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NEW YORK - Emerson Spartz remembers the good old days. It was fall 1999, Spartz was 12, and he decided to create a little Web site about a hot new series of fantasy books.The Harry Potter craze was just starting.
"The sites were very primitive, especially compared to modern Harry Potter sites," says Spartz, founder of MuggleNet (www.mugglenet.com), one of the leading Potter sites. "The biggest Web sites were updated a couple times a week at most, and other than message boards, there was no interactivity between fans."
Like J.K. Rowling herself, Potter fan sites didn't start out to make history. They were operated on the cheap by "teenage kids out of their basements," Spartz says.
It has been 10 years since readers met the boy wizard in Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. More than 300-million copies later, the Potter series ends July 21 when Scholastic Inc. releases the seventh adventure, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Spartz and his many fellow Web masters are looking back at their place on this ride. The story of Potter has all along been a story of its fans, and like everything else about Potter, the fan sites are in a special class, for their size and influence.
"The Potter sites set the standard," says Anthony Ziccardi, vice president and deputy publisher for rival Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that releases Star Trek paperbacks. "The thing about the Potter phenomenon is that it has a huge, active fan base, both young and old, with a lot of teenagers. ... They're like a marketing machine in and of themselves."
The Potter sites have long advanced from the slow pace, simple texts and dull backgrounds of the early years, and now have blogs, podcasts, audio and video. They no longer just comment on the news, but participate. Rowling has praised the sites by name, granted them rare interviews and even used one site, the Harry Potter Lexicon, to check facts.
Warner Bros., which once tried to shut down many of the sites because of copyright concerns, has invited Spartz and others to the sets of Potter films and premieres, valuing their expertise and their access to so many fans.
Melissa Anelli, Web master for popular fan site the Leaky Cauldron (www.the-leaky-cauldron.org), has been part of the online Potter world since 2001. The first Potter film was coming out, as was the fourth book, so the site experimented with a relatively new Web tool: a blog.
"It was a one-page blog, with no other features but news," says Anelli, 27, a freelance journalist who lives in New York. She is writing a book, tentatively titled Harry, A History, about the Potter phenomenon. "The movie studio didn't know who we were, and didn't care. It took a year of relentless e-mails and phone calls before someone took me and my questions seriously and started giving us reportable information. It took even longer for that open atmosphere to spread to the publishers."
Anelli estimates there are 3-million to 4-million Potter sites in dozens of languages, including French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and Hebrew.