Web site casts spell on `Potter' author
Indiana teenager's Mugglenet.com earns an audience with J.K. Rowling as book debuts
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune on July 11, 2005
LaPORTE, IND. -- The phone rang at 9 a.m. on May 3.
"Hello, Emerson? This is Jo."
That's how Emerson Spartz, 18, of a small Indiana town 90 minutes east of Chicago,
found out he will be flying to Scotland for a face-to-face interview next weekend
with author J.K. Rowling--Jo, to fans of her Harry Potter series.
After the call, Spartz went back to work on Mugglenet.com, his dense and authoritative Web site about all things Potter.
For Spartz knows something you don't. The Internet has changed the relationship between artist and audience, and Rowling's phone call proves it.
Rowling, whose imaginative depiction of good vs. evil in the wizarding world has made her an international celebrity, is one of the most potent forces in publishing. Her new release, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. It has been two years since book five in the series appeared, a volume that sold 5 million copies within 24 hours, earning it worldwide laurels as publishing's fastest-selling title.
Book six is poised to smash those records. Scholastic Inc., the Potter books' American publisher, reports shipping 10.8 million copies of "Half-Blood Prince," the largest release in history. And booksellers Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have accepted pre-orders in the millions for the hardcover book and its audio version, performed by actor Jim Dale.
On her Web site, jkrowling.com, the author has honored a half-dozen fan sites with a little write-up and plaque in a mock trophy room. Among them: Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron, and on behalf of her Internet audience, Rowling invited Spartz and The-Leaky-Cauldron.org's Melissa Anelli to Scotland for a chat Saturday amid book release festivities.
After the stroke of midnight, aspiring reporters ages 8 to 16, representing select English-speaking media organizations, will meet the author, get an autographed copy of the book, spend the day reading and grill Rowling during a news conference Sunday.
Spartz and Anelli alone will be whisked away to a private interview to ask her anything they and their Internet constituencies want to know. Their message boards are ablaze in preparation.
As far as the working press goes, that's it: Though portions will be telecast, "Half-Blood Prince" weekend is for kids and fans.
But those kids and fans are operating in a realm that's a far cry from teen idol scrapbooks packed with Tiger Beat magazine clippings. In the old days, a scrapbook's most important treasure might have been an autographed photo from a star's PR firm or a personal letter from the president of a local fan club. Now, the Internet means you can build your own electronic shrine to anything or anyone and the whole world can see it--and your work might get unprecedented attention.
Like many other fans, Spartz scours the Internet for anything about the world surrounding Potter and Rowling. Unlike most other fans, Spartz puts his findings on a well-organized, thoroughly researched Web site, one that caught the eye of Warner Bros., the studio behind the Potter film series, and Rowling's U.K. and U.S. publishers, Bloomsbury and Scholastic, respectively--not to mention the author herself.
Because of their sites, Warner Bros. has hosted Spartz and Anelli on the movie set of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." Last year the studio gave him press passes and tickets to the New York and London premieres of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" so he could be the eyes and ears of Mugglenet.
But for Spartz, being honored on JKRowling.com is his proudest achievement. Rowling wrote on her site, "I love the [Mugglenet] design ... the pretty-much-exhaustive information on all books and films, the wonderful editorials (more insight there than in several companion volumes I shall not name), 101 Ways to Annoy Lord Voldemort (made me laugh aloud), the Wall of Shame (nearly as funny as some of the stuff I get) ... pretty much everything."
Spartz said he built Mugglenet six years ago from a boredom-inspired project into a site that caught even Rowling's eye "because I wanted it to be the best and I worked hard at it. When I do something, I like to do it well."
Spartz is tall, lean and comfortable with himself. Home-schooled since he was 12, he will enroll as a freshman business major at the University of Notre Dame this fall. He plans to make his wealth developing and investing in renewable fuel sources.
"I know how strange this sounds coming from an 18-year-old, and I don't know exactly how I'm going to do it yet," he said, "but if I'm as successful in other aspects of my life as I have been with Mugglenet, I'd like to leave my mark as one of the world's most generous philanthropists like Jo Rowling. She is truly a woman to respect and admire."
Spartz never sounds like he's selling something when he talks about his future. He has an unhurried speaking style that changes only when the topic turns serious.
Spartz has no patience for those who condemn the wizardry in the Harry Potter series.
"In Harry Potter, there is a clearly defined good, a clearly defined evil, and good will ultimately triumph over evil," he said. "Those who claim Harry Potter has an underlying satanistic message clearly haven't read the book and aren't interested in the truth."
Spartz works on the Mugglenet site every day, reviewing posts by his volunteer staff of 40. He gets hundreds of e-mail messages daily containing Harry Potter tips, questions and the frequent, "Your site rules!"
"I've always known I was going do big things," he said matter-of-factly, "so things like this, they're awesome, but they don't surprise me."
And that is why, when he is talking about how the phone rang on May 3, Spartz almost grudgingly concedes, "It's great to be recognized."