The Literary Agent For J.K. Rowling / Harry Potter
The tension and excitement have been building for weeks. Last weekend The Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie released which is about the fifth book in the series. This weekend, the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This book has been perched at the top of bestseller charts for weeks and will break printing records and other areas of the book business.
This week I was talking with another literary agent and he called to my attention a short article from The Observer in England about a little-discussed aspect of the Harry Potter story. While almost everyone knows that J. K. Rowling was an unpublished children's writer and a single mother who wrote the book in a coffee shop and dreamed of getting published. How was the book discovered and brought into the publishing world?
J. K. Rowling overcame some incredible hurdles in publishing to get that initial book contract. Some of those hurdles she passed through with sheer good luck. There is no other way to categorize it.
Repeatedly in these entries about The Writing Life, each of us involved in publishing have incredible passion for the work and the results of what books do in the lives of people. Yet first at the same time publishing is a business with the normal way things are done plus situations where events fall outside of the normal route. Rowling's experience definitely fell into the "other" option category.
I'm regularly approached with children's manuscripts despite the clear submission guidelines. It's hard for any children's author to find a literary agent. Why? Most of it relates to economics. Most children's advances are small and the sales are small. Because agents work on a commission or a percentage, it's hard to get a skilled literary agent excited about doing the same work to place a children's book author as they would to place an adult author at substantially greater return.
As you read this article about Christopher Little, notice how Little became a literary agent--mostly with his first client who was a schoolfriend who he represented and sold a thriller from Philip Nicholson called Man on Fire which went on to sell 7.5 million books worldwide and become a Hollywood film. Little's agency did not represent children’s books.
Here’s the two key paragraphs (in my view) from this article: "The agency, run in 'cramped' and 'near-Dickensian' offices in Fulham, south-west London, was cash-strapped until touched by Potter's magic wand. Literary folklore has it that Rowling, then a penniless 29-year-old single mother, walked into a public library in Edinburgh, looked up a list of literary agents and settled on the name Christopher Little because it sounded like a character from a children's book."
"Bryony Evens, his office manager at the time, has said that it went straight into the reject basket because 'Christopher felt that children's books did not make money'. But its unusual black binding caught her eye, prompting her to read the synopsis and show it to Little. He recalled: 'I wrote back to JK Rowling within four days of receiving the manuscript. I thought there was something really special there, although we could never have guessed what would happen to it.' He managed to sell it to Bloomsbury for £2,500, but later reaped huge rewards from international rights and has won a reputation as a brilliant deal-maker who puts Rowling first."
With the current exchange rates, £2,500 is just a bit over $5,000. Also this article mentions the agent has received an estimated commission of over $100 million. Not a bad return for pulling a manuscript with an unusual manuscript with black binding from the reject basket.
Don't assume your material can go into this "other" category for how it becomes published. I'd encourage you to work through the normal channels as much as possible but be aware that some times a project will jump to the front of the line. I was fascinated with these details about the Harry Potter books. And yes, if you are wondering, I'm going to read the last book in the series since I've read each of the six published books.