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A book that unemployed, hardworking persons should read


By Atem Yaak Atem

Books attract their would-be readers for different reasons. One of these is the allure of their titles. An outrageous title; name of a curiosity-inspiring subject; a much hyped name or that of a famous person or one notorious for evil deeds or reputation, for example, will not fail to entice people. Few people would ignore, at least, to scan a book carrying titles such as The Most Dangerous Man in the World. Or The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Writers of newspapers’ headlines exploit this fact to make their products sell.

Recently I stumbled on a copy of the biography of J. K. Rowling, the author of the children best-selling Harry Potter children series. Although the book is outdated as far as the life of the subject, her writing and the impact of her books are concerning, I was curious enough to buy a copy. I wanted to know the factors behind the success of Joanne Rowling as an author who rose from obscurity to become one of the famous fiction writers of recent times and a multi-millionaire as a result.

J. K. Rowling: The genius behind the Harry Potter, a biography was written by a British journalist, Sean Smith and was published in 2001.

The biography tells of an amazing transformation of her life: overnight fame and more importantly, overcoming poverty- through sales of copies, translation and film rights that have made her a millionaire. 

The natural questions that arise are: how did this phenomenon happen and with what consequences?


The book narrates the life story of an English girl from birth through school to university; fits and starts with the job market; disastrous marriage; unemployment as a divorced single mother receiving unemployment and rent support; to her spectacular rise to fame and wealth after the publication of her Harry Potter series.


In the words of one commenter, Joanne Rowling has broken [modern literary and commercial] records as a first-time writer whose books “have become best-selling series in history and best-grossing film in history.”

Joanne Rowling was born in 1965in England where she led an ordinary life as a child and student. She went to university and received a degree. Her parents had stable jobs, so she and her younger sister enjoyed parental love and had their basic needs met.

Academically, Joanne Rowling was a good student. Although not outstanding in social or sports circles, she became a head girl during her final year in high school. She was described as an intelligent, free-thinking eighteen-year-old-girl. 

After obtaining marks that would have qualified her to enter Oxford University to which she had applied, she “was turned down by Oxford University because she attended a state school, rather than a private school” in the view of one of her former teachers.

The alternative was Exeter University where she read Classics and French, graduating in 1982 with a bachelor degree. But uncertainties awaited her.

“Joanne had been going through a period of drift in her life” says her biographer who adds that the young woman’s problems were exacerbated by the suffering of her mother who was battling multiple sclerosis, MS, which had put her into a wheelchair. 

After university Rowling went to live in a flat in London when she was doing a secretarial course. One of the jobs she got after that was with a publisher “where her duties included sending out rejection slips. At least during this period she learned to type at great speed, which was invaluable skill for a budding writer”, her biographer writes.

Later she worked with the human rights organisation, Amnesty International. She continued writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone which she had started earlier. Her commitment to the project meant that even during lunch time she would go out to write in quieter places. 

She quit the job and went to teach English in Porto, a town in Portugal. 

Although she was enjoying her time hanging out with her three colleagues and compatriots, she continued to work on her novel. There, she met and fell in love with a local young man called Jorge Arante. Marriage and a child followed in quick secession. That her Portuguese husband emotionally and physically was abusing her meant that their marriage soon collapsed.

The end came, according to a newspaper report, when Arante admitted beating Rowling and dragging her out of their house at 5 am. What was described as “a scene of high drama in the street” became the final straw in the stressful relationship. 

After the brief but tumultuous romance “Joanne Rowling was homeless, in a foreign city, with just the clothes she stood up in, and her four-month-old baby in the same house as the man who had thrown her out.” 

With the help of her Portuguese friend Rowling was able to get her daughter and fled to Scotland where her sister, Dianne, married and worked.

Struggling single mother

In a chapter aptly entitled “The Poverty Trap,” the future millionaire’s main commitment to her daughter’s welfare and the writing of Harry Potter, still only three chapters, took centre stage. 

As a proud person she “saw herself as an independent and well-educated woman who was not going to be a burden on her sister and friends.” And the choice to apply to the Department of Social Security for income support became the lesser of the two bitter pills. The amount that she would get weekly was an equivalent of $103.50, about 300 South Sudanese pounds per a week, insufficient to meet daily needs of a mother with a child. 

