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Today in history... Harry Potter hysteria steps up a gear

12:00am | & News

The eighth of July in 2000 brought eagerly-anticipated relief for millions of young (and not-so-young) bookworms in the UK and USA.

It saw the release Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the increasingly popular series of fantasy novels by author JK Rowling. Bookshops on both sides of the Atlantic opened up specially in the middle of the night so that Potter fans could buy the book as soon as it was released for sale at midnight. Long queues formed outside, with many fans dressing up as characters from the books.

The initial print run for the fourth book was 5.3 million copies, with 1.5 million destined for the UK and 3.8 million for America. In Britain the usual print run for a children's book, even by an established author, was around 20,000 copies. By now Harry Potter was clearly a publishing phenomenon and "Potter-mania" had gripped a growing army of worldwide fans, young and old alike. 

The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was released to very little fanfare in 1997 by a relatively little-known publisher, Bloomsbury. Its editors had seen merit in Rowling's work and ideas after she was turned down by scores of other publishers, who certainly lived to rue the day!

Initial reviews were encouraging, but it was the fans who took Harry Potter to their hearts and the spread of Potter-mania is one of the best early examples of the power of social media. The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, followed a year later to much wider acclaim and by the time the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was published in 1999, the books were already making national news headlines.

Internet retailer Amazon, which in those days was still largely concerned with books and little else, sold 400,000 copies of the 640-page fourth instalment in advance of its publication. Staff at its Milton Keynes distribution centre worked through the night to make sure they all went out on time.

Devised right from the start as a seven-book series, the novels follow the adventures of orphaned boy wizard Harry Potter throughout his years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As well as fantastical magical adventures and an escalating battle against evil Lord Voldermort and his forces of darkness, the books reflect many of the ordinary challenges and changes that children go through in their adolescence.

Commentators have suggested that this is why so many young readers identified with the books and their key characters. At the same time they also reflected many of the themes of modern society and tackled difficult subjects including racism, corruption and death. As the later books grew darker and more complex some criticised them as unsuitable for young readers... which only attracted more!

Initially it was Rowling's intention to publish one book each year, so that children the same age as Harry and his schoolmates could grow up alongside them. The first four books did come out at one a year, each July. Ironically it was the success of the series which slowed its progress slightly as the author had to devote attention to many other aspects of her work, including publicity and film deals.

The final instalment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, actually hit the shops on July 21st 2007, a decade after the first book. Not that it mattered, as Potter-mania – by now bolstered by epic film adaptations of the earlier books – had hit hysteria level.

To date the books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide and been translated into 73 different languages, making them the bestselling book series in history. Mirroring that success, the big screen adaptations have become the second highest grossing film series of all time, while a number of Harry Potter visitor attractions have opened, allowing fans to experience "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter".

As young readers who weren't even born when the first books came out continue to be gripped by the adventures of Harry, Hermione, Ron, the story is far from over. The magical world created by JK Rowling still fascinates fans young and old and later this month a new two-part stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, will open in the West End. Based on a new story by Rowling and set 19 years after the close of her last book, the play is, of course, sold out for months in advance.

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