In 1997, Barbara Marcus was the president of children’s book publishing at Scholastic when she signed J. K. Rowling and brought Harry Potter to the United States.
Now she is the president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, and as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter, we had to ask her about her experience with “the boy who lived.” We’re more excited to hear this story than Dobby was on the day he was freed.
1. How did you acquire the first Harry Potter book? What was your reaction when you read the manuscript?
Jo Rowling’s agent sent the manuscript around to several publishing houses, and Arthur Levine received it at Scholastic. He knew there was going to be an auction, so he gave it to me to read. I didn’t have time to read it right away, so I gave it to my daughter Lucy, who is now thirty years old. She was always a really great reader, and she read it and said, “Mom, this is better than Roald Dahl!” Once I read it, I knew it was special. I had the feeling it would become a modern classic.
2. What happened at the auction?
The auction came down to two publishing houses, and the price was up to six figures, which was high for a new author. Arthur came into my office, and I told him that I thought this could be a perennial seller for us. I said to him, “If you love it, buy it.” We placed one more bid. And then we got it.
3. It has been twenty years and Harry Potter is still a phenomenon. What do you think made it so successful?
Jo Rowling is a genius. I think it’s a success because it’s about regular kids in an extraordinary world. There was an “I can relate to this no matter who I am” feeling about it. At its core, that was what it was about—you could be Harry Potter, I could be Harry Potter, anyone could.
4. When did you leave Scholastic, and was it hard to leave Harry Potter?
I acquired all the books, but I left before the last one was published. I felt like I had sort of done my job. By that time, they had started making the movies, and Harry Potter had become a huge franchise. At the beginning, it was really all about how much love the books were getting from children and booksellers. It was about the choices we made with Jo and how creative we could get. Because of the magical world, we could do so many fun marketing activities! Around the fourth book, when Harry Potter truly became a phenomenon, it felt like it was bigger than Scholastic—it was owned by the readers. On the day the last book came out, it was hard not to be leading Scholastic, but I left knowing the books were in good hands.
5. Which book is your favorite?
I think the saddest but the most magical is the Goblet of Fire, but you really can’t have a favorite because each one has such a magic about it. My youngest child, who is now twenty-three, rereads them every summer, and we always talk about it. I used to know every part of every book, so it’s a great reminder, kind of like going back to the golden age of something—getting to talk about Hogsmeade, the great characters, and all the incredible parts of the series.
6. Do you have a favorite character?
No! I would say you have to love Hermione. You have to love Dobby. You have to love Hagrid. There are so many of them when you start to go through it!
7. Do you have a favorite memory or story from your time working on the series?
What I admired most about Jo was her loyalty to her readers. I remember on her first author tour, she had just been published in the United States and learned that the rights to make movies and products had been bought. She was nervous about what the company might do prior to the books being published. She wanted children to be able to imagine what the world was like and what the characters were like and did not want them in toy figures.
She waited so long to do the movies because she wanted the books out first. Now the books and the movies are so intertwined, but at first, she really wanted the readers to establish the world for themselves.
8. As it grew in popularity, how were you able to keep the series all about the books and the readers?
By the fourth book, Jo didn’t want any reviewers to have the books in advance. She wanted everyone to come to them at the same time. As publishers, we spent a great deal of time trying to make sure no one received the books before the on-sale date. One time, a train with a shipment of the books got stalled overnight. A group of kids broke in and took some copies and were planning to give them out in school the next day. The school administration convinced the kids to send them back to us. I could tell so many stories like that—about how we didn’t want the readers influenced by reviews or the media but to experience the next Harry Potter tale by reading it.
That’s how the midnight parties came to be—they happened organically at the indie bookstores. I remember going to ALA in Chicago when the third book went on sale. I stopped by Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, where they were having a midnight party, and it was so magical. It was really the indies who embraced the magic of the books.
By the fifth or sixth book, my family and I would rent a car for the night and drive around New York City to go to the various places where they were doing midnight events. It was so wonderful. People just had such a good time.
9. What else sticks out to you about working on this now-classic series?
What is so historical about publishing these books is that we also really cared about what the book looked like. In those days, middle-grade books didn’t have foil and fancy embossing on the covers, and they didn’t have illustrated chapter openers, which are things we take for granted now. Hardcovers for middle graders didn’t sell like they do now. We just assumed this book would be important forever, so we treated it like an adult book. We really took care to make the physical book itself special, too, because we believed in it.