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Potter's still magic for J.K. Rowling

From Liz George and Andy Serwer

JK Rowling
Rowling says she is still surprised to be recognised

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EDINBURGH, Scotland -- It would be a long stretch of even J.K. Rowling's rich imagination to conjure up an image of her as a globally recognised celebrity. The creator of the famous Harry Potter cannot even go into a bookshop without making the front page.

Now fiction is reflecting fact.

Thanks to the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter novels and movies, this author has become as famous as the characters she has created.

"It always surprises me, it always surprises me to be recognised. It's odd ... but nice, very nice," she told CNN as the second Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," prepared to hit screens in Britain and the United States.

The film was produced by Warner Brothers Studios, which is owned by CNN's parent company, AOL Time Warner.

Just as the Hogwarts Express sped Harry towards his wizardry, so too the gravy train of lucrative publishing and movie deals has carried Rowling from struggling single mum -- teaching part time -- towards riches.

All from an idea thought up 12 years ago during a tedious train journey.

She worked as a part-time teacher at Leith Academy. Just when her department head offered her more work, the Potter magic was cast: a book deal had come through from the United States.

"She'd just received a contract from America, and I don't think she hesitated very long before deciding which one to choose," says Dave Pete, assistant head teacher at the school.

Private life

Now with four books behind her, is fame frustrating her efforts to finish the fifth?

Where once she wrote unnoticed in the local Nicholson's cafe, drawing inspiration from the bustle around her, she is now drawn away into herself and her family.

Nicholson's has changed quite considerably since those days back in 1994 when Rowling sat at one of the cafe tables, writing her novels in longhand, with her mug of espresso, her glass of water and her baby daughter sleeping beside her.

start quoteIt always surprises me, it always surprises me to be recognised. It's odd ... but nice, very nice.end quote
-- J.K. Rowling

It is now more a restaurant than a cafe, although the writer retains strong links with the place. Being friends with the owners, she pops in every now and again to chat before the opera.

And she likes to conduct all of her media interviews here as well, although of course at the moment she is not giving any interviews. She is working on that long-awaited fifth novel.

Some people say she has writer's block. Others argue it is just a new phase in her life.

"She's got a new husband, she going to have another baby, and her interests are changing and broadening, but I don't think she's a frustrated writer," says Julia Eccleshare, books editor of the Guardian.

Just as Potter was bewildered by his magic powers ... adjusting to the fame is likely to have come hard to this shy children's novelist.

Those who know her say she will steadily and quietly work through until the series is done.

Big business

Meanwhile, the real magic of Harry Potter may be that this wizard-in-training is also a huge business -- a multi-billion dollar moneymaking machine for movie studio Warner Brothers.

Potter toys
Potter toys and merchandise bring in an excess of $1 billion.

The key being those thousands of Harry Potter toys, video games, and product tie-ins, which are just as important as the film itself.

Says Charles Lion, film industry journalist: "Harry Potter has become a main brand for Warner Brothers.

"This is more than just a movie obviously, there are all the ancillaries that create a revenue stream of approximately $1 billion which is separate to the approximately $1 billion that the movie itself has grossed internationally."

That is right. The first movie took in a $966 million at the box office worldwide -- a total only topped by "Titanic" -- and another $1 billion in "stuff."

Never mind the Harry Potter books, which have grossed about $140 million worldwide. There are T-shirts and posters. Marketing deals with Coke. Harry Potter video games were Warner Brother's biggest sellers last year. And then there are the toys.

Says Jim Silver, co-editor of the U.S.'s Toy Wishes magazine: "Over $500 million last year was spent on Harry Potter toys and this year is expected to be even bigger."

There are about 25-30 different Harry Potter toys -- some are from last year's movie and many are from the new one.

Silver estimates that for every $100 of toys sold, Warner Brothers gets $15. The magic is that cut quickly adds up to mega bucks. And a mega-phenomenon.

Lion comments: "Well, it's definitely more than a movie, it's a movement. It becomes a marketing brand, a brand that has enormous reach in the market place in every possible arena, so it's not just entertainment."

No Harry Potter is not just entertainment. It has more than a little touch of that old black marketing magic.

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