15 Facts About J.K. Rowling’s Rise to Pop Culture Royalty
You may know Joanne Rowling better as J.K. Rowling, the author of the best-selling series about Harry Potter.
Rowling was a single mother, barely getting by on unemployment benefits, who wrote her first novel about the boy wizard in a café in her hometown of Edinburgh. After the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, Rowling famously went from being unemployed to becoming a millionaire within five years.
In 2017, she was worth a cool $650 million, thanks to her best-selling series about Harry and his friends. She earns about $95 million a year, or $1.6 million per day, making her the world’s richest author.
What else happened along the way to becoming pop culture royalty? Let’s dive in.
Writing Was Rowling’s Destiny
Rowling’s parents made their living in the sciences – her dad, Peter, was an engineer, and her mom, Anne, was a technician. But Rowling turned to words early. She’s been writing since the age of six, when she wrote her first novel. It was about a rabbit.
After Rowling graduated from the University of Exeter in 1986, she moved to London and worked as a secretary for Amnesty International. However, she spent her time daydreaming about a teenage wizard, writing stories on her work computer and reading books, instead of working. She was subsequently fired.
Seven years after graduation, Rowling was a jobless single mother, living on welfare benefits. Rowling later described this period as “liberating,” as she was able to focus on her writing and develop the story of a teenage wizard who would become one of the most famous characters in fiction.
She Wasn’t a Top Student
She applied to Oxford University, but failed to gain a place, studying instead at the University of Exeter. In her first year, Rowling signed up to study Classics and French. She had initially considered taking German and French, with the intention of becoming a bilingual secretary, but found German too challenging.
She changed to Classics because, as she said, “the word on the street was that one did not need any Greek or Latin to join up.”
A professor from Exeter remembered her as being “quietly competent.” However, Rowling herself said she did little academic work, preferring to read books by Tolkien and Dickens instead.
She’s Been Unlucky With Men in the Past
Rowling had a difficult relationship with her father, Peter, while she was growing up. They had a falling out in 2003 after Peter sold his collection of rare first-edition Harry Potter books that his daughter had given him over the years, including a particularly valuable one signed by her for Father’s Day.
Although happily married since 2001 to Dr. Neil Murray, Rowling’s first marriage was troubled. Her first husband was reportedly both emotionally and physically abusive to her. Rowling met Jorge Arantes, a Portuguese journalist, after moving to Portugal to teach English in the early 1990s. They married in 1992 and had a daughter. Shortly after the birth, Arantes kicked Rowling out of their apartment.
In 1993, Rowling returned to Scotland with her infant daughter to live near her sister, taking out a restraining order against her soon-to-be ex-husband, Arantes. In her suitcase, she had the first three chapters of the first Harry Potter novel, a male who would change her luck.
The First Harry Potter Book Was Published Because of an 8-Year-Old Girl
Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel had been rejected by many publishing houses when her agent gave sample chapters of the book to Nigel Newton, an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing. Newton took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter, Alice, who read the chapters quickly and nagged her father for more.
Convinced that children might like this new book, Newton decided to publish it, and wrote out the first royalty check that Rowling would receive for the Harry Potter books – worth about $3,200 today.
The First Harry Potter Book Wasn’t Initially Remarkable
Rowling received that small advance for the first book in the series and the print run was only 500 copies, 300 of which went to libraries.
Her publishers, thinking that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman, requested that she use only her initials, J.K., instead of her full first name, Joanne.
She Isn’t the Best-Selling Author of All Time
Despite being the UK’s bestselling living author, Rowling barely makes the top ten list of the best-selling authors of all time, coming in 9th, with an estimated 450-500 million sales of her books.
She is still outsold by Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, and William Shakespeare. Rowling is also thought to be outsold by her favorite authors, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. True sales figures of their books, however, are not known.
Her Favorite Author is Jane Austen
Rowling owns a first-edition of a Jane Austen novel (she has not revealed which book) and says that Austen is her favorite author.
“I’ve read her books so many times I’ve lost count,” said Rowling. She says her favorite literary character is Elizabeth Bennet and she claims to have read Austen’s novel, “Emma,” more than 20 times.
From a First Print Run of 500 to Rare Collector Items
Hardcover first editions of the first book in the series, “Harry Potter & The Philosophers Stone” now sell for between $40,000 and $55,000.
Paperback first editions of the same book are also rare and can sell for up to four or even five figures – if they are in very good condition.
The Harry Potter Franchise Is Worth Billions
The award-winning Potter series has since become the best-selling series of all time – over 500 million copies sold to date – and each book has been turned into a successful film.
The Harry Potter brand is estimated to have a current value of more than $25 billion.
She Goes Back and Forth From Millionaire to Billionaire
Rowling gave away so much of her wealth to charity that in 2012 she dropped off Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List.
Apparently, the combination of Britain’s high tax rates and Rowling’s $160 million in charitable donations that year combined to drop her down to mere millionaire status.
By 2016, Rowling’s net worth was estimated at $1 billion again, putting her back into the billionaires club. However, in 2017, she was back to being a mere millionaire again.
She’s a Philanthropist
Rowling supports non-profit organizations that work in the areas of alleviating poverty, finding a cure for multiple sclerosis, helping children, and fighting illiteracy.
She has written three books with all proceeds – almost $30 million – going to charity: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Quidditch Through the Ages,” and “The Tales of Beedle the Bard.”
In 2011, she was given an Order of the British Empire (OBE) and, in 2015, awarded the British Red Cross Humanitarian Award for her charity and philanthropic work.
Rowling has said that she considers it a moral responsibility to give money away, “when you’ve been given far more than you need.”
She Doesn’t Just Donate to Charity
In 2005, Rowling established her own charity, LUMOS, which works to reunite children in orphanages worldwide with their families.
She is also the President of Gingerbread, an organization that supports single parents. In a Times interview, Rowling said she sets aside one day each week just to focus on her charitable work.
She Now Writes Books Primarily for Adults
Rowling said she wanted to try her hand at writing a novel for grown-ups when the Harry Potter series ended. Her first adult book was “The Casual Vacancy,” a story about the sudden death of a popular city council member in a small English country town. The book deals with issues such as drugs, rape, and prostitution.
The book was released in September 2012 and quickly became the 15th best-selling book of that year, proving that Rowling can write as successfully for adults as for children.
Since 2013, Rowling has written the popular Cormoran Strike detective series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. She plans to write more Strike books than she did Potter books.
She Writes Elsewhere, Too
Rowling occasionally writes opinion pieces for newspapers in Britain and Scotland on political and social issues.
She co-wrote a jazz song for the movie version of her book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The song was called “Blind Pig.”
Rowling once wrote a fairy-tale on a dress that she wore to her 50th birthday costume party. The theme of the party was “Your own private nightmare” and Rowling said her costume was represented the author’s nightmare of a lost manuscript.
She’s Politically Active
Rowling is known for her left-wing political opinions, which she shares widely with her 14.4 million followers on the social media platform Twitter.
She recently gave almost $1.3 million dollars to the Labor Party in the UK (similar to the Democratic Party in the USA) and actively campaigned against the recent Brexit decision for Britain to leave the European Union.