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Books & Manuscripts

The Very First Appearance of Harry Potter

By Dr. Philip W. Errington
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Today we might first meet Harry Potter via film, audiobook, ebook or even the stage. Over two decades ago that wasn’t the case. Harry first escaped from his cupboard under the stairs and gloriously arrived before the public in a traditional book format.

S o did the publication of the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on 26 June 1997 mark the very first time we were introduced to Harry and the inhabitants of Privet Drive? Surprisingly, no, and the Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations online auction on 1-9 July helps illustrate the point.

A modern publisher will sometimes print a small number of proof copies for distribution to reviewers and buyers who place large orders for major bookshops. This was the case for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The publishers, Bloomsbury, have suggested that 200 copies were probably printed for this purpose. Lot 274 is one of those copies. Note the statement ‘Uncorrected Proof Copy’ on the wrappers and the author, as incorrectly noted on the title-page, is ‘J.A. Rowling’.

This copy includes a separate proof sheet showing the proposed illustrated wrappers. The design would change before publication. This is a wonderful understated volume and the simplicity of its appearance gives no clue to the global phenomenon that would soon result. It provides a very special insight into the history of Harry Potter in print.

Book collectors tend to favour the true first edition, however. Proof copies had a limited distribution and might be regarded as pre-publication publicity. Maybe. But this was the first time the full text was put before readers, however limited those readers might be. However, this story isn’t a simple one of proof followed by first edition.

In 1997 Bloomsbury had just started their Children’s Books division and they felt that Harry Potter had significant potential. The were wildly enthusiastic and took every opportunity to herald the forthcoming book. One of those opportunities was a volume entitled Bloomsbury Autumn Highlights. Extracts from forthcoming titles July to December 1997. The book was not for sale (and probably distributed to the same buyers for bookshops to receive proofs).

In this volume of extracts, on pages 189-202, we are given the complete text of chapter four of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Evidence within the text itself suggests that Autumn Highlights predates the proof. Lot 273 is one of those copies and therefore represents the first appearance of any Harry Potter text in print.

Why chapter four? Is this the most intriguing chapter? Would a chapter based at Hogwarts be too fantastical for an uninitiated reader?

Bloomsbury had done their work in trying to promote the book and when 26 June 1997 arrived the first edition was finally published. There were 500 copies in hardback and 5,150 copies in paperback (a figure confirmed by the publisher). Neither hardback nor paperback has bibliographical priority. Book collectors generally opt for the rarer issue, however, and lot 275 is one example. Here are all the first edition issue points (no space between ‘Taylor’ and ‘1997’ on the imprint page, ‘1 wand’ listed twice on page 53, etc.) It is, in the numbering of the J.K. Rowling bibliography, classified as A1(a).

For collectors looking for something slightly different, lot 276 offers a copy of either hardback or softback – it is impossible to tell the difference here – as the book has been rebound in a sumptuous binding and signed by the author.

In 2013 Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, published the first of her detective novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling. In that book Robin Ellacott, working for Cormoran Strike, starts some research and is rewarded with ‘loads of information… including a bibliography…’ For the author’s own first book, the simple bibliographical statements of edition, issue, date, print-runs, etc. fail to do justice to the excitement of seeing, handling and perhaps owning one of the earliest items in Harry Potter history.

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