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How the Muggles at Disney missed out on "Harry Potter"

How the Muggles at Disney missed out on "Harry Potter"

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Jim Hill here. And -- Boy -- have I got a great story for you folks today!

This has been one of those urban legends that has been circulating around the Web for years now. About how some unnamed executive on the publishing side of The Walt Disney Company had had the chance to acquire the rights to J.K. Rowling's first novel, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" ... Only to reject the manuscript because this person thought that the book was too odd or too English.

Though this tale has been told thousands of times over the past seven years, few have chosen to believe it because ... Well ... No one has ever able to name the Disney executive who actually passed on "Harry Potter" ... until now.

What follows is the introductory column for a brand new JHM writer, whom I'm not at liberty to name right now. So -- for the time being -- we're just going to call this person The "Aspiring Aspirer."

To give you a bit more background on the author of the story that you'll find below: TAA worked for The Walt Disney Company for over 10 years. As part of their duties at the Mouse House, TAA worked in close proximity with Michael Eisner, Frank Wells as well as lots of other Disney Legends.

So The Aspiring Aspirer really knows a lot about the inner workings of the Mouse House. More importantly, he has had close encounters with many of the company's more colorful characters. And - in the weeks ahead -- he'll be sharing some of those experiences in future columns that you'll find right here at JHM.

Okay. Enough with the introductions. Let's let TAA explain how -- back in 1997 -- a certain Hyperion Books for Children editorial executive let the Golden Snitch slip right through Mickey's fingers. More importantly, why that same exec may now hold the key to Disney getting a second chance to snag the North American publishing rights to the "Harry Potter" books.

Take it away, AA!

With the upcoming release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," The Walt Disney Company finally has its arms firmly wrapped around a major piece of classic children's literature. From all early indications, once this Andrew Adamson film is released to theaters on December 9th, the house that Eisner built will finally have something that Michael has been lusting after for 20+ years now: A successful film franchise that's based on a piece of popular fiction.

This is something that Disney almost had with "The Lord of the Rings." Only to get cold feet once Peter Jackson and the Weinsteins made Disney's CEO aware of how much this two part epic was supposed to cost. (Yes, you heard right. Back when Miramax was trying to get a movie version of Tolkien's epic fantasy made, the Mouse just couldn't bring itself to pay for production of a trilogy. Which is why Disney execs insisted that Jackson cram all of the action of "The Fellowship of the Rings, "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" into two pictures. It was only after Peter took "LOTR" over New Line Cinema that this ambitious film project was allowed to become a trilogy again, with TONS of extra DVD footage. And the rest of the story ... You know ... ) And as for "Harry Potter" ...

What most people don't know is that not only did the Walt Disney Company miss out on securing the movie rights to the "Harry Potter" book series, but -- thanks to an oversight by a recently departed Disney Publishing senior editorial executive -- the Mouse House actually missed out on the chance to publish the "Harry Potter" books in the United States and Canada.

So who supposedly let the Golden Snitch slip through her fingers? Lisa Holton, who had been an executive editor at Harper Collins prior to arriving at Disney Publishing in the mid 1990's.

So how did Ms. Holton reportedly bobble this opportunity? Well, you have to understand that Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. published the original Harry Potter book (I.E. "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone") in the U.K in June of 1997, while Scholastic, Inc. published the first North American edition of the book (I.E."Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") in October of 1998.

So where does Disney fit into all this? Prior to Scholastic agreeing to publish J.K. Rowling's first novel in the United States and Canada, the Bloomsbury version of the book allegedly came across Ms. Holton's desk. Which meant that Disney had the opportunity to lock up the North American publishing rights before Scholastic did, for "Philosopher's Stone" as well as all of the "Harry Potter" books that followed. But this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity vanished into thin air like a puff of smoke when Lisa rejected the book.

Now some people would tell you that things like this happen all the time in the publishing world. That a really promising project will sometimes pass straight through a publishing house, its genius being unrecognized due to the fact that editors typically have so many different books that they have to read and evaluate on a weekly basis.

The more kind-hearted folks at Disney Publishing would tell you that this is what actually happened with "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." That Ms. Holton just was not able to see how promising J.K. Rowling's book truly was because of her huge work load.

But me? I don't know if I feel all that inclined to cut Lisa the same amount of slack. After all, the Bloomsbury version of the first "Harry Potter" book had received some very enthusiastic reviews. Which (in theory) made "Philosopher's Stone" one of the hottest book pitches being passed around major New York publishing houses at the time. So that alone should have put J.K. Rowling's novel on Ms. Holton's radar.

Then again, to be fair, it should be pointed out that -- back in 1997 -- "Harry Potter" hadn't yet become "HARRY POTTER" yet. One of the best selling series of children's novels in the history of publishing. Not to mention being the springboard to a top grossing series of theatrical films, highly-popular video games, action figures, clothing, lunch boxes, collectibles ... The list goes on and on.

More to the point, Ms. Holton wasn't the only person who missed out on seeing the obvious brilliance of J.K. Rowling's book. You have to understand that "Philosopher's Stone" passed through dozens of other publishing houses besides Disney. And lots of other editors besides Lisa failed to see the inherent promise of "Harry Potter."

Which perhaps explains why -- rather than being fired for this rather obvious mis-step -- Ms. Holton continued to rapidly rise within Disney Publishing. In fact, Lisa was actually Senior Vice President of Global Disney Children's Books until just this past April. When she suddenly left the Mouse House to pursue other opportunities.

"And where were these 'other opportunities' ?," you ask. Would you believe at Scholastic? Where Lisa was hired to replace Barbara Marcus.

Ms. Marcus - for those of you who don't know - was the President of Children's Publishing and Distribution as well as being the Executive Vice President of Scholastic, Inc. More importantly, Ms. Marcus was the woman who personally supervised the publication and release of all the North American editions of the "Harry Potter" books that have been released to date.

So is Ms. Holton accepting the job as head of Scholastic just Lisa's way of making amends for letting the publishing rights for "Harry Potter" slip through her fingers years ago? Or is there actually something larger in the works here?

After all, for years now, there have been rumors in the publishing world about the Walt Disney Company eyeballing Scholastic, Inc. About how the Mouse House has targeted this publishing house for possible acquisition.

So now - with the former Senior V.P. of Global Disney Children's Books recently installed as the new head of Scholastic, Inc. - could the crucial puzzle pieces finally be in place? Could the Walt Disney Company now be getting ready to acquire the company that publishes the North American editions of "Harry Potter" ?

Man, where's Professor Trelawney when you really need her? If ever there was a time when JHM readers could use a divinations class, it's now.

Peering into my own personal crystal ball, I say that this whole Lisa-Holton-is-now-at-Scholastic thing bears watching. Which is why I really wouldn't be all that surprised to see the Walt Disney Company finally acquire the North American publishing rights to "Harry Potter" in the not-so-distant future. Even if it means that the Mouse has to swallow Scholastic in order to do this.

So would that mean that Disney would then have the inside track to use the "Harry Potter" characters in a theme park setting? Sorry, but I think it would be really Dumb(ledore) of me to make a prediction like that.

For now ... I suggest that we all keep a close eye on that whole Holton-at-Scholastic thing. There's something about that particular corporate move that strikes me as being entirely too cozy. That (even as we speak) Lisa may be getting ready to help Mickey finally get his hands on Harry.

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