Great Editors–Arthur Levine (and Harry Potter)

potterOne thing I’m discovering in my quest to sing the praises of the unsung heroes of publishing is that, too often, the unsung heroes like it that way. They’re quiet. They stay in the background. They enjoy the vicarious experience of watching their authors bask in the fame of a book that becomes a phenomenon.

Chances are, you’ll know the name of the author, but the editor of said book? Not so much.

So you know the author of the Harry Pottter series. (Who doesn’t?)

But do you know the name of her editor? (I’m guessing you don’t.)

Today meet Arthur Levine, the man behind the magic.

He actually has his own imprint (Arthur A. Levine Books founded in 1996) within Scholastic.  I just finished reading an interview with him in The Washington Post, published in July 2007 just prior to the release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Of course he, as editor, knew how the saga ended before the rest of us anxious readers. But he didn’t get caught up in the hype (well, he was thrilled, but he kept his focus in the right place).

“I’m responsible for the books,” he says.

I’m going to mention a couple of his great quotes from that article here, but I encourage you to read the entire interview by Bob Thompson: “The Wizardly Editor Who Caught the Golden Snitch.”

As I wrote about with Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we might not have had J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter if not for Arthur Levine. The Harry Potter series was first published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, but . . .

It wasn’t Bloomsbury’s responsibility to sell the U.S. rights to Harry. The company didn’t even own them. But when Levine showed up in Bologna seeking future classics for his new Scholastic imprint, Bloomsbury’s rights director gave him a set of Potter galleys. He read them on the plane home. When the book came up for auction, he kept bidding until, at $105,000, his last competitor dropped out. “I would have been willing to go further than that if I had to,” he says.

Levine must have told this story a thousand times by now. But there’s still excitement in his voice as he describes how he got instantly hooked — “first chapter, first pages” — on Harry.

I recall having the same feeling. I knew from the first page of the first book that I was in for an extraordinary ride–it was Rowling’s incredible writing that blew me away. Not just the extensive plotlines and characters and pacing and all of those things an editor looks for; it was her use of words. I remember how, when the first movie came out, and the camera pans into the great hall, I thought to myself, Yep, that’s it. That’s how I saw it when I read it. Her writing and descriptions absolutely astounded me.

Imagine being her editor! Levine lets us in on a little bit of the process:

He [Levine] was as surprised as any ordinary fan, he says, by plot and character developments as they arose. Which is exactly how he and Rowling wanted it. . . .

Sometimes, he would say, “I do not know what’s going on here,” and Rowling would say, “I didn’t want you to have that reaction at this point, so I think I’m going to move some information.”

At other times, when he asked about something in one of the earlier volumes, she would say, “That’s a good question. I’m okay with your wondering that here. I will answer that in Book 5.”

Blown away!

But Levine understands that aside from the hype and the merchandising and the trinkets and the Disney World theme park, it all comes back to where it started. With the books.

For a while, he’d felt as though he were living his own version of the Harry Potter story: Mild-mannered editor becomes publishing wizard. “I can still remember thinking: ‘Wow — even more people have discovered Harry Potter,’ ” he says. But eventually he decided “to be happy whenever something great happened” and then to bring “my focus back to where it needed to be.”

On the books.

Which, he maintains, are what’s driving the phenomenon in the first place.

And that’s where all great editors land. No, they aren’t at the book signings. No one is chanting their name. No one is standing in line awaiting a copy of their book at the worldwide midnight release date . . .

But for the great editors, that’s just fine. Great books are being put out into the world.

And that’s what matters.

4 thoughts on “Great Editors–Arthur Levine (and Harry Potter)

  1. Very interesting. I read the HP books when I taught literature grade 7. One day when I went to play golf I saw a girl sitting in a booth reading one of the books. That was great to see someone actually reading on her own time!

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