The story of J.K. Rowling is in some ways more remarkable than that of the boy wizard she created. Once, you see, the writer was an unemployed single mother, but the success of the Harry Potter books, their related films and merchandise all combined to make her richer than royalty. In fact, Rowling is the first ever woman novelist to make it onto Forbes’ list of billionaires. But the author has since dropped off that prestigious ranking – and the reason for that is a total eye-opener.
Still, there’s no doubt that Rowling remains staggeringly wealthy, meaning she and her children – Jessica, David and Mackenzie – could have pretty much anything they could conceivably want. And the writer has taken advantage of that fact. For example, her two youngest kids reportedly had a 40-foot-high treehouse built for them on Rowling’s property in around 2012. Such a structure can cost as much as $324,000.
Rowling has made it clear, too, that she not only appreciates her hard-earned money, but that she will be careful with it. And although she occasionally purchases extravagant things for herself, including designer jewelry, she’s also likely to give some of her wealth away to charity. Reportedly, Rowling once said, “I think you have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”
But does Rowling actually count as being among the ultra-rich anymore? Well, apparently she no longer commands the incredibly vast fortune that she used to. And in 2012 Forbes even announced that she had fallen off its list of billionaires. How did this happen? Well, interestingly, the story is yet another remarkable one.
Yet although Rowling may now be a “mere” multi-millionaire, she still has considerably more in the bank than she did before fame. While giving a speech at Harvard University in 2008, the author described her pre-Harry Potter, single mother lifestyle, explaining that she had been “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” Shockingly, she added, “By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” But, of course, that would ultimately change.
While stuck on a train one day in 1990, Rowling had an idea for a story about a wizarding school that she started writing as soon as she got home to London. But it seems that the tale wasn’t easy to finish, as years passed in the interim. And Rowling experienced her fair share of pain during that period, too. Not only did she experience a miscarriage and see her mother pass away, but her marriage also failed. Then, finally, she found herself jobless.
Rowling fought her way back up, however, and in 1995 the first Harry Potter book was finished. The writer subsequently sent her manuscript to publishers, with Bloomsbury deciding to release the work in 1996 after other companies had refused. But editor Barry Cunningham still advised Rowling to get herself another job, as there was apparently little money in writing for children.
In the end, though, Rowling ended up in a position where she would never have to work again in her life. Yet the sudden success of her first Harry Potter book terrified her. “From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing,” she told Lauren Laverne in 2015. “But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming.”
As Rowling went on to explain, “For the first time in my life I could buy a house, which meant security for my daughter and me, but I now felt, ‘The next book can’t possibly live up to this.’ So I managed to turn this amazing triumph into tragedy in the space of about five days.” Rowling’s anxieties turned out to be unfounded, though, as each and every book in the Harry Potter series became a bestseller.
In fact, by 2003 – the year that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released – Rowling was exceptionally well-to-do. The Sunday Times’ Rich List even declared that the then 37-year-old was the 122nd wealthiest person in Britain – with even more money than the Queen. And, needless to say, this was staggering for the previously poor author. But Rowling’s reaction to her new-found riches may have surprised some.
You see, in 2003 Rowling told BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman that she felt “guilty” about having so much money. “The biggest jump for me was the American advance, which was enough for me to buy a house,” she said. “And I didn’t feel guilty; I felt scared at that point, because I thought I mustn’t blow this. I’ve got some money, [and] I mustn’t do anything stupid with it. And then I felt guilty. Yeah, I did.”
Then, the year after that, Rowling made it to the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. The Evening Standard revealed, “[Rowling] ranks at number 552 on a list of 587 billionaires, whose combined wealth adds up to $1.9 trillion.” And at the age of just 38, the author was one of the youngest on the list as well.
What’s more, Rowling’s wealth just kept on coming in. In fact, by 2004, she had sold around 250 million copies of her first five Harry Potter novels. And when the books were made into movies – the first being released in 2001 – the adaptations grossed $7.7 billion in total, with a portion of the royalties naturally making their way back to Rowling.
Harry Potter theme parks have been created, too. In 2010 the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, with this followed by similar parks at Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Japan and Universal Studios Hollywood.
And in her 2015 interview with Lauren Laverne, Rowling discussed how she was still shocked by her riches. She had even spoken with fellow self-made billionaire Oprah Winfrey about money, asking the TV host if she had gotten used to being rich. “[Oprah] said, ‘Yes, I know now that I will be rich forever,’” Rowling said. “That hasn’t kicked in [for me].” Yet Potter kept on making money for Rowling long after the final novel had been penned.
Yes, in 2017 Rowling gained another major source of income: the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The work was written by the author herself alongside Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, and fans ate it up. Then, when the script for the production was released as a book, it also became a bestseller. Rowling seemed unstoppable.
Plus, of course, there was the money from the Harry Potter theme parks to take into account. “The second-largest chunk of [Rowling’s] income comes from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – a chain of themed attractions at Universal Parks & Resorts,” Forbes reported. “Rowling receives low double-digit millions from a share of ticket, merchandise, sponsorship and food and beverage revenue.”
So, with so much rolling in, it may seem odd that Rowling isn’t a billionaire. Indeed, according to Forbes, she made $54 million in 2018 alone. So where is all her money going? Well, the answer is simple and actually rather heartwarming: Rowling fell off the list of billionaires because she donates a lot to charity.
Yes, Rowling is a major philanthropist and has been once since the early days of her success. In 2000, for example, she became ambassador to the U.K. National Council for One Parent Families – now known as Gingerbread. It seems, then, that the experience of being a single parent had left a lasting impression on the author. That same year, she also created the Volant Charitable Trust to assist people in poverty.
