That’s the goal, isn’t it? Become one of the highest paid, most well-known and widely popular authors in the world. What writer wouldn’t want that?
J.K. Rowling’s formulaic writing is fairly easy to crack, and yet no one has even come close to her levels of stardom recently. People toss around the phrase “the next J.K. Rowling” in the same way they talk about the zombie apocalypse or the next Game of Thrones book: yeah, it’s bound to happen sooner or later, but will we really see it? Nah.
And yet it’s still something that so many young writers aspire to, without any real idea of why Harry Potter is as popular as it is. The overwhelming response when young people are asked why they love Harry Potter is a simple, and incredibly unhelpful, one: It’s just so good!
If you’ve never been in a workshop class, “it’s good” is one of the least helpful phrases you can give as artistic feedback. Being unable to explain what you like about something is not only useless to the creator, it’s a sure sign you don’t have a good grasp of the finer points of the art yourself. It’s a surface level judgment unbacked by any kind of substance.
Some other common reasons for loving Harry Potter revolve around the books being a comfort at a pivotal moment in life, the characters strongly resonating and providing a sense of belonging, or the books teaching valuable life lessons. All of these, at their heart, are the same argument: I felt things I hadn’t felt before. It’s the quintessential reason for loving childhood books; the same arguments are often applied to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Roald Dahl books, and countless others. It’s not a revolutionary quality specific to the Harry Potter books, it’s just a result of their wild popularity as children’s novels.
So what exactly is it about these books that made them so popular? That made people utterly devoted to them? Well, it’s a lot of things, all working together to create a perfect storm of popularity.
It’s lovable, relatable characters. It’s simple writing and easy, thoughtless reading. It’s wish-fulfillment. It’s a manufactured community and a sense of belonging. It’s widespread controversy and publicity. It’s a really good marketing team. It is, above all, a lucky break.
Fame is being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. Of course, Rowling wouldn’t be nearly as popular if her books didn’t have all those other good things going for them, but in the end, she was just really lucky.
Harry Potter came out just as the internet was shifting toward personal use, allowing it to become the most influential fandom internet culture has ever spawned. The publishing rights were purchased for a record breaking price because one guy liked it, and it had a massive amount of money poured into marketing, not only giving it more than its fair chance in bookstores, but garnering press reactions to this no-name author who merited such a huge budget. The series received a large amount of negative backlash and was frequently banned for various reasons, inspiring even more press coverage and enticing more children and teenagers to read it. It became a cultural phenomenon in a time when phenomena were just beginning to spread at the speed of the internet. Eventually peer pressure played a part: to be popular was to have read Harry Potter.
Harry Potter is not popular because it’s good writing.
Her stilted dialogue and incomplete worldbuilding work incredibly for Fantastic Beasts, since she’s not forced to punctuate with action, characterization, or any kind of internal logic. Her worlds come to life on the screen despite her weak writing, and highly-paid actors imbue flat words with sincere emotion. But Harry Potter has no such cushion, boasting only that its simple, tell don’t show style brought even non-readers into its fanbase and made it a quick, easy read for everyone else.
To be the next J.K. Rowling is not to be the best writer.
To be the next J.K. Rowling is to be a trendsetter. She didn’t do anything new or innovative, she took the best bits of great books that came before her and combined them into something palatable for people who didn’t or wouldn’t read the greats. It’s to be controversial. There’s nothing more tantalizing than a good controversy, and Rowling’s career has been full of them. Even still she causes controversies on Twitter, keeping herself in the public eye. It’s to publish the right thing at the right time. J.K. Rowling didn’t set out to be the next anybody else. She had an idea for a book, and she wrote it. She wrote it poorly enough that she was rejected by twelve different publishers. But she was persistent and tenacious and one took a chance on her. To be the next J.K. Rowling is to persevere.
Don’t try to be the next J.K. Rowling. Write a good book. Write a book that only you can write. And cross your fingers that some supernatural force is smiling down on you and pushing you toward every coincidence and opportunity your book needs to become obscenely popular.