LONDON - Early in the conversation they’d say, “so, you’re writing a biography of J. K. Rowling…” My response was always “No. It’s a bibliography.” At this point there’d be a slightly glazed look as the person dimly recalled writing lists of books at the end of an essay.

So what is a descriptive bibliography?

In the simplest terms this is the study of books as physical objects. Many bibliographers like to think of the art of bibliography as a science because there are strict rules or methods to apply. There’s a transcription of the title-page, for example, then the collation of the book (how it’s constructed), then a guide to what’s on each page, etc. Modern bibliographies tend to add to the raw description with (hopefully) interesting notes on the background to publications. A bibliography ought to be the first port of call for collectors, dealers, academics, and the most discerning of fans. One could see a bibliography as a map or guide to explore previously uncharted territory.

If you’re serious about Jane Austen the bibliography by David Gilson will be familiar. Or Donald Gallup’s T. S. Eliot, Andre Hanneman’s Ernest Hemingway, Richard Purdy’s Thomas Hardy, Hammond and Anderson’s J. R. R. Tolkien… the list is long and varied.

But why J. K. Rowling? One day a well-respected book dealer complained to me of the lack of a Rowling bibliography. Gossip was being claimed as fact and there was no reliable point of reference. As my academic background is in bibliography, I thought researching her bibliography would be an interesting project. Five years on, I’m delighted that J.K. Rowling – A Bibliography 1997-2013 has just been published by Bloomsbury.

So, beyond the bibliographical facts what interesting information is now revealed?

Part of the process of writing is uncovered: Rowling noted that she was “sick” of re-writing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (“Finally! I’ve read this book so much I’m sick of it, I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time…”).

The level of secrecy is also examined: the finished manuscript of Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix was passed by Rowling’s agent to her publisher as “a classic dead letter drop” in shopping bag in a Fulham pub.

We also now know the exact printing of the first edition of the first book: 500 copies in hardback and 5,150 copies in paperback were published on the same day.

So, is this bibliography worth £75? According to J.K. Rowling it’s “slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling”. That’s the best compliment for which any bibliographer could wish.


Philip Errington is a director in the Books and Manscripts department, Sotheby’s London.

Tags:Books & Manuscripts