Harry Potter fan sites conjure success

By Hillel Italie | Reno Gazette-Journal | Transcribed by Elizabeth Ho

Emerson Spartz remembers the good old days. It was fall 1999, and Spartz was 12. He decided to create a little Web site about a hot new series of fantasy books.

The Harry Potter craze was just the beginning.

“The sites were very primitive, especially compared to modern Harry Potter sites. They were amateurishly done,” said Spartz, founder of www.mugglenet.com, one of the leading Potter sites. “The biggest Web sites were updated a couple [of] times a week at most, and other than message boards, there was no interactivity between fans.”

It’s been 10 years since readers met the boy wizard in Rowling’s first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

More than 300 million copies later, the Potter series ends July 21 when Scholastic Inc. releases the seventh adventure, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

Spartz and his many fellow Web masters are looking back at their one place on this record-breaking ride.

“The thing about the Potter phenomenon is that it has a huge, active fan base, both young and old, with a lot of teenagers. The Potter sites really stand out – they’re like a marketing machine in and of themselves.”

The Potter sites have long advanced from the slow pace, simple texts and dull backgrounds of the early years, and now have all the latest accessories: blogs, podcasts, audio, and video.

They no longer just comment on the news, but participate. Rowling has praised the sites by name, granted them rare interviews.

Warner Bros., which once tried to shut down many of the fan sites because of copyright concerns, has invited Spartz and others to the sets of Potter films and premieres.

“When we have brought representatives from sone of the key fan sites and showed them the details for the film sets, even if some of them were disappointed that we had left out certain elements from the books, they respected what we were trying to do,” said Diane Nelson, Warner Bros.’ executive vice president for global brand management.

“We’re not naive enough to think we’re going to avoid criticism, but bringing the fan sites into the process is what we feel is really important.”

Melissa Anelli, the Web master for another popular fan site, www.the-leaky-cauldron.org, has been part of the online Potter world since 2001, not long after Leaky started, “as a means for new friends to keep track of all the news about Harry Potter.”

Anelli, a 27-year-old freelance journalist who lives in New York, is writing a book, tentatively titled “Harry, a History,” about the Potter phenomenon.

“The movie studio didn’t know who we were, and didn’t care. It took a year of relentless emails and phone calls before someone took me and my questions seriously and started giving us reportable information,” Anelli said. “It took even longer for that open atmosphere to spread to the publishers, but the staff of Leaky felt that it was worth pushing for.”

Spartz, now a sophomore at Notre Dame University, was living in nearby La Porte, Ind., when he started MuggleNet, with the hope of building a database of Potter information.

“The site exploded in content and design offerings, and traffic went through the roof,” said Spartz, who now has a staff of 120, virtually all volunteers.

Anelli estimates there are some 3 million to 4 million Potter sites in dozens of languages, including French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, and Hebrew.

Web sites helped start the international Potter obsession and kept it going when Rowling took three years—2002–2003—to write Potter V, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” driving fans to tear “their hair out in anticipation,” Anelli said.

“That’s when fans needed a stronger visual fix of Potter; they wanted to see more pictures of the celebrities, they wanted to read about them, and see clips from the films,” she said. “So, they hit the Web sites—and discovered wellsprings of information for their love of the books, too.”

Potter sites have been counting down to the big night in July and will likely stay around well after Rowling moves on.

Two more movies are planned after this summer’s release of “Order of the Phoenix,” and a thriving genre of Potter fan fiction remains, with readers not waiting for “Deathly Hallows” to imagine how they would continue the story.

“We’ll definitely be around until after the movies come out,” Anelli said. “But no matter what happens, these years will always be among the best in our lives.”