SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 17 JULY 2005


Word of mouse



Emerson Spartz woke up in Scotland this morning in a bed of his own making. If he managed to sleep for long enough, his dreams couldn't compete with the day ahead and a moment he will remember for the rest of his life.

Spartz's has made the long journey from his hometown of LaPorte, Indiana, USA, to Edinburgh Castle and an exclusive interview with the person who provided the inspiration for his hugely popular website - Mugglenet.

The name comes from what he calls his "abnormal obsession" with Harry Potter "the boy wizard". He built and launched Mugglenet six years ago. It "was a by-product of boredom. I started homeschooling when I was 12 and I thought starting a website would be fun".

His devotion to all things Potter began as something of an accident. "I'm not really a big fantasy fan. My friends kept telling me about it, saying it was really good, so I decided to give it a try." The spell had been cast.

"Part of the reason it is so up there is because it's so easy to read. I mean it's definitely up there with 'Lord of the Rings', but it is hard to read and 'Harry Potter' isn't".

This seal of approval, however, sits side by side comfortably with his preference for factual writing: "I read mostly non-fiction now. Fiction is my dessert".

And some dessert it turned out to be. In November 2002, three years after he launched it, Mugglenet was getting 80,000 hits a month. Now Spartz said the site gets "over 15m" a month, is viewed by fans "in 153 countries (and counting!)". There are 50,000 active members.

As "head webmaster", Spartz marshalls a team of over 40 volunteers spread throughout the world. His 16-year-old brother Dylan is "the graphics man" and the average age of the other "staff" is around 19.

Last year, Spartz's achievement with Mugglenet was recognised by the Rotary Club of Michigan City, and he was presented with an award aimed at young business people. He's off to Notre Dame university in the Autumn to study business management. He also has plans to apply his commercial savvy to Mugglenet but insists that such a strategy won't be "garish".

Mugglenet has been namechecked by more than 150 media outlets worldwide, including the BBC which ranked it as the best Harry Potter website. Fans love it. One of them, Matt, wrote recently: "GREAT new stuff Emerson!!!!!! Thank you for being here and for being such a fan of the books".

But last Friday Spartz met one of his most important fans. It's the reason he came to Edinburgh. He was personally invited by Potter's creator, JK Rowling, to take part in what she calls a children's press conference weekend for the launch of her latest installment in the Potter series. The invite came out of the blue.

At 9pm one morning last May, his father Thomas answered the phone to a woman with a Scottish accent. He woke his son and handed over the phone. "Hello, Emerson? This is Jo. You believe me, don't you?"

Rowling avails of the internet like no other medium existed. On the publishing trail of hype and marketing, she has purposefully ventured off in a different direction. She speaks directly to her readers through her own website and sites like Spartz's.

"It's high time I paid homage to the mighty Mugglenet", she wrote. She "loved the design" and mentioned "the wonderful editorials (more insight there than in several companion volumes I shall not name)".

Rowling writes every word on her site, describing it as the place "where I can tell the truth about rumours or news stories, where I can share the extra information I haven't put in the books, where I can give you hints and clues about what's going to happen to Harry next".

In case there are any impersonators around, Rowling advised that she "never posts on fan sites and it is important that you all know this... ". She continued: "Love you and all though I do, I don't really want to wake up and have to download 21,956,038 new emails, all demanding the identity of the Half-Blood Prince".

She's probably not far off with that number, considering that 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' has an initial print run of almost 11m copies, the biggest yet for any book.

Of those, Amazon.com already accounts for 1.2m in advance orders for the book. As the internet retailing giant's celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday, it published a Hall of Fame, made up of its top twenty five best-selling authors over the ten years. In spite of her media reclusiveness, Rowling is top of the pile.

"Who bypasses every journalist in the world just to talk to her fans? A direct connection with her fans is all she cares about...", said another Edinburgh invitee.

It's a bypass which may well become very busy in the future.