Commenting on what it meant to be on social welfare, to a newspaper years later, J. K. Rowling said, “You have to be interviewed and explain to a lot of strangers how you came to be penniless and the sole carer of your child. I know that nobody was setting out to make me feel humiliated and worthless though that is how I felt.” She also remembers how bad she felt when signing welfare cheque at the post office.

The other problem she faced was that many agents of rented properties would not accept a tenant on welfare benefits.

Personal pride and dignity are not good bedfellows with hardships caused by poverty. However, she had to swallow her pride to ask friends for help. During those days when she was short of cash she borrowed money from a friend, she jestingly dubbed “foul weather friend” (note the difference between this and “fair weather friend”) who loaned her $900 to improve her one-bed room flat.

There appeared to be no end to her miseries. Her former Portuguese husband followed her to Scotland and wanted to join her and their daughter. But she would have none of that, so she had to take out a restraining order. They later divorced.

Now with a room over her head, Rowling continued to work on the book. Creative writing is and can be an exacting and a lonely enterprise; some authors choose odd places and times where and when to indulge their passion. For Rowling, a coffee bar owned by her sister’s husband was the place that was conducive to writing. She would take her child to the café; while the child slept in a buggy the mother wrote. The cost was the cup of coffee she would buy on arrival.

She did not give up search for a paid job. In that she got an offer by the University of Edinburgh as trainee student. She successfully completed her post graduate certificate that qualified her as a high school teacher in 1996. Soon she got a teaching job as a replacement teacher. That was a relief which also meant an end to her dependency on welfare support.

Earlier, she had submitted her manuscript to Bloomsbury publishers who accepted it. The   book had been rejected by some leading 12 publishers including Penguin. That she had a contract with a publishing company made her eligible for a bursary award from the Scottish Arts Council which gave her $12, 000. With that sum she was able to improve her accommodation as well as buying a word processor to liberate her from a second manual typewriter.

Life changing moment

Book publishing is a slow process and so are the royalties accruing to authors. The first amount Rowling received from the book contract with Bloomsbury was a paltry sum; under $2,000. Even after the publication of the first instalment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone, in June 1997, big money was still a long away from pouring into the accounts of the publisher, the author and assorted companies and individuals involved in the production, promotions and sale of the book.

The financial breakthrough happened when the American publishers of children literature, Scholastic, bought the book’s rights. Scholastic paid Rowling $100, 000. This was just the beginning of what Rowling’s biographer calls “a life changing movement”. As will be seen later it was an event that was going to change the lives of many people around the world for the better in monetary terms.

Bookseller Amazon.com took 290, 000 advance copies; by 2000 the books were available in translation in 35 languages world-wide, with China having produced 100, 000 box sets of the translation of the first three Harry Potter books; movie industry moved in for film rights estimated in millions of dollar.

It came as no surprise that the author’s worth was in 2001 was put at $97.5 million and the 42nd richest woman in Britain, while her agent, Christopher Little, the CEO of the Little Literary Agents, was reported to have earned $15 million.

Other beneficiaries

Apart from the author, the publishers and the film industry, child actors, translators all over the world, governments, particularly the British and American, reaped millions of dollars in taxes. 

Charity organisations were not forgotten.  J. K. Rowling’s mother, Anne Rowling, and a victim of MS had her memory honoured with a donation of $370,000 to MS Society resource centre. Another recipient of former single mum’s munificence was the London-based National Council for One Parent Families which became $750, 000 richer thanks to Rowling’s gift. And many more and numerous accolades and loads of money bags were to come J. L.Rowling’s way in the years after 2001, the time the biography was released.

There was no way that such a phenomenal literary achievement would go unrecognised by the State of her native Britain, academic institutions and others. At the close of the 20th century the Queen’s list of honours included J. K. Rowling with an OBE, Order of the British Empire, for service to children’s literature. That was to be followed by alma mater, the University of Exeter which conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters degree on her.

As she was receiving awards such as the Author of the Year or two awards from Scottish Council Book Award, Rowling had to reward herself by buying a house in the posh Kensington area in London for $6. 75 million.

