Q&A: J.K. Rowling bibliographer Philip W. Errington tells us even more Harry Potter secrets
In his new book, J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, Philip W. Errington has compiled a complete record of J.K. Rowling’s published work, including every single edition of every Harry Potter book in existence. But what’s even more exciting is that through his exhaustive research, Errington uncovered a trove of buried treasures: Like four editions of The Daily Prophet written by Rowling herself, and stories of British adults so embarrassed about reading a children’s book that publishers created special copies just for grownups.
EW spoke to Errington over the phone from London to learn more about his five-year expedition through the world of Harry Potter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to do a literary bibliography of J.K. Rowling in the first place?
PHILIP W. ERRINGTON: I work at Sotheby’s—that’s an auction house—and we regularly sell J.K. Rowling books. About five years ago, there was a book dealer who came in and was looking at some of the material we had for sale, and bemoaning the fact that there was no obvious source of correct information. There were a lot of rumors going around the book trade. There were a lot of false statements. People just didn’t know necessarily what was true or what was untrue. And he said, “You know, there really ought to be a bibliography.” And I thought, “Well, yes. I suppose there ought.”
Now, my academic background is in bibliography. I’ve got a Ph.D., having done a bibliography for it of a different author, and I thought, “Why not?” And five years later, you know what the result is.
Who was the author you studied for your Ph.D.?
The author I did my Ph.D on was John Masefield, who was Poet Laureate, but wrote a vast amount of material. So it was quite interesting to have a different take on bibliography, dealing with a modern writer, who hadn’t published—or I thought—hadn’t published a great deal, as opposed to Masefield, who wrote hundreds of books.
But you know, with Jo Rowling, it was really quite revealing in that there were 14 different editions of Philosopher’s Stone and eight different editions of Sorcerer’s Stone. Twenty-two editions was quite a significant undertaking.
So a lot of people say, “She’s only written seven books, hasn’t she?” Well, you know, no is the answer. When you start looking, and you’ve got to work out the chronology, the sequence of those 22 books. There are a lot of things to work out, a lot of things to discover.
I was surprised by the information that you couldn’t find, like specific publication dates for the early Harry Potter books.
Yeah. It’s interesting… I think I’ve got most of the dates for the Bloomsbury books, but in the States, some of the early books were just brought out. There was no hype, there was no, “Well, we’ll release this at a certain time.” They sort of seeped onto the market, as it were. There are no significant records. Even the publishers can’t tell you.
But I think that in itself is quite interesting. If that information isn’t around, it wasn’t recorded. It may be that a bookshop in one state would have it a few days or a few weeks before a bookshop in another state. The fact is that we now think of the later Harry Potters all having an on-sale time, even. That’s part of the miracle of the advertising and the hype, and all the expectation. With some of the later paperbacks, or some of the earlier titles, it simply didn’t work like that.
I was also surprised to learn that publishers released adult editions of Harry Potter. You write in the bibliography that the idea for adult editions came when Bloomsbury heard of a man hiding his Harry Potter book under a copy of The Economist.
Yeah, that’s a very interesting thing, which is only in the U.K. I spoke to Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury, and they had picked up the idea that some adults were embarrassed to read it because it was obviously a children’s book. So they brought out this adult series, where it was exactly the same text inside, of course, but it had a different cover. And certainly, in the U.K., that really helped. Now I queried Arthur Levine [of Scholastic] about this, and he said that in his experience, adults [in the United States] had no qualms about reading a children’s book. But it would seem that the British are a little more restricted in what they want to be seen reading on the tube, or on public transport.
By about Book Four or Book Five, the British publishers were bringing out the adult and children’s editions on the same day in sort of bumper packs. So you could buy two children’s and two adult ones in the same pack, so that all the family could read.
I can’t imagine that happening for another book.
Exactly. And what I hope is quite useful about the bibliography is that it sets these things down, and there’s a record of this. There’s a statement of, “This is how things were, ” because as time goes by, the way that the books were brought out tends to be forgotten.
You talked to J.K. Rowling during the course of this project. She seemed very excited.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a lovely sort of mini-preface that she’s written for it. And to be honest, for any bibliographer, that your subject comes out and says it’s a “slavishly thorough,” “mind-boggling bibliography,” you can’t help but feel that you’ve done something right. [Laughs] So yeah, very pleased with that.
What was the most surprising piece of information you found?
There were several!
You can tell us a few.
Okay, great. One thing I was really pleased about, to add to the sequence of her books, there are four additional titles by Jo Rowling, which people didn’t already know about. She actually wrote four editions of The Daily Prophet, the newspaper within the Wizarding World, which were printed and distributed by Bloomsbury to the Harry Potter Fan Club. Those four issues are entirely by her. So if you were looking at the author’s work, you would know that between the American publication of The Sorcerer’s Stone and the English publication of The Prisoner of Azkaban, she wrote two issues of The Daily Prophet. Between Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, she wrote another version of The Daily Prophet.
But then I suppose the other interesting thing is how the text changes. The big example would be in Goblet of Fire. Towards the end of the book I think, Voldemort’s wand brings back these ghosts that come out of the wand, in the reverse order in which they were killed. And Jo Rowling got the sequence wrong! That was pointed out by fans very soon after reading. They said, “Hang on a minute. She got the order wrong.” I think Harry’s mother or Harry’s father came out in the wrong order. So there are all sorts of little details like that that are recorded in the book.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
The hardest bit of research was to make sure that I’d actually seen the right copies to begin with. There was a lot of talk, especially with the Scholastic editions, as to different issues of the first edition. I was very fortunate, of course, that people have lent me, or have allowed me access to private collections. Obviously more recent things were quite easy, but some of the early books, especially when they’ve got a value, they’re quite tricky to track down.
So if you had a limitless wallet, and you said, “Right, I want a Harry Potter collection tomorrow,” you couldn’t actually do it all that easily. There’s a scarcity about some of these books now. Even though they were first published in 1997, they aren’t easy to track down.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets