Former Scholastic President Barbara Marcus Shares US Publication Story of “Harry Potter”

When fans think of Harry Potter‘s US publication history, the name that most often comes to mind is that of Arthur Levine, the Scholastic editor who worked on the Harry Potter series. Though Levine’s contributions are undeniably significant, it’s important to remember that there was a whole team – a whole company! – that worked together to put Potter into the hands of American readers. Their stories are varied and fascinating, and it’s only occasionally that fans get the chance to hear them.

Unlike Rowling herself, or even the many talented artists who have illustrated Harry Potter over the years, a publishing team does its work mostly in the background. Today we are lucky enough to hear from one of those influential background forces – Barbara Marcus, the president of children’s book publishing at Scholastic when the manuscript was first acquired.

In a new interview posted by Underlined, Marcus shares her memories of Harry’s triumphant appearance in the United States.

After Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the UK, J.K. Rowling’s agent began sending the manuscript to US publishing houses for consideration. At Scholastic, it landed on Arthur Levine’s desk. After reading it, he consulted with Marcus about whether they should publish it. Both Marcus and Levine agreed that Potter was something special, and so Marcus authorized Levine to participate in a rights auction for the manuscript. Marcus shared her memory of that fateful day:

The auction came down to two publishing houses, and the price was up to six figures, which was high for a new author. Arthur [Levine] came into my office, and I told him that I thought this could be a perennial seller for us. I said to him, “If you love it, buy it.” We placed one more bid. And then we got it.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Scholastic’s faith in Rowling to pay off. In just a few short years, Harry Potter was well on its way to becoming the phenomenon we know and love today. As Harry’s popularity grew, the responsibility of the publisher to preserve the secrecy of future books grew more and more difficult – at times resulting in some pretty extraordinary circumstances.

By the fourth book, Jo didn’t want any reviewers to have the books in advance. She wanted everyone to come to them at the same time. As publishers, we spent a great deal of time trying to make sure no one received the books before the on-sale date. One time, a train with a shipment of the books got stalled overnight. A group of kids broke in and took some copies and were planning to give them out in school the next day. The school administration convinced the kids to send them back to us.

But as the interview reveals, Marcus is not just a publisher but also a parent of the Potter generation with a special connection to the series. It was, in fact, Marcus’s daughter who first alerted her to how special Harry Potter really was:

I didn’t have time to read it right away, so I gave it to my daughter Lucy, who is now thirty years old. She was always a really great reader, and she read it and said, ‘Mom, this is better than Roald Dahl!’ Once I read it, I knew it was special. I had the feeling it would become a modern classic.

As the years went by, Harry Potter would continue to hold a special place in both Marcus’s personal and professional life – a presence that continues in her family even to this day.

My youngest child, who is now twenty-three, rereads them every summer, and we always talk about it. I used to know every part of every book, so it’s a great reminder, kind of like going back to the golden age of something – getting to talk about Hogsmeade, the great characters, and all the incredible parts of the series.

Be sure to read the full interview – and find lots of fun Harry Potter and bookish content – over at Underlined!