You might think the most important product that the publisher Scholastic will release this summer is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and last book in J.K. Rowling’s nearly infinitely bestselling fantasy series.
But you would be wrong. Deathly Hallows, which goes on sale at the stroke of midnight on July 21, is merely a by-product, the catalyst for something else.
The real product is something that Scholastic executives call, in hushed, reverential tones, “the magic moment.
The Epic Saga of the Seventh Manuscript
Or, how the supersecret final Potter tale went from finished draft to hardcover book in 10 very careful, complicated steps
This is the moment of ineffable, intangible ecstasy that occurs when a reader opens his or her brand-new $34.99 copy of Deathly Hallows for the first time.
“All the way through the process, everybody who touches this [manuscript] has the same goal in mind,” says Arthur A. Levine, Rowling’s editor. “Midnight. Kids.” The magic moment is a rare and delicate thing: it occurs only when the reader comes to the book in a state of pure ignorance, with no advance knowledge of its contents. For the magic moment to happen, the theory goes, the reader’s mind must be preserved in a state of absolute innocence—it must be, in Internet parlance, spoiler-free.
So to preserve the magic moment against informational contamination—via the Web or watercooler conversation or the Rita Skeeters of the global media—Scholastic has created an infrastructure around Deathly Hallows unlike anything the publishing world has ever seen.
On Tuesday, July 3, if they stick to their custom, roughly a dozen people will gather in a conference room on the sixth floor of Scholastic’s headquarters in Manhattan, as they have done nearly every Tuesday this year. They are members of the Harry Potter brain trust, the people in charge of every aspect of the seventh coming of Harry Potter in the U.S.
The group includes, among others, Levine; Lisa Holton, president of Scholastic’s trade division; Scholastic’s art director and its heads of sales, marketing, production, communications and manufacturing; and the company’s general counsel. “This room is really the most paranoid room,” says Holton. “We don’t talk to our children and spouses for months.”
The seriousness with which the members of the Harry Potter brain trust regard their collective mission cannot be overstated. “We have always known that the series is already a modern classic,” Holton says. “If you think about it in terms of literature, I can’t think of another series—not just in children’s literature but in adult—that does what J.K. Rowling does. Even Dickens doesn’t come close.”
The job of the Harry Potter brain trust begins when Rowling’s creative process ends. In the case of Deathly Hallows, that happened on Jan. 11, 2007, when Rowling (whose name, let it be said for now and all time, rhymes with bowling and not howling) wrote the very last word of the Harry Potter saga in a suite at the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh.
The task of traveling to England to pick up the manuscript fell to Mark Seidenfeld, the attorney who handles all things Harry for Scholastic. To make absolutely sure the manuscript was safe on the plane, he sat on it.
But he didn’t read it. Even this close to the book’s release, very few people at Scholastic have had any actual contact with the contents of Deathly Hallows—”a handful,” according to Kyle Good, Scholastic’s head of communications. Among that handful was Levine, who gets to edit the world’s most famous writer. (“She’s very strong, but she’s not blind,” he says. “She seems really to value when we ask her questions. She’ll say, ‘Oh, I knew what that was in my mind, but if it’s not coming across that way, why don’t we say X.'”)
Another early reader was a studious 28-year-old named Cheryl Klein, whose job title is continuity editor. Rowling’s books have become so complex—and their fans so obsessively nitpicky—that it takes a full-time Potterologist to make sure Rowling’s fictional universe stays factually consistent. “I keep track of all of the various proper nouns that appear in the series,” says Klein. “For instance, with Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I make sure it’s always B-o-t-t-apostrophe-s. Every Flavor is not hyphenated, and Flavor does not have a u.” It’s a tough beat: Klein acknowledges, for example, that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Moaning Myrtle sits in a U-bend toilet, whereas in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she occupies an S-bend toilet (this crept in, it should be noted, before Klein’s tenure, which began after Goblet). Klein has either the worst job in the world or the best, depending on how you look at it.
Like everyone else at Scholastic, Klein maintains the Harry Potter omertà. “Most people know better than to ask,” she says. “That includes my friends and my family and everyone else.” After Rowling revised the manuscript, per Levine’s and Klein’s suggestions, Klein flew to England to pick up the new draft. On her way home she was stopped for a random security check at Heathrow. “The woman opens up my bag, and she starts pawing through it. And she says, ‘Wow! You have a lot of paper here.’ And I thought, Oh, God, she’s going to look at it, and she’s going to see the names Harry and Ron and Hermione. But I just smiled, and I said, ‘Yes, a lot of paper!’ And she said, ‘Uh-huh,’ and she zipped it up. That was the end of the scariest two minutes of my life.”
At first the number of copies of the Deathly Hallows manuscript was kept to an absolute minimum. One went to the book’s designer. Also admitted to the inner circle was Mary GrandPré, the Florida-based artist who illustrates the U.S. editions. (If you’ve seen the English cover for Deathly Hallows, you know how lucky Americans are to have GrandPré.) “She is a wonderful lady,” Good says. “She had an image of what Harry Potter looked like, but when she went to actually draw his face, she was really having a lot of trouble. She had the messy hair, the glasses, but what did his jawline look like? She walked over, and she looked in the mirror, and she sketched her own face.”
While GrandPré studied her jawline in the mirror and searched for inspiration, the heavy industrial gears of the Harry Potter engine were beginning to grind up north. The more copies of a book a publisher prints, the more security issues multiply, and Deathly Hallows has the largest first printing of any book in history. By July 21, Scholastic will have shipped 12 million copies for the U.S. market alone. The threat to the magic moment is quite real.
In 2003 a forklift driver at a British printing plant was caught hawking pages from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. A month before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince went on sale, two men were arrested in England for trying to sell a copy to a reporter; one of them is currently doing 4 1⁄2 years.
As a result, Scholastic won’t give out the locations of the printing plants it uses or even how many there are. (As for Bloomsbury, the series’ British publisher, it fiercely denies a rumor that it forces factory workers to print Deathly Hallows in pitch darkness.) The finished books travel to stores on pallets, sealed in black plastic, in trucks tracked by GPS.