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Interview with Arthur Levine, Co-Editor of Harry Potter

As originally heard on PotterCast Episodes 22, 23, and 24

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Listen to the entire interview (MP3, 36 MB; please right-click and save-as)

MA: Welcome to Extendable Ears! We call it Extendable Ears, the part where we talk to people who are actually involved in the Potter Universe, you know? So we get to listen in. (laughs) So this is the Extendable Ears portion of PotterCast for whichever week this is coming out. I’m Melissa and I’m really excited to be here with Arthur Levine, who is the editor, co-editor of the Harry Potter books, editor of the American editions. He runs Arthur Levine Books, which is the imprint of Scholastic Inc., which is responsible for bringing these books to America. And actually Arthur Levine himself is credited most often with bringing Harry Potter to America, therefore probably directly responsible for most of the people listening to this, to this PotterCast, and…

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.

MA: Yeah.

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...

MA: Mmm-hmm.

AL: ...as a representative of my own imprint. So, this was this spring of 1997.

MA: Mmm-hmm.

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.

MA: Okay.

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.

MA: Mmm-hmm.

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.

MA: Right.

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.

MA: Mmm-hmm.

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…

MA: Right.

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: Right.

MA: Right.

AL: It was not, no. It was not known. She was unpublished.

MA: Right.

AL: It was, you know, there was the enthusiasm of a credible literary publisher behind her, at that point. So that’s not nothin’!

MA: Right.

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…

MA: Mmm-hmm.

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…

MA: Yeah.

AL: ...um, but nothing else! And then we had this, this auction.

MA: A rights auction, right? That’s…

AL: A rights auction!

MA: Mmm-hmm.

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…

MA: Right-

AL: ...and, you know,I won that auction…

MA: Mmm-hmm-

AL: ...so that’s why I got to publish it.

MA: Right.

AL: Now, I will say that the auction itself was a moment in the, in what happens to the book…

MA: Mmm-hmm-

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…

MA: Yeah.

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!”

MA: Right.

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.

MA: Right.

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.

MA: Yeah.

AL: I mean I do remember that that was by far the most I’d ever paid for a first novel.

The Transcription Elves: Tim, Shannon, Becca, Pascal, Alysha, Claudette, Hope, Doug, and KimmyBlair.