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J K Rowling, a good author in a bad industry

So, with the perfect symmetry of a well-told fairy tale, the great Harry Potter saga reaches its final chapter. Even for the few of us who are not fully up to speed on what has happened at Hogwarts, the story behind the stories – how they were written, were discovered, published and became a mighty international industry – is magical. The J K Rowling fairy tale has it all: rags to riches, temptations for our heroine, endless and various assaults from the forces of darkness and a satisfying conclusion. Many stories start briskly and fizzle out; this one has gone from strength to strength.

Its moral is rather more complicated, combining as it does personal triumph with corporate idiocy. J K Rowling’s extraordinary personal achievement has been to follow her imagination over the years, to keep faith, as the world went mad around her, with the idea which had emerged when she was unknown.

The pressures of failure and obscurity on an author are tough enough, but are nothing beside the toll that can be exacted by instant success. Most writers whose work makes it to the bestseller list have a book or two to get used to the weird change of status from being a writing nobody to becoming one of what publishers like to call their “crown jewels”.

For Rowling, the pressure of expectation as she wrote – the business of being in competition with her last successful book – was part of her life from the second Harry Potter novel onwards. As her characters and ideas became public property, not only readers but film executives and publishers from all over the world will have had their say as to what should happen in future stories. All, it seems, were ignored.

The glamour and apparent literary unworldliness which made Rowling so promotable soon posed a problem: she became a celebrity, the stuff of mad websites, and a target for stalkers and sleazebag journalism. Her private life was pored over, an ex-husband told his story in a Sunday paper. On holiday, she was given the long-lens treatment by photographers, lurking for a bikini shot. When she was snapped buying some underwear in Agent Provocateur, the photograph made the national press.

Then there were the sneerers and the nutters. Not too many nights’ sleep were probably lost at the Rowling residence when A S Byatt grandly declared that “J K Rowling’s magic world has no place for numinous” and that her books were “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons and the exaggerated mirror world of soaps, reality TV and gossip”.

On the other hand, the accusations of plagiarism and the increasingly nutty attacks by religious zealots must have been distressing until they became too obviously ludicrous to take seriously – a spiritually-minded Potter fan has just announced on her website that the series has been an extended religious allegory, and that in the last book Harry will die and rise again.

Celebrity is peculiarly problematic for a writer of stories. The watcher suddenly becomes the watched. The stuff from normal everyday life which provides the raw material of fiction is suddenly difficult to reach. Rowling managed to guard her privacy and was attacked for doing so by journalists used to celebrities prepared to play the fame game. Success had gone to her head, they said. She was difficult, grumpy. She was a recluse, all of which, being translated, meant that while she was writing, she preferred not to talk to the press.

Her literary agent and her publisher deserve credit for the way they handled what was a difficult, high-pressure situation, but the true hero was Rowling herself. She has struck a blow for the old-fashioned power of storytelling in a reality addled culture, and has proved that what matters is not publicity or image, but the words on the page.

But if Rowling kept the lunacy at bay, the same cannot be said for the books business. Publishers and booksellers have a very precise model when it comes to the perfect long-term project; they want “the same, but different”, year after year. Ideally, a successful series of books, appealing to the same market but with different stories, should appear at regular intervals.

The Potter series was that fantasy personified. The book trade was given a commercial opportunity unlike any other in living memory – and conspired to lose money on it. When the new Harry Potter is published on Saturday, most independent bookshops will be gloomily aware that every excited young reader who leaves their shop with a book will be hitting their profit line.

Supermarkets have been promoting the book as a loss leader, aware of a double benefit – while helping themselves, they are cheerfully damaging bookshops. The big book chains have followed suit, with cut-price offers. Reluctantly, independent shops will troop down to the supermarkets, and buy stock at a price which is lower than that at which they would buy from the publisher. Having allowed a pricing free-for-all, publishers have played into the hands of supermarkets, ensuring that the only moment in recent history when a hardback has been globally cool, internationally fashionable, it has been sold at a knock-down, loss-making price.

One bookshop expressed relief that this is the last Harry Potter book. J K Rowling probably feels the same, but must sometimes wonder about the industry that she has done so much to help.