Warner Bros., Dave Hogan/Getty Images
J.K. Rowling is the first self-made billionaire author in the history of, well, billionaires. She’s also one of only 56 women in the world, according to Forbes, to earned her own billion-dollar fortune…ever.
If that isn’t enough to impress you, let us indulge a little further. She has sold more than 400 million copies of her Harry Potter book series, in almost 70 languages around the world. She is the author of the fastest-selling book of all time, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The movie franchise that was borne out of her print brainchild is the highest-grossing in history. It’s currently made over $6.5 billion.
All of this which is to say: J.K. Rowling is rolling in it. But her life wasn’t always one where money quite literally grows on trees (books come from paper, which starts out as a tree, right?). Twenty years ago today, the very first Harry Potter novel was published—but when she sat down to write what would become the very first wizard installment, she had fallen on wholly hard times.
Rowling, whose real name is Joanne (publishers had her create the pen name J.K. to better market the novels to young boys…go figure), famously first thought of the idea for the boy wizard and his journey through Hogwarts while sitting on a highly-delayed train between Manchester and London. But it wasn’t until years later that she actually found the time to put pen to paper. To truly understand her emotional journey, you have to go all the way back to when she was 25 years old.
The soon-to-be-author was working as a secretary in London when her mother passed away of Multiple Sclerosis. As the result of what was presumably a whole lot of soul-searching, she decided to make a drastic change—packing up and moving to Portugal to teach English. It was there she would meet the husband of her short-lived marriage: They had a daughter, Jessica, and the relationship quickly deteriorated. One can imagine what that would do to a person’s mental state, and J.K. soon found herself desperately escaping to Scotland, where her sister lived, for a fresh start.
As she recounted to Oprah Winfrey in one of the television host’s last interviews for her namesake television show, she found herself struggling to survive on welfare, and it would be a long seven years from the moment when she first envisioned Harry on the train, to the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But once the tome hit shelves—which Rowling finished on a vintage typewriter, no less—the money (and success) started to pour in.
The first step was finding a publisher—J.K.’s agent shopped the book around, and it was finally given the green light by Bloomsbury, for a £1,500 advance. Just for comparison purposes, it’s reported that the early copies of Sorcerer’s Stone are now worth about 20 times that amount.
Then, in October, 1998, Warner Brothers bought the film rights to the first two Harry Potter novels for a seven-figure sum, kicking off what was to become the most successful movie franchise of all time, and the biggest source of Rowling’s current fortune. By July, 2000, the Goblet of Fire novel broke sales records (it sold three million copies in the first 48 hours), and all the following books broke each successive record. By 2004 J.K. Rowling was a full-fledged billionaire. There are conflicting reports that, due to taxes and some generous charitable donations, her fortune currently sits slightly below $1 billion, but by that point it’s really all just silly details.
Today, J.K.’s life could not be more different than when she first moved to Scotland with nothing in her pocket. When it came time to pen the final Harry Potter installment, she famously upgraded from the coffee shops and pubs she used to frequent and checked into Edinburgh’s swank Balmoral Hotel, where rooms run upwards of £1,000 pounds a night. As she told Oprah Winfrey during one of her few televised sit-downs, she had grown distracted at home and finally had the epiphany that she was no rich enough to simply throw money at the problem. And if that anecdote doesn’t explain the author’s attitude towards her fortunes, we don’t know what will.
Given her humble upbringings and deep, enduring humility, Rowling lives quite differently than most people with 10-figure bank accounts. As she likes to explain, her fortune has not sunk in yet, and she has lost neither the fear that it will someday disappear nor the instinct to stress out when deciding between two different things to buy (the irony being that she doesn’t have to choose.) She admits to still taking the bus on occasion as well.
But, the Harry Potter author has also made some indulgences. Now married to an anesthesiologist (with whom she has two more children), she resides in an upmarket enclave of Edinburgh, in a £2.5 million home that dates back to the 17th century. The property is so large that it came equipped with several backyard tree houses (presumably) the size of the apartment she used to rent. The family also has a country house, and they’ve become friends with the likes of Sarah and Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and First Lady of England.
Long gone are the days of hauling a laptop to the local coffee shop for a day’s work—all things Rowling, Inc. are taken care of at a fancy office that The New Yorker has described as complete with “High ceilings, Turkish rugs, figurative oil paintings by modern Scottish artists, and the air of a small but very well-funded embassy.” She also has an assistant and a driver, and cops to dressing far better than her pre-wealthy days.
But as any celebrity will warn, the lap of luxury can come with some pitfalls, and Rowling’s fame is more akin to a movie star than a typical writer. She has unwittingly been the subject of a very prying press, and has been subject to injustices like discovering reporters going through her garbage bins, or winding up on the front page of a tabloid in her bikini, after a photographer ambushed her vacation with a long lens. All this has resulted in a life lived mostly out of the spotlight, save for a very active Twitter account and the occasional speech for a good cause.
Her adoring fans may wish for more of a public persona from the writer, but after bringing so much magic to the world, it’s safe to say she deserves a very long (and very opulent) vacation.