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Wednesday, July 25, 2007
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Business stories are truly favorites of mine and source of much of my business education. I’ve never read one of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels, but have come to greatly admire the author’s inspiring business story. J.K Rowling embodies a prime lesson we’ve learned from the 1000 entrepreneurs interviewed for the “Making It!” small business TV show. Their universally useful message, to follow your passion and the money will follow, is what Ms. Rowling personifies.

You may already be familiar with some parts of the author’s personal story. You may not know that the once penniless Joanne Kathleen Rowling is now at age 41 a billionaire worth more than the Queen of England. Ms. Joanne Kathleen Rowling’s fantasy writings have spawned a business empire that has liberally spread dollars, pounds and deutschmarks and yen around the planet. The only writings with more copies in print than “Harry Potter” are the Holy Bible and The Quotations of Chairman Mao. The fictional Mr. Harry Potter is truly a pot-o’-gold.


Sometimes, success hinges on how well you handle rejection. As a business owner you are really a salesperson and in that role you quickly learn to process the sting of rejection that often greets your ideas and dreams. Imagine the emotions of a divorcée on welfare with small child who has been writing her fantastic tale at coffee shops and is now out shopping her first manuscript “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to London publishers. They tried hard to convince J.K Rowling there was no market for 300-page books about wizards. I’d say that was the same mindset that greeted the Beatles with “there is no market for guitar bands these days.”


However the entrepreneur’s best friend ‘persistence’ paid off and a second rank publisher of reference books took on the project, paying J.K Rowling an advance of just $4,000 and printing only 500 copies of the book. They advised her to adopt the pen name of J.K. Rowling in the belief that young boys wouldn’t read a book by a woman. By the way, those precious first editions have recently changed hands at prices up to $40,000! The author was quoted as saying “My realistic side had allowed me to think I might get one good review. That was my idea of a peak.” That reminds me of another piece of advice from the “Making It!” stories: don’t waste your time with small thinking.


A New York publisher Scholastic paid Rowling $105,000 for the U.S. rights, changed the title to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and made plans to print 50,000 copies. The Potter books have now sold 121 million copies in the United States alone and over 325 million worldwide. The newest and perhaps final edition “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” will probably add another 50 million to that total. The 5th Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” recently broke box office records by grossing $44.8 million on the first day of release. What a fantastic demonstration this is of the power of dreams, passion and belief.


Of course when a person scores such a major success it provides an opportunity for critics to do what they do best. A Yale literature professor, Harold Bloom, opines that Rowling’s books are “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons.” For some, imitation is the easiest form of exploitation and opportunistic authors have come up with titles such as If Harry Potter Ran General Electric and Looking for God in Harry Potter.


Advertising Age magazine's guesstimate of the total economic impact of the series breaks down this way: Advertising - $390 million; Books - $9 billion; DVD sales - $1 billion+; Package-goods licensing -$11.8 million; Music - $13 million; Movies – Warner Brothers, $4.4 billion; Theme parks - $86 million (projected) from Universal's Harry Potter World; scheduled to open in Orlando in 2009; Home Video Rentals - $86 million; and TV time -$248 million to $495 million.


So, J.K. Rowling has shown the power of wizardry in creating a multi-billion dollar brand and a merchandising empire. No doubt she has also had the benefit of a team of excellent advisors and a sharp elbowed attorney or two along the way. This mother of two has become the first billionaire author and all this has occurred in just one decade. Let it be a lesson to all of us that dreams can become our reality and they may exceed our wildest imaginations.



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