“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: What Was the News 20 Years Ago?

On September 1, 1998, Scholastic published a popular, award-winning British book. In the U.K., it was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but Scholastic wanted to rename it. Scholastic thought no one would want to read a book about a philosopher and published the novel as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the suggested title of its author, J.K. Rowling.

At first, the book was mostly ignored by reviewers and news outlets. MuggleNet wouldn’t be founded until October of 1999, and the major reviewers believed the book to be beneath critical review. Kirkus was one of the few publications to initially acknowledge the book and published a short, one-paragraph review on the day of the book’s release.

In the somewhat spoiler-filled review, the author wrote, “With the help of his new friends Ron and Hermione, Harry solves a mystery involving a sorcerer’s stone that ultimately takes him to the evil Voldemort.” The reviewer also called it a “hugely enjoyable fantasy” for “action-oriented readers.”

BooklistPublishers Weekly, and BookPage also published brief reviews shortly after the book’s publication. The novel was called “a delightful romp,” “utterly captivating,” and “a good tale well told.” Both Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave Sorcerer’s Stone a starred review, meaning the reviewers and editors believed the novel to be particularly outstanding.

The New York Times refused to acknowledge the series until it made the Best Seller list in December of 1998, a little over three months after publication. It came in at number 16 out of 16 on the Fiction list. The plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is described somewhat strangely and inaccurately.

A Scottish boy, neglected by his relatives, finds his fortune attending a school of witchcraft.

In 1998, the Best Seller list was only divided into two categories: Fiction and Non-Fiction. In 2000, the New York Times decided to create a Children’s Best Seller list in anticipation of the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The Potter series had already been dominating the Fiction list; by the end of June 2000, installments of the series had been on the list for 79 weeks. But in 1998, the series was just starting to make waves in the United States.

The New York Times didn’t even publish a review of Sorcerer’s Stone until February 1999, five months after its publication and almost two months after it had earned a spot on the Best Seller list (an installment in the series wouldn’t top the list until Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets placed number one the month of its publication, June 1999).

The review’s author lavishly praised the human aspects of the novel.

Much like Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling has a gift for keeping the emotions, fears, and triumphs of her characters on a human scale, even while the supernatural is popping out all over.

The reviewer also pointed out Rowling’s backstory (“30-year-old single mother living on welfare”). The review is categorized under Children’s Books and is 779 words. In contrast, the New York Timesreview of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is categorized with reviews of adult novels, clocks in at 1,135 words, and makes no mention of Rowling’s personal life, focusing instead on the epic world she has built and its place in fantasy canon.

For the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, NPR revisited a 1998 episode of All Things Considered, which featured the late Margot Adler discussing Sorcerer’s Stone and predicting its rise to fame.

The feature is an amazing example of how times have changed. Adler described her introduction to the novel and informed listeners that Scholastic had already sold 100,000 copies of Sorcerer’s Stone, “a high number for a children’s hardcover novel.”  (As of 2012, 450 million Potter books had been sold worldwide.)

Despite that, most people in the US have never heard of ‘Harry Potter’. It’s not a title you see in the window at your local Barnes & Noble.

The segment also featured a snippet of Arthur Levine of Scholastic introducing Rowling at a book party in New York City, during which he pronounces her name incorrectly (a gaffe that hopefully no longer happens to Ms. Rowling). Rowling explained what a Muggle is within the context of the book but then said she had also heard from people who use the word to describe someone “fairly dull and unimaginative,” and Adler predicted it could be a word to “enter general usage.” How right she was!

Adler spoke with a bookstore manager who said her store had sold copies “well into the hundreds” and revealed that one of her employees “even” dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween. Harry Potter cosplay is extremely commonplace now, but at the time, it must have seemed like a very popular book to compel an employee to dress as the main character.

In 1998, the US would be surprised by the sudden rise of a boy wizard. His popularity would change the Best Seller list, the reception of children’s novels, and even the way we speak. The Potter books would become a huge part of our popular culture. News for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone may have been scarce. They had no idea what was to come.

Gretchen Roesch

Gretchen once knew every word to the "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" movie. Now she uses that Ravenclaw brain power to manage the MuggleNet News Team, write articles, and podcast about "Harry Potter". Outside of the site, she is a long-distance runner, social worker, and baker. Gretchen hopes to one day pay off her student loans.