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50 People Who Matter 2011 | 33. J K Rowling

Ms Potter.

Perhaps you thought, after the last Harry Potter film was released this year, that the phenomenon was over. You were wrong.

J K Rowling's new website, which is to be launched fully in October and contains a batch of new material, is called Pottermore. Harry Potter goes on and on and on.

As of June 2011, the Potter books had sold 450 million copies and had been translated into 70 languages. They have been made into eight films, which, not adjusted for inflation, form the highest-grossing film series of all time (they made $7.7bn at the box office). The Harry Potter brand is valued in excess of $15bn.

Much has been made of the Rowling story: the scribbling in a local café, the struggle to be published, the single motherhood and then the success. The books have made Rowling the first, and only, billionaire author. She's taken her wealth seriously, establishing her own charity, the Volant Charitable Trust, and involving herself in various initiatives: she was the president of Gingerbread, the association for one-parent families, and has raised large sums for Comic Relief and donated millions to a new Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University. In 2008, she gave £1m to the Labour Party, saying: "I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party . . . David Cameron's promise of tax perks for the married sends the message that the Conservatives still believe a childless, dual-income, but married couple is more deserving of a financial pat on the head than those struggling, as I once was, to keep their families afloat in difficult times."

For some, these words might have more resonance than the tales of Harry and co.

They signal a writer who is socially engaged, aware of the responsibility that comes with wealth, and careful not to forget her former circumstances. Her wisdom, she seems to know, was born of those long, impoverished years. And it is nowhere better expressed than in the commencement address she gave to Harvard in 2008, the kind of speech that we should all have pinned above our desks. Its theme - the "benefits of failure" - might seem odd, coming from one of the most successful women on the planet, but it tells you a lot about what makes Rowling tick.

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter