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Keeping Magic Under Wraps

Security is extremely tight for the release of the latest Harry Potter book. And that, say marketing experts, plays right into the publisher's plan.

June 19, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — There's nothing like a secret to get people's attention.

Under extraordinary security at distribution centers in the U.S. and other countries this week, workers are shipping painstakingly sealed cartons of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," her fifth book about an orphaned wizard in a series that has become a publishing phenomenon.

The U.S. publisher, Scholastic Inc., is keeping tight control, forbidding excerpts and advance copies for reviewers. Gun-toting officers accompany some shipments. Each 1,400-pound load of the latest Harry Potter sent to Advanced Marketing Services Inc.'s distribution warehouse here has been shrink-wrapped in impenetrable black plastic and topped with corrugated strips of cardboard, which warehouse managers can check to determine whether there has been any tampering. A guard counts the books three times a day, just in case.

The extreme measures, critics say, serve to ensure a kind of threat-level-red tension for book 5, playing into a marketing plan built around the message that the world awaits not just a children's novel but an epic event, and one constantly in peril.

Last Friday, for instance, a signed copy of the 896-page book was flown from Rowling's home in Scotland to New York in a locked box, handed to a British Airways pilot and, as security guards stood by, loaded into an armored van. Borrowing a phrase used to describe the whereabouts of Vice President Dick Cheney, Scholastic announced that it was "taken to a secure and undisclosed location." (The book, which Rowling donated "to the people of New York," will be displayed initially at the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library.)

On Wednesday, after a Brooklyn health food store mistakenly sold a copy of the book four days before the release date and the New York Daily News ran a story about it -- printing a graphic that included some legible text from two of the novel's pages -- Scholastic responded swiftly: It provided the Associated Press with a copy of a lawsuit the publisher said it and Rowling filed against the newspaper seeking $100 million in damages. The newspaper said it had done nothing wrong "journalistically or legally."

At Scholastic, executives say they placed a ban on excerpts and advance copies so as not to spoil the surprise for millions of young readers. Leaks might deflate the anticipation, though probably not the sales: The first four books together have sold more than 195 million copies worldwide and have been reprinted in 55 languages, including Latin and ancient Greek.

The security hype, observers say, is well-orchestrated. Stephen Brown, a professor of marketing research at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland who has studied the Harry Potter publishing phenomenon, said in an e-mail this week that Scholastic has exaggerated safety concerns to fuel the buildup. Scholastic executives said they couldn't comment on any aspect of security for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

After the July 2000 release of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," Brown wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the U.S. publisher "revels in mystery, intrigue and covert operations."

"Secrecy helps to sell," he wrote. All publishers have to do is engage potential buyers "in even just a moment of consideration of the product -- 'What could it be?' or simply, 'Why is it so hush-hush?' "

In the U.S., few people have touched the book, except for employees of distributors such as Advanced Marketing of San Diego, whose clients include Costco Wholesale Corp. and Borders Group Inc.

At AMS' 420,000-square-foot warehouse in Sacramento, employees say they don't mind the extra security measures, including having their bags searched at the lone exit. They understand what's at stake.

"It feels like we're on the front lines, like we're the ones making it happen for the world," said Damon Hill, 32, an operations manager for AMS in Sacramento who described himself as psyched to be part of a "historic" event. The Harry Potter fan and father of two added that he saw the security as "a little weird" but necessary. "I don't know how we could live with ourselves if we were the ones to have a breach of security," he explained.

The book will be released in record numbers in several countries Saturday.

For the first round, Scholastic, the world's largest publisher of children's books, will print 8.5 million copies, a U.S. publishing record. Bloomsbury Publishing in Britain will print a reported 2.5 million copies; Canada's Raincoast Books is publishing 935,000 copies; and the Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, is releasing an initial run of more than 600,000 and will distribute to New Zealand as well. Book 5 will be released in other countries on later dates.

Book industry veterans say they haven't seen anything comparable to the security for book 5 -- except for book 4.

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