I'm going to start this with a piece of disclosure - I'm not the biggest Harry Potter fan. I read all the books in the original series (the seven) but haven't read anything in the Potterverse, nor have I even seen all of the movies. Its not that I think its bad writing or anything, just not for me. That being said, J. K. Rowling's career is fascinating and worthy of further examination.
At the time of this writing, Rowling is the most financially successful living British author, and is a multi-millionaire. Other than the Harry Potter series and the related books, she has written A Casual Vacancy and a three crime books under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith.
Origins of Harry Potter
Rowling worked, prior to writing Harry Potter, as a secretary at Amnesty International (AI), and then moved to Manchester with her then boyfriend to work for the Chamber of Commerce. While waiting for a delayed train in 1990, the idea for Harry Potter struck her, in her words it came "fully formed" into her mind. This is a phenomenon that some writers have explored and discussed, that there is at times an almost otherworldly phenomenon which drops ideas in the writer's lap.
She began writing immediately, and took her mother's death as fuel for the story, using it to deepen Harry's sense of loss. Over the next three years she continued to write, though when she moved back to England after a stint in Portugal she says that she only had three chapters of what would become Harry Potter in her luggage.
Still, she continued to write. Seven years out of college she found herself a single parent with no job and living upon social assistant. Despite describing this period as "liberating" and allowing her to focus on her writing, she was diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression and contemplated suicide during this period. She has suggested that this too became fodder for her writing, inspiring the Dementors and other darker parts of the Potter Mythos.
Throughout this period she wrote extensively, plotting out points and ideas that wouldn't come up until much later in the series. The final manuscript of the first book was completed on a typewriter.
This period in her life is inspirational - despite all the problems going on in her life at the time, she re-contextualized this period as being a liberating time to dedicate herself to her writing. The difficulties that she faced at this time became fodder or fuel for her writing. Whether on the advcie of professionals or not, she used writing as a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulties she was facing.
She also kept writing - that was her focus throughout this period. The book had to be made as well as possible, and there was no time spent trying to sell it before it was finished. Over the course of over five years she continued to develop the book and polish and prepare it.
Representation and Publication
She submitted the book and pieces along the traditional method seeking an agent and pursuing publication. With the assistance of her agent, the series was shopped around to sixteen publishers with the first fifteen turning it down. The advance was not significant, and the original print run was a mere 1000 copies. Her publisher advised her to find a day job, suggesting that it was difficult to make money publishing children's books.
Shortly after publication, she was given a government grant to support her continued writing. Five months after publication the book won its first award, and print rights to the United States were negotiated. As part of this negotiation the name was changed for the original American print run to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - a change that she now regrets, but admits she had limited negotiation power at the time.
The money from the American print sale was used to upgrade her living situation, though she only moved to a slightly nicer apartment rather than blowing the money on a suddenly lavish lifestyle. Instead of pursuing a day job, Rowling redoubled her efforts at the Potter series, even fighting against the "chore" of writing the fifth book.
Throughout this entire process she paid attention to continuing to develop the books and make them as powerful as possible, also focusing on finishing the series. During this period she did notstart a new series and instead remained focused on finishing what she had started.
When the book exploded as a success, Rowling changed her tack and did everything she could to negotiate better deals. The movies, in particular, represent a series of astute decisions to limit the influence of writers that might push the series away from her vision, while also recognizing that other writers were more experienced at writing screenplays.
Warner Brothers recognized her success and the relationship that she had with her fan base, and ensured that they worked with her to make the movies as in line with her vision. In part this is a testament to the strength of her writing, but it is also a piece of luck based upon her achieving success right at the time that all ages were more willing to read "children's" books. After her success there have been a number of other authors who have attempted, to varying levels of success, to write "young adult fiction" for all ages. In part this was due to the recognition that writing for young adults can still be good writing, and relatively mature subjects and writing can still be read by youth.
Tune in next time for a discussion of her career after Harry Potter, and the lessons that come from that.