Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That Boy Wizard (no spoilers here though)

My one claim to fame from the residues of my career in children's publishing (ok actually I have two. The other one was rejecting Jacqueline Wilson), is that but for a quirk of fate (called failing a job interview) I might have been JK Rowling's editor.

Ten years ago I had just returned to work after a period of maternity leave. For all sorts of reasons I won't go into here, it wasn't at all a happy time. I found it hard to slot back in after six months away, I was missing my baby hugely but didn't feel able to say so (let's just say for a children's company it was at the time remarkably family unfriendly), and the job I loved was becoming more political by the minute, so I was starting to hate it.

Publishing's a funny sort of career to have. There's no formal structure or career progress. To get to be a commissioning editor often requires huge doses of luck, and the term "editor" can vary hugely from company to company in terms of the job spec and the responsibilities. It is in short the sort of career where to some degree you make your own luck.

I started my work life in academic publishing, took a variety of different jobs to broaden my experience, then, when I realised a) I was never going to get promoted where I was and b) I wasn't actually all that keen to stay in academia I jumped ship over to children's book - a decision I never regretted.

I had a huge huge dose of luck at this point because the company I joined was expanding and I arrived just at the moment when we were launching a series which was to be its first great success. I ended up running the series and commissioning other related series, and was happy as a sandboy until the company grew so much that from being a cosy happy smallish team we became more and more facelessly corporate. It wasn't a change I relished and I felt increasingly restricted.

Hence my decision to go looking for another job. And lo and behold there was an ad in The Bookseller for Bloomsbury, a publisher I chiefly knew from having had a pal there at that atrocious Princess in Love book came out (but it WAS fun visiting the offices the next day and hearing all the gossip about it) and for being the home of my favourite living author (aside from Terry Pratchett that is), Margaret Atwood. Did I want a job there in those pre Harry Potter days? Did I ever. Apart from the fact that I'd be able to escape the misery of the situation I was in, the thought of working in a place I thought of with awe definitely appealed.

Alas, it wasn't to be. Though I had a very jolly and positive meeting with the then new head of publishing, I think perhaps I wasn't keen enough to work full time, and well, ok, she didn't like me probably. Anyway I didn't get the job. So my near brush with the most amazing publishing phenomenon of recent times is just that a near brush...

It's going to sound a bit daft, but it did take a long time to connect that job interview with the fact that had I got the job I'd have been editing Harry - I might even have given up writing my own stuff for the chance to do that - mainly because at the time, just prior to publication of the first book he wasn't exactly the main topic of conversation at the interview. If I remember rightly my putative employee spent more of the interview talking about Louis Sachar's Holes then Harry Potter. Though I do think the boy wizard may have come up in passing.

I only mention this because having just read HP7 it struck me anew what an incredible journey it's been for JK Rowling.

Being in the industry I probably knew about Harry Potter before most people had even heard of him - we had an editorial assistant who came from Bloomsbury raving about him. To my eternal shame I rather smugly thought, It can't be as good as all that (in my not very good defence we were the no 1 children's publishers at the time!). But when it came out, I couldn't resist reading it. I love fantasy so much and it is exactly the sort of thing I would have eagerly published, if I hadn't had my fingers burnt with a fantasy list a few years earlier (and been told, don't laugh by someone at Smiths that fantasy doesn't sell). For years after HP became successful our MD spent a lot of time accusing us all of having missed and rejected him, but I know for a fact if Harry had landed on my desk I'd have given him full attention, and ditto my colleagues - and especially my boss who edited Philip Pullman's Northern Lights.

What I will say is this though. I'm actually rather glad Harry didn't come my way, not because I wouldn't have relished the opportunity to work with such a brilliant author, I would have, but because I know my company at the time wouldn't have made the most of the marketing in the way that Bloomsbury did. I watched in awe as they came up with genius promotion after genius promotion. We'd have never have done that, and I doubt Harry would have had the success he's had if we'd published him.

So I'm not bitter about missing out (well, not much) and have really enjoyed the experience of reading his story along with the rest of the world.

But you know the thing that makes me the gladdest about the Harry Potter phenomenon?

It's the fact that thanks to JK Rowling people now take children's books seriously.

During the ten years I was working in the children's book industry, time and time again I found myself having to defend why I wasn't in the serious, more important bit of publishing - namely the adult section. Apart from stating the bleedin' obvious, I LOVE children's books and really enjoy what I do, it used to really nark me that people really missed the point. Where, pray dear reader, do the readers of tomorrow come from if we don't create them today. I have actually met twenty year olds (in fact I met one on Saturday) whose enjoyment of series I edited thirteen years ago has stayed with them into adulthood, and on Friday night when we walked back home from a party (via Waterstones natch) it was full of twenty somethings who've grown up with Harry Potter. Not all of them will read something else, but some of them might.

And now it is definitely ok to be seen reading a kids' book.

So I raise my glass to JKR. She and Harry have done my industry (and the children of the world) a great service. And I for one am very grateful - even if I'll never get to be her editor now.

No spoilers here - I promised - but the last book?

It's fan - bloody - tastic.

So there.

1 comment:

Dumdad said...

Thanks for the "no spoilers." My son has read HP7, handed it on to my wife who's just finished it and now it's my turn. And when I finish the book the cat's expressed an interest.