individual books. You're reading through and you're like, Oh, man. I so want to know what happens next, but you look a few pages down and you say, "Oh, my God! I only have "X" pages left. (mock hysterical) I have to slow down! (MA laughs) No, No. It's almost over!"
MA: But, yeah. Seriously, that is the exact fan reaction. Because you're going through and you're going, you're going, you're going. Then you're just thinking, "No!" And it's specifically with Book Six and Scotland. We were under such time pressure to finish, and I was thinking to myself, "Oh! It's so sad. In ten hours I'll have consumed this book and it will be done." But hey, listen, there was a benefit at the end of that. I'm not going to... (laughs)
AL: I have to say that I have not asked you... I don't read quickly.
MA: How long would you say it takes you to read a Harry Potter book?
AL: It takes me several days.
MA: Is that because as an editor you feel like you're more attentive to the soaking in of everything? Or is that just your...
AL: It could be. It could be. It could be that I'm taking notes, but I'm also just a slow reader. I'm not a person who races through.
AL: That was how I was in elementary school. I'd get comments, (as if reading from a report)"Is a slow reader but has excellent retention."
(AL and MA laugh)
MA: (continuing comments) "Should be editor" in red on top of the paper. What about the book here, have you caught anyone snooping, looking for the book? Like how do you protect this thing that is worth so much, that is just kind of in this building somewhere before the public, or while the public, knows it's coming?
AL: Well, we have very stringent security procedures.
MA: (laughs) He says with a knowing nod.
AL: Well, I said I wasn't going to talk about that. But that would lessen the effectiveness of the procedure.
MA: Has anything strange happened, where you have thought that people were sort of searching for it? Has anything sort of quirky happened because of this book being in this building?
AL: Um, you know... maybe.
MA: (laughing) He goes by. You get the same look in your eyes that Jo did when she was trying to hide something.
AL: Well, I'm a person who likes to answer direct questions, so it's hard to me to not. But that's fine, it isn't appropriate for me to talk about that.
MA: Understandably so.
AL: I would say that here's one thing, as a person, that that skill that I had almost none of before Harry Potter...
AL: ...the ability to not answer a direct question.
MA: (laughs) Yeah.
AL: You know, anyone who is my friend will tell you that I am a - even you sitting across from me not knowing me can tell - that I am a very transparent individual. And of course, in a profession that is all about communication and clarity, what I want most in any interaction is to be understood and to be clear and to be helpful and to be things that are a hallmark of my personality, I think. And so it's really difficult for me, when asked a direct question, to not say anything. But I have kind of learned how to do that.
MA: Yeah. You just have to. It is interesting that a book has made you guys sort of like Secret Service agents (AL laughs) around here.
AL: You know, I would still be a pretty bad Secret Service agent.
MA: (laughs) Over all this time, in this unique experience, how do you feel that you personally have changed as an editor because of Harry Potter?
AL: As an editor? I don't think I've changed at all as an editor. I think that, certainly, the process, making a book, i the process of making a book. And that's different with every book and with every author and the joys of that process are in understanding that they're going to change. I think as a publisher, having been the publisher of Harry Potter has given me job security (laughs)...
MA: Yeah. (laughs)
AL: ... that I probably wouldn't have ordinarily had. You know I've published other prominent authors and illustrators as well, and I would hope that they would continue to want to publish with me. I don't really think it has changed that much.
MA: Well, what sort of opportunities have come to you from being the editor of the Harry Potter books?
AL: I think it's a good question, so I'm thinking in order to not be filp about the answer. I think that my imprint, and I as an editor, have gained visibility beyond the circles of normal literary childrens' books that I wouldn't have. So really, I could talk more. I think I could introduce myself to any literary agent with that. I have a line of introduction: "Hi, I'm Arthur Levine. I'm the publisher of Harry Potter." That would at least get a nod of recognition, whereas prior to that it would have be a more select group...
AL: ... that would have heard of the books and authors and illustrators that I have been involved with. Even if our people had won Caldecotts and major awards and were very important in that circle.
AL: The circle of children's books is smaller in general. The circle of people who have heard of J.K. Rowling and of Harry Potter is an enormous one. So there is, at least, a line of introduction. Whether it gets me beyond that, remains to be seen. I'd like to hope that people think of me for great books, who might not have otherwise. I hope that the agents, and I hope that authors out there are thinking, "I have a really great book, who should I send it to? Why not send it to Arthur Levine?"
AL: You know my fear is that people think, "Oh, he's published Harry Potter so why would he be interested." Of course, that's not true.
MA: Because you never know who the next one is, that's sitting on public assistance in Britain.
MA: If Jo publishes her next book, this children's book that she's been talking about, after Harry Potter, what do you think; as Jo Rowling or pseudonym? (laughs)
AL: Well, I think that is absolutely up to her.
MA: Right, but personally...
AL: Frankly, I think it would be to fine either way.
AL: Again, I'm interested in her as a writer. So I'd be happy to publish her as an anonymous, pseudonymous writer again. (MA laughs) She'll be fine, I'm sure whatever she writes is going to be very, very good.
MA: The question becomes, how long would it remain a mystery? I think that the world's sleuths would be out to figure it out.
AL: I think so.
AL: But, maybe not. One of the great advantages and privileges of Jo's position is that she doesn't need, on any level, to be identified as the author of the upcoming book that she's written pseudonymously. She has a very secure ego, so she doesn't need the strokes.
AL: She has a secure income, she doesn't need the money. She really has terrific freedom to write whatever she'd like.
MA: She doesn't need to publish to make a living anymore.
AL: She doesn't need to publish, so if she wants to publish it under a different name...
MA: More power to her.
AL: ... why not?
