The Editor Who Passed on Harry Potter

Posted on July 19, 2005

So, what's it like to be known as the editor that turned down the first Harry Potter manuscript? John Kenney said no to J.K. Rowling, and swears he doesn't regret it.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times Kenney explains his decision to turn down the Harry Potter manuscript. He says the book was pitched as Goodnight Moon for preteens. This doesn't really sound like a great description of the novel. It was also pitched as the "next great children's book."

Kenney dares to say that the first chapters of Harry Potter were "drivel."

I read the first few chapters of this so-called manuscript and, frankly, thought it drivel. February, perhaps March of the next year, I received a call from J.K. Rowling herself. She asked if I had had a chance to read her manuscript. I'm always embarrassed when fledgling writers get me on the phone. Most are sad, lonely people with no real means of income.

I said I enjoyed her work a great deal, but that it didn't meet our needs at this time - the standard industry brushoff. There was a pause and I thought the line had gone dead when I heard laughing. "Mr. Wortham," she said with a light British accent. "I was calling as a courtesy, actually. To tell you that I sold the book. To Scholastic. For..." The line went dead. Or perhaps I passed out. I forget which.

Kenney also shares details of dropping the news to the publisher CEO that he had passed on the now successful Harry Potter novel.
At lunch some time later I overheard our chief executive talking about the success of the Rowling book. So I happened to mention, with a chuckle, that we'd had a chance to buy it.

Why is it that one remembers a long pause? "Chief?" I said, though to this day I don't know why, as no one called him that. "You what?" he asked, his voice trembling slightly. "May I speak with you in my office?"

Mr. Kenney says that he is no longer an editor; he is writing his first novel.

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