When fans of Harry Potter think back to the year 2000, they might remember it as the year of the big secret. For that was the year the media world serendipitously cast the fourth installment of the seven-part series as the Manhattan Project of the book publishing world.
But, according to insiders, the secrecy was less a matter of strategy than necessity. Until recently–April, by reliable accounts–the publishers were as in the dark about book four as the public.
“They had no idea what the plot was going to be until a month or so ago,” said one British editor familiar with the goings-on at Bloomsbury, Harry Potter ‘s British publisher. “There was an awful lot of nervous tension over there. It’s clever what they did with the publicity. They made a virtue out of what was a problem.”
Several months before its July 8 publication date, booksellers were taking orders for J. K. Rowling’s next book, Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament . And media outlets around the country goosed along enthusiasm by running pieces on everything from what kids could read while waiting for Doomspell to reasons why even adults liked the tales. Toss in impressive statistics–the first three books have sold almost 30 million copies and been published in 39 languages–and the appetite for the next Harry Potter only increased.
Then, in mid-May, The Doomspell Tournament vanished. In its place emerged Harry Potter IV and a shroud of secrecy around the book, its title and contents. Scholastic, which has listed the book by its Doomspell title in its catalog, contacted major booksellers and the media, informing them that the book would now be known simply as Harry Potter IV .
At that point the publishers–Bloomsbury in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic in the U.S.–took the secrecy and ran with it. The reason? Ms. Rowling, they said, wished to make the best surprise possible for the children.
“Everyone is signing an agreement not to put the book on sale before July 8,” said Sandra Leaf, a publicist for Raincoast Books in Ottawa, Bloomsbury’s Canadian distributor. “Anyone who sees the book itself– proofreaders, layout editors–have had to sign a confidentiality agreement. There is a title, but it is a secret.”
Raincoast Books publicity assistant Michelle Raadschelders added that the books were being guarded in a bonded warehouse until the release. “There are absolutely no advance copies. In the U.K., they said they wouldn’t send out any media copies at all. We will send out media copies, but time it so that they do not arrive until the 8th or 9th. No one will have the book before the 8th, no one should know anything about it before then, unless a copy gets stolen. The warehouse has security guards, although we have no security on site.”
But it’s easy to keep a secret when there is nothing to hide. Emma Matthewson, Ms. Rowling’s editor at Bloomsbury, confirmed to The Observer that the manuscript had come in late. “The manuscript was delivered at the end of February, which should not be taken as a normal schedule for publishing. Normally the manuscript is delivered a full 12 months in advance of the publishing date. This was very tight. We worked on it until the end of May. That includes all the major edits and rewrites right down to the details, copy editing, typesetting and so forth. It was very, very tight.
“I didn’t get nervous,” Ms. Matthewson continued. “I was always in constant communication with Jo and she would tell me how she was getting on. She would tell me, and I have complete trust in her.”
But late February didn’t sound too accurate to Ms. Rowling’s American editor, Arthur A. Levine, who noted that he and Ms. Matthewson received the manuscript simultaneously. While still citing the end of May as the closing time for the manuscript, Mr. Levine recalled a much later date for submission. “Mid-April sounds about right,” he said. “The later it got, the more pressure there was. We–Jo and I–are in regular contact, and she was under some pressure. She wanted to get this book right. It’s a pivotal book. Her concern was to make sure she crafted her story just the right way. There’s a pressure of expectation that didn’t exist with the first book.”
Mr. Levine’s account of the production schedule would seem more in sync with the title’s magical disappearance in mid-May. “I’m not exactly sure when we settled on a title. We discussed a few titles. It was recently. Everything happened very recently…. There may have been talk about it [delaying the book].”
Christopher Little, Ms. Rowling’s literary agent, also recollected that his client turned in her manuscript “in April,” although he did not specify when. He added, “The title came in virtually simultaneously to the time the book came in.”
When questioned about the April date, Ms. Matthewson declined to comment.
Still, as short-lived as the Harry Potter secret was, it was well kept–until June 24, when the Sunday Telegraph reported the title of book four to be Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire . And on June 27, Scholastic Books confirmed that title for The Observer .
The Observer has also learned that a green and blue dragon adorns the dust jacket of the book’s British version.
J.K. Rowling did not get to be the third-richest woman in the U.K. by happenstance. Consider her dealings with Random House Inc.’s Listening Library. When the audio-book publisher met with the author, the staff had to earn her trust before the first sentence of Harry’s first tale could be recorded. “From the beginning, Ms. Rowling and her agent spent a fair amount of time reviewing some of the other work we had done so that she would have an acceptable comfort level with us,” said Mary Beth Roche, the publicity director for the Listening Library.
And still Jim Dale, the actor hired by Listening Library, who created more than 125 different voices for book four alone, had to run all of his handiwork by the author.
“On one of the previous books, Jim wanted to do an Irish accent for one of the characters,” Ms. Roche told The Observer . “[Ms. Rowling] wanted a Yorkshire accent, so Jim had to go back and re-record that voice.”
This time, however, with the manuscript arriving so late, Random House could hardly afford delays. “This time, he would record during the day and check in with her each night.”
According to Ms. Roche, Mr. Dale and the audio crew didn’t get the manuscript until late May, working through Memorial Day weekend to ensure that the 20-and-a-half-hour recording would be ready for the July 8 release.
“She’s just a perfectionist,” said her editor, Emma Matthewson. “She wants to get everything absolutely right.”
For nearly 80 weeks now, ever since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone started appearing on The New York Times best-seller list, adult trade publishers have been standing quietly by, watching young Harry hopscotch all over the list.
No more. On July 23, The Times will cede that territory back to the grownups, launching a children’s fiction best-seller list.
“That is an enormous relief to us all who were afraid we’d face five Harry Potter books at top of the best-seller list,” said Time-Warner Trade Publishing Group chief Larry Kirshbaum. Asked how he thought the new list came to be spawned at the paper of record, he said, “There was a lot of intelligent lobbying going on. James Patterson [the thriller writer who is published by Time-Warner’s Little, Brown imprint], for one, and some others wrote letters. I think The Times realized it was going to destroy their list. And with Barnes & Noble going to its own list, The Times is losing their franchise even more. A lot of people felt it was diluting the value of The New York Times best-seller list. The Times list and Oprah are the two foundations of our business right now, of the best-seller business.”
Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath denied that grumblings from the publishing folks had made much difference. “The catalyzing event came last February when there were five kids’ books on the best-sellers list, three of those being the first three Harry Potters.… That made a fully third of the list children’s fiction. It seemed like a good moment to make the change.”