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Momentum is building for next week's release of the new Potter book. It's 'Christmas in June,' says one bookstore owner.

June 13, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

When 15-year-old Emma Pettit flies off June 22 to summer camp in upstate New York, her suitcase will be loaded down with the usual shorts, sneakers and bathing suits -- plus 2.8 pounds of spanking new Harry Potter.

Back home in Santa Monica, her equally besotted Muggle of a mom, Lynn Naliboff, will be curling up with her own copy of the freshly published "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

"I have to read it right then," Pettit said, "and my mom didn't want to wait three weeks." Rather than fight it out, the family will buy two copies.

After three long years, fans of British author J.K. Rowling's page-turners about the young wizard-in-training are counting the nanoseconds until June 21, when Book 5 in the riotously popular series comes out.

The waiting will end at the stroke of midnight next Friday. That is the moment (and not an instant sooner!) at which Scholastic Inc., the book's U.S. publisher, has decreed that bookstores may unveil the tome.

The release comes amid much hoopla as booksellers plan release-eve romps featuring wizard's checkers (in which children become living game pieces a la the life-size chess game in "Sorcerer's Stone"), magicians, sorting hats and even takeoffs on Quidditch, the rough-and-tumble airborne sport played at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Internet, meanwhile, is abuzz as aficionados parse every shred of rumor or news.

At the Web site Harry Potter Network, someone called Seeker posted a comment this week about a sneak peek at Book 5, found on AOL. "After reading it, I'm afraid I have more questions in my mind than answers." And another fan commented, "ATTENTION: You can now count the days remaining to Book V on two hands! That's 10 days! I'm really excited people!"

Scholastic is devoting about $3.5 million to promoting the 896-page book, the most it has ever spent on a single title. It has distributed 3 million mini bumper stickers, 400,000 buttons and 15,000 "event kits" for bookseller displays and giveaways. An electronic billboard in Times Square will herald the official launch time in New York, as will a moving billboard on the Sunset Strip near the House of Blues three hours later.

Rowling has scheduled only two interviews to discuss the book. In the first, with the British BBC, the author reportedly said she thought about trying to break her arm to escape the pressure of writing. Her only U.S. interview will be with Katie Couric on "Today" next Friday and will be repeated that night on "Dateline NBC."

Historic book event

"This definitely is the biggest book event of all time," said Jan Lindstrom, community relations manager at Barnes & Noble at the Grove.

With a historic initial print run of 8.5 million copies -- the closest non-Harry Potter book in press run size is last year's "Desecration," the ninth title in the "Left Behind" series from Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, with 2.8 million -- the novel promises to chug through the land like an unstoppable Hogwarts Express. Preorders of the English-language version have already topped 1 million at, more than the entire initial run for Hillary Rodham Clinton's just-released memoir, "Living History." Barnes & Noble Inc. says advance orders have reached the "hundreds of thousands" at its stores and its online site.

Helping to boost sales is massive discounting by chains, online retailers and even a few independent booksellers, which have whacked as much as 40% off the price. With book sales in the doldrums, many say they are willing to sacrifice profit just to get customers into stores.

In Bakersfield, Russo's Books will slash the price by 25%, with an additional 10% discount for frequent shoppers. The store plans an extravagant pre-release party beginning at 10 p.m. Friday, with a live magic show, a trivia contest and a costume competition. The film version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" will be shown on a big-screen TV. A live owl will pay a visit, and children will play wizard's checkers.

A sorting hat will separate partygoers into four teams, representing the four Hogwarts houses. One employee is even making chocolate frogs.

"This will be Christmas in June," predicted proprietor Mike Russo, who said the store has taken more than 200 advance orders and plans to have 800 copies on hand. Russo expects the book to be the best-selling release since 2000, when "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth book of a planned seven, came out.

Since the series opened in 1997 with "Sorcerer's Stone," it has endeared itself to teachers and parents for lighting a literary fire under children. More than 80 million of the first four Potter books are in print in at least 55 languages.

To be sure, some parents have criticized the Potter books as glorifying wizardry and witchcraft. But most booksellers and teachers see only the positive effects the escape-from-reality books have on young readers.

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