Speakeasy: Harry Potter, finacial wizard


The Casual Vacancy is out, formally signalling the end of the magical Harry Potter era.

The Casual Vacancy is out, formally signalling the end of the magical Harry Potter era. Behind the scenes, Potter also worked a lot of magic for Bloomsbury Publishing, bankrolling the search for quality writers like Michael Ondaatje and David Guterson which is the company's core interest. And now, before he moves on, maybe he's turned one last trick, helping to finance the expansion of Bloomsbury into India.

On an unseasonably muggy afternoon in Delhi, I, in the role of subtropical Muggle, met some of the company's leading wizards to learn what game was afoot. They were sitting out owing to the popular British mania for warmth. I sweated it out grimly, in support of the storied but probably fake tradition of Indian hospitality. But a couple of things I learned made up for being stewed alive.

Apparently, the bush telegraph has been transmitting Chinese whispers. The authorised version of Harry Potter's back story, vouched for by Wikipedia, is that Rowling was discovered by Bloomsbury founder Nigel Newton's daughter Alice, then aged eight. A contrary version credits former Bloomsbury pillar Liz Calder's editorial assistant with the discovery, presumably in the slush pile.

But Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was not a found object. Rowling was formally represented to Bloomsbury's children's fiction editor Barry Cunningham. "I took a copy of the printout home and flung it at Alice, and it entranced her," said Newton. "So when we voted on the book, I mentioned that my daughter liked it. She influenced only one vote out of many."

But that voting session would shape the future of Bloomsbury. Conceived in 1985 at a hot dog stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the company was positioned as a publisher of quality literature, a frighteningly risky business in which one profit-turner out of 10 titles published counts as good odds. (Tenuously related fact: Ladbrokes has been offering 1/10 on Jeet Thayil for the Booker.) Newton recalled that his company shouldered debts of £8 million on a turnover of £11 million.

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