MA: Yeah. So let's do fan questions. I feel like we've answered most of the fan questions that we had chosen for this, so I know we'll be running a little over, very over actually. So the question is, has Jo indicated, or what do you think, that the writing of Book Six (meaning to say Book Seven)...
AL: Book Seven?
MA: ... to be a little faster because it's all planned, or slower because she doesn't want to let it go? Either has she indicated...
AL: I don't really know the answer to that question.
AL: You know, we'll see. It seems to be plausible. Although I will say the fact that it's all planned... I don't know if Book Seven is any more planned than any of the other books, but I think that Jo has the idea of what's going to happen. But I think she takes great pleasure in the writing of each book.
AL: So she's not just going to go mechanically, filling in the plots. She's going off and writing, and I think that that process takes as long as it takes.
AL: It's very sensitive of this fan to think, might there be some sadness. I'm sure that she would feel... Wouldn't anyone feel the emotional tug of finishing such a project that has been so dear to her heart. I can't imaging that it would be otherwise.
AL: But I don't know what kind of impact that would have on...
MA: Her writing?
AL: ... the speed of her writing.
MA: Okay, our next one. What are your personal favorite moments in the series?
AL: That's a very difficult question, so difficult. (laughs) I don't even know if I can answer that. But not for being coy, just that there are so many that they're not right up in my memory.
AL: I think that Dumbledore's conversation with Harry in front of the Mirror of Erised is one of my great favorites. How do I pick a moment our of Azkaban and say that it's my favorite moment? How about every time McGonagall opens her mouth? (AL and MA laugh) She's so great!
MA: Especially in Book Five when she says, that "it screws the other way." (laughs)
AL: The standing up to Umbridge scenes, I really loved. It's such a melange, it's very difficult for me to pick out specific moments like that. There were many, many of them.
MA: Okay. When you were finished reading the first book, were your thoughts, "I need to know what happens next!" or was it just that you loved the book as a whole?
AL: Oh, I think that is more a question of order, rather than choice.
AL: You know, clearly both things were true. It's more of my nature to just see each book as an individual unit, than to be mostly focused on my pleasure in the completion of a book. That's how I am as a reader. So, that's undoubtedly what my main feeling was, one of great satisfaction and pleasure. But, of course, I was dying to find out what happened next.
MA: Okay, you know all the ones we had chosen, we had talked about earlier. So here, at the end, we have a segment on PotterCast - a Fan Interview, we interview a fan every week, and at the end of it we play a little game with them, called "Live or Die?" And we name a bunch of characters and we say, "What do you think will happen to them at the end. Will they live, or will they die?" So...
AL: Oh, I don't think we should play that.
MA: (laughing) Because you think it's going to be hard? Or...
AL: Yeah, A) it would be hard and B) it would be misleading to the fans because people tend to think...
MA: ...that you know more. Well let's disclaim this.
AL: No, no. None of that. (MA laughs) I think they'd get confused.
MA: Well can I ask if you think that Harry is going to survive the series?
AL: You know, I can honestly say that I don't know.
MA: Do you think it's do-able without breaking, as they always say, "Oh, if she does that she'll break ten million hearts." Do you think it's do-able for her to kill him, and have it not be something simply heart-breaking? And, you know?
AL: No, I think if she killed, if Harry dies at the end of this story, it will be heart-breaking.
AL: I do think that as an author, J.K. Rowling has shown that she's not afraid to tell a story that breaks your heart. When you think of that, that is one of the powers of fiction and with writing, is that they can break your heart, because life can break your heart. And people die in life. And I think that she is an emotionally courageous person, in that she's not afraid of a very difficult truth like that. We all know that people, everyone, dies. No one will dispute
AL: It's an indisputable fact. How we feel about being confronted with that in fiction, in fictional characters that we
carry around, we probably are only marginally more resistant to that idea in fiction when we care it, than in our actual real lives. That doesn't mean it won't be so. So...
MA: Mmm-hmm. Can you remember or name another book or series that has had the main hero die, supposedly heroically, and it worked?
AL: Charlotte's Web.
MA: Yeah, it's a big one. (laughs)
AL: It immediately comes to mind. And remember that other people that read that... I reread that a few years ago and was struck by how E.B. White was so direct about that scene. That when Charlotte dies, he specifically says she died and she's all alone, and no one knew. And I remember this as an adult once again wept copious tears. I was inconsolable, I couldn't believe he was so stark. And yet, my memory of the book was it was a book that I loved as a child.
AL: So, it does happen in fiction, and again I would have to say even if it weren't true, that wouldn't necessarily mean that Jo Rowling wouldn't do it.
AL: But I don't know. I mean, I don't know what the final arc of the story is for her.
AL: People that we care about have already died in these books, so I think that it depends on what she wants to say about with this story. And I don't know what that is at the end of the day. That's something that will be answered.
MA: In other words, we put nothing past her (laughs) I personally put nothing past her.
AL: Well, I think we have to remember that she is writing this story. I know that she cares very deeply what her fans think, she finds ways to talk directly to them. They're brilliant. I think she cares about that more than anything else, really. But at the end of the day, she is writing her book. She's writing the books that she wanted to write.
AL: And she has to tell her story, whatever that story is. I think that she has not in the past been influenced by what she perceives what people have said, "Oh, don't do that. You can't do that." Because people have their feelings. Romeo and Juliet have died. Had people been able to write to Shakespeare, (MA laughs) (AL in a mock hysterical voice) "No, no! Don't kill them! Romeo and Juliet! You know we love them!" You know, that's part of their story.
MA: Well, I think that's a great place to wrap things up. And thank you, Arthur Levine, for coming on PotterCast. Hopefully this is a...
AL: You're welcome.
MA: ... I think the fans will really enjoy this.
MA: Thank you.
AL: Sure! My pleasure.
Original page date 29 May 2007; last updated 21 May 2007.