People of the decade: JK Rowling

The Harry Potter phenomenon sparked a trend in global readership in the following decade that would see the blockbuster become respectable.

Illustration by Beto Alvarez
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The Harry Potter phenomenon sparked a trend in global readership in the following decade that would see the blockbuster become respectable and make authors such as Dan Brown and Khaled Hosseini the new stars of literature, says Jane Shilling. There was a time when the term "literary blockbuster" would have seemed an oxymoron. Blockbusters were the opposite of literature: fat, foil-embossed volumes, light on plot, obsessed with designer names, bought at the beginnings of journeys - because they were all the airport shop had to offer - and discarded once read. But at the turn of the millennium, a young boy with broken spectacles and a mysterious scar on his forehead transformed the destiny of the blockbuster.

Harry Potter was not a new phenomenon in the summer of 2000. It was 10 years since JK Rowling, stranded on a delayed train between Manchester and London, had the idea for a story about a young boy attending a school of wizardry. The first Harry Potter book was published in 1997 and went on to win a couple of prestigious children's book awards. A successful sequel was published, then another. But it was with the publication of Rowling's fourth book, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, that something extraordinary occurred.

The book was published simultaneously in the UK and US on July 8, 2000, and immediately broke sales records. In the UK, the book sold as many copies on the day of publication - some 372,000 - as the previous title had sold in a year. In the US the book sold three million copies in 48 hours. There had been an adroit marketing campaign by Rowling's publishers, but sales on this scale were unprecedented. The success of Goblet Of Fire came from readers: they caught the book from each other like the flu.

It was astonishing, but it wasn't a one-off. The Harry Potter phenomenon would eventually become a global brand, and emerge as the bellwether for an unexpected revolution in the way that books would be bought and read throughout the decade to come. Goblet Of Fire was published towards the end of an age of innocence. Fourteen months later, the attacks on the Twin Towers would mark the beginning of an age of anxiety. The writer and dramatist Alan Bennett has noted the way in which good writing can be premonitory, and JK Rowling's novel, without knowing it, contained and anticipated many of the themes that would be explored by writers whose books would become bestsellers.

The child hero with the wounded background; the struggle of the apparently frail force of goodness against inchoate, omnipotent evil; the element of magic, puzzle-solving and spirituality; the obsession with books themselves as artefacts and instruments of power - these themes would recur in bestsellers as diverse as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Yann Martel's Life Of Pi, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow Of The Wind, John Boyne's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

The fact that the end of the first decade of the new millennium should find book sales holding steady in a global recession is remarkable, for the rise of new technology was supposed to herald the end of printed books, and perhaps also the use of conventional narrative and the role of the author as creator. Reading, that solitary act of concentration, seems to offer little competition to the interactive visual excitements of television and the internet. Yet the technologies that were supposed to supplant reading actually brought new life to the book trade, channelling an energy and enthusiasm that came from readers themselves. Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, which began in the US in the late 1990s, caught the beginnings of the new wave of global readership, making stars of writers such as the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who called the club "one of the best possible uses of a television set", and igniting a passionate debate about high and low culture.

When the literary novelist Jonathan Franzen expressed fastidious reservations about having his 2001 novel, The Corrections, selected for Oprah's book club along with "schmaltzy, one-dimensional" titles, he soon realised that his contempt for the club's readers had seriously backfired. Despite a fulsome apology, he was "disinvited" from the televised book club dinner and not asked back. In the UK, television presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan ran a vastly successful book club on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2008, mixing high and low culture - the scholarly Julian Barnes with the chick-littish Bella Pollen - with cheerful insouciance. Their sole criterion for selection was that the book should have the elusive but unmistakable quality of "a good read".

No one ever accused Richard and Judy of being "serious intellectuals", a label applied to Oprah by the author of Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America. But selection for their club did have a magical effect on sales, placing literary titles such as Joseph O'Connor's novel Star Of The Sea on the same commercial level as the more traditional blockbuster fodder of celebrity memoirs and genre fiction.

If the internet gave readers power by giving them access to a global book market and allowing them to register their critical opinions of the books they read, it also brought a new kind of power to writers. Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, one of the best-selling books of all time, horrified his publishers by pirating translations of his own books on the internet.

But it was the publishers who had to compromise, and Coelho's books are now available to download free on his website, with a mild caveat urging that "if you download a book and like it, I suggest you buy it so we can tell the industry that sharing content is not life threatening to the book business". As the decade drew to its end, so did the story of Harry Potter. But as the boy wizard retired from magic to embark on a quieter adult life of marriage and fatherhood, he left behind a global book market entirely changed, in which the distinctions between adult and children's books, high art and entertainment, fiction and non-fiction, and even amateur and professional writing are blurred.

Harry came into a literary world where the blockbuster was regarded with distaste and fear by bookish types, who feared that a public appetite for celebrity pap would leave no place in the market for serious writing. He leaves it a more complicated, and a much more interesting place. Jane Shilling's forthcoming memoir The Stranger In The Mirror will be published by Chatto & Windus.