The curse of being a public property

Fame and wealth, unfortunately did not bring happiness to the best-selling author of children book in history. Tabloids and even the broadsheets pounced on their victim who had no personal experience with the media’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities. For Rowling, muckraking consisted mostly of fabrications and exaggerations. In search for salacious tales, “investigators” went straight into her recent past.

For instance, one newspaper went with a headline screaming “penniless single mother gets six-figure sum”. Another banner from The Daily Mail ran: “A penniless and newly-divorced mother has sold her first book for 100, 000.” The amount was in US dollars but the paper gave the impression that the money was in the British currency, pound Sterling, making the amount much higher than it really was. What mattered to the media was that everything had to be in the world of superlatives, right or imprecise.

As if those deliberate inaccuracies were not painful enough, the media further claimed Rowling had to write in the café simply because her flat lacked heating. She denies the allegation.

On the putting down bandwagon, was her former Portuguese husband staking out a preposterous claim: he wrote the second instalment while Rowling was in his country. 

Another killjoy character turned up allegations that Rowling had lifted from her books in the same genre published years before. Proving evidence of plagiarism were unsuccessful.

Any story that would appear salacious to tabloid readers had to be dishonestly retold. One of these was the alleged conflict between the daughter and her father, Peter Rowling, following his marriage shortly after her mother’s death. What was more, the new wife was his former secretary. 

The effect of these doctored stories about her life put a lot of strain on Rowling. The result was that she could not write at times. That meant she was running behind the deadlines with her publishers of the projected seven instalments of the Harry Potter series. 

For her part, Rowling had to learn that the most important thing for her was to jealously guard her privacy. That in turn meant the loss of personal freedom. 

Useful lessons from J. K. Rowling’s problems and success

J. R. Rowling’s life story may not belong to the clichéd “from rags to riches” type but for our purpose here there is a moral or several lessons.

Some people shy away from accepting the role of luck in life as that is sometimes associated with superstition. But more often than not, people embrace happy coincidences when they appear. J. K. Rowling’s success had some elements of luck. 

One observer has pointed out the probability that had she gone to the more prestigious Oxford University instead of Exeter, she might have ended with a degree and a satisfying job. Under that hypothetical situation, it is argued she might have not have the need to write as a means to spending her unhappy time usefully and for consolation.

Another case of good luck favouring the young woman was the fact that the secretary to the Little Literary Agent’s CEO who read the three chapters of what later became Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone was instrumental in convincing her boss, Alan Little, to read the chapters which he did and liked. It was Little who recommended the book to Bloomsbury who accepted to publish the work.

Little is also credited with playing trick with the author’s name by leaving the readers guessing the gender of the author as her given name was contracted to J. K. (Joanne Kathleen), a marketing gimmick that paid off as far as misogynists are concerned.

The chances that the reviewer of this biography and the readers of the review becoming another J. K. Rowling or a Bill Gates, are one in a million. But there is no denying that the hardships that Rowling went through, the dignity with which she conducted herself when she was living in poverty as a single mother and her determination not to give in to despair is not only admirable but also can be an inspiration for talented persons experiencing similar trying times in their professional or personal lives. 

Rowling’s personality that puts pride, dignity, hard work, perseverance and independence are worth emulating, especially for young people.

Despite the stunning rise of J. K. Rowling to the pinnacle of success, fame and wealth, some people reading these linesmay forget she was and continues to be a self-employed person. Being her own boss means that she has no any other employer, in public or private sector, to wake up one cloudy morning to declare to her: “You are fired.”

Not many people are able to make a living from proceeds of creative enterprise such as writing, singing, dancing or sports, but virtually many opportunities are available to many among us, even without sufficient capital or talents, to be self-employed and to earn a decent livelihood out of them. 

I have in mind self-employment in areas such as hand-operated laundry, breeding fowls (poultry), fishing, growing of vegetables within one’s backyard, among many. (But for goodness sake, these should never include the destruction of the environment in the name of charcoal.)

In these and other attempts at profitable self-employment, degrees or certificates may not be the required condition; the basic requirements should be: driving determination, energy, perseverance in face of adversities, self-confidence, living for a purpose and optimism based on realism. Without these ingredients of self-sufficiency any hope of one changing their life for the better would remain just a dream.


The reviewer is a South Sudanese journalist and an internationally accredited translator.

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