Update: This post originally said that Rowling had no agent, which is what I was told by my wife, but my mother-in-law has now corrected me, so I’ve rewritten appropriately.
Her packet with the first few chapters and a synopsis got turned down by twelve publishers before a Bloomsbury editor decided to take a chance on it.
It’s entirely possible that those twelve publishers never even took a look at it before they rejected it, but what if they did? It’s well known that most gatekeepers will only read five pages before they give up on a manuscript that hasn’t grabbed them. So you’ve got to subject your work to the five-page test. How would you feel if you stopped reading there?
If I just read the first five pages of this book, would I buy it? Nope.
This is now one of the most of the most beloved books of all time, so it’s easy to see the greatness in those opening pages. They’re funny. They’re a good entry into this world. But those pages are a big risk, and they could easily have kept the book from ever being published.
Rowling chooses to start with what I would call an anti-POV character: We’re seeing hints of amazing things, but we’re stuck in the head of a buffoonish character who refuses to look at them. Because Rowling is a great writer, she makes this POV very entertaining anyway: We enjoy laughing at his buffoonery and we enjoy peeking over his shoulder to see the things he’s trying not to see.
But if you’re a reader for those first twelve companies, then rejecting this is a no-brainer: We’re reading about an unlikeable character! There’s virtually no dialogue! The title character doesn’t appear! We’ve been promised a fantasy book by the pitch but we’re in a world that’s mostly mundane.
Rowling took a huge risk. She starts us off in an unlikeable head, then introduces our hero as a baby with a huge info dump, then jumps ten years ahead in chapter two, only belatedly letting us get to know our hero then. It’s all well-written, but it’s no surprise that twelve publishers rejected it. The patience of that thirteenth editor was a miracle. He stuck with it and discovered gold.
If Rowling had been more concerned with the rules, this classic novel would have had a very different beginning, for good or ill. Instead, we have this odd beginning that has gone on to enchant so many readers.