And, touchingly, Harry Potter fans – of which there are millions – have lent a hand, too. In 2001, you see, Rowling released two books based on the Potter series: Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The works were put on sale to raise money for the Comic Relief charity – and the amount they brought in is staggering.
To date, in fact, the books have earned close to $22 million for Comic Relief in the U.K. alone. A further $15.5 million, which went towards a new non-profit fund for children in crisis, was also made internationally. And as Rowling aficionados know, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later formed the basis for the writer’s Harry Potter movie prequel.
Furthermore, Rowling has donated a lot of cash towards multiple sclerosis (MS) research – most likely because her mother, Anne, had had her own battle with the condition. In 2006, for example, the writer gave a significant amount to help create the Centre for Regenerative Medicine – later renamed the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic – at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
The author had been close to her mother, who had died just ten years after being diagnosed with MS. And when she appeared on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour in 2014, Rowling said of Anne, “She never knew about Harry Potter. I started writing it six months before she died, so that is painful. I wish she’d known.”
Rowling also explained that she wanted to “to use [her] power for good, not evil,” even though this could be “hard.” She added, “I do have this compulsion to try and make things better, [but] at the same time I would quite like to sit in a room and write books, which is my idea of enjoying the world. So, yes, I am quite conflicted in that.”
And Rowling’s contributions towards MS research seem to be particularly dear to her heart. “For me, being able to campaign and fundraise for multiple sclerosis is the most personally meaningful thing to have come out of being famous,” she told Bookshelf in 2002. “It would mean everything to me if I thought even one person did not have to go through what my mother did.”
Another big project of Rowling’s is Lumos, which is named after a light-bringing spell from the Harry Potter books. The charity began in 2005 as the Children’s High Level Group and received a huge cash boost to the tune of $30 million after it was given the proceeds from Rowling’s book The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Rowling’s intention with Lumos, moreover, is to help children who are institutionalized. And in 2017 she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the genesis of the charity. While casually reading the newspaper, the author had apparently stumbled across “a disturbing image of a very small boy screaming through chicken wire.”
And while Rowling almost turned the page, she ultimately thought better of it. “I stopped, and I thought, ‘If the story is as bad as the picture looks, then you have to do something about it,’” she said to Amanpour. “It was a cot for a baby covered in mesh, covered in wire, and that was his existence. From that, that’s how it all began. I was just appalled and horrified.”
Now, Lumos works to prevent young people from experiencing similar misery. Rowling added, too, that most of the special needs children she wished to help weren’t actually orphans; instead, they had been given to orphanages as their parents didn’t have the money to look after them.
Ultimately, then, Lumos had helped people working in institutions to become nurses, social workers and foster carers. “Lumos has retrained 30,000 professionals across 34 countries,” Rowling said. “And we have got 18,000 children out of institutions.” Yet that’s far from the extent of the writer’s philanthropic endeavors.
Yes, Rowling has gone even further, seemingly using her work and her magical hero to make as much money for charity as possible. In 2008, for instance, she wrote a short Harry Potter story for British bookseller Waterstones, with proceeds going to Dyslexia Action and English PEN.
And then there’s the events surrounding Rowling’s book The Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013. Rowling had originally penned the work under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith; when a law firm leaked the true identity of the writer to the press, however, Rowling sued. Then, when damages were finally paid, they were not given to Rowling herself but to The Soldiers’ Charity.
What’s more, in the same year Rowling appeared to use the affair to even greater benefit. Yes, she announced that all the global net royalties from The Cuckoo’s Calling would now go to The Soldiers’ Charity. Of this decision, Rowling said, “Writing a hero who is a veteran has given me an even greater appreciation and understanding of exactly how much this charity does for ex-servicemen and their families.” And money started going to the organization from when Galbraith’s true identity became known.
As Rowling continued to explain, “I always intended to give The Soldiers’ Charity a donation out of Robert’s royalties, but I had not anticipated him making the bestseller list a mere three months after publication. Indeed, I had not counted on him ever being there!” Even before Rowling had been revealed as The Cuckoo’s Calling’s author, though, the novel had received good reviews.
And, needless to say, The Soldiers’ Charity was thrilled at the news. Indeed, chief executive Major General Martin Rutledge announced in a statement, “This donation [from Rowling] will make a huge difference to the lives of thousands of soldiers, former soldiers and their families who are in real need.”
So, Rowling’s money has certainly been a boon to charity. It should be said, though, that the author has also gone out of her way to help fans from time to time. On one occasion, for instance, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from India explained that she’d like to see Rowling in person. She wrote, “May Allah bless J.K. Rowling and give her a long life so that when I grow up, I get to meet her.” And when this message was sent to Rowling by the school’s director, the novelist sent presents to the pupil’s entire class.
Plus, Rowling’s also been known to reach out when it comes to some high-profile tragedies. She sent a private letter and package, for instance, to Cassidy Stay – a teenager who saw her family murdered in 2014. And in 2016 she gave flowers to the family of Luis Vielma, a Wizarding World of Harry Potter worker. Tragically, Vielma had been killed during the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Meanwhile, when Rowling was taken off the billionaires’ list, Forbes noted that high taxes in Britain had been another contributing factor. But the writer has always been passionately devoted to paying what she needs to when it comes to taxation. And in a Times article published in 2010, she explained exactly why.
Having experienced poverty, Rowling is determined to pay back the system that helped her survive as a single mom. “I am indebted to the British welfare state,” she wrote in her piece. Rowling added that it would be “contemptible to scarper for the West Indies… at the sniff of a royalty check.”
Remarkably, Rowling shows no sign of ever giving up her philanthropic work – nor her writing. And when the third Fantastic Beasts movie arrives in 2021, it will likely pull in a lot of money – cash, of course, that could very well go towards good causes.