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Harry Potter and the Latest Blockbuster Book Launch

Times Staff Writers

Wade Munson likes movies as much as the next 16-year-old.

But while other teens will be flocking tonight to “Fantastic Four” and “War of the Worlds,” he will opt for a different kind of blockbuster, the book “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

The sixth installment in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series about a boy wizard goes on sale a minute after midnight. Retail industry analysts expect the book to sell more than half its initial press run of 10.8 million copies this weekend -- a groundbreaking debut.

Large retailers, online and off, have slashed as much as 40% off the $29.99 list price. But even with such steep discounts, sales could rival this year’s top weekend movie opening, “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith,” which grossed $108.4 million when it opened in May.

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“This is a book launch that is so monumental it begs comparisons to the opening of a movie,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Encino-based box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. “That in itself is unprecedented.”

Retailers are fanning the frenzy with at least 5,000 parties across the United States that will lead to the witching hour when “Potter” fans can start getting their hands on their copies. Muggles (if you have to ask, you’re not a wizard) by the hundreds of thousands are expected to show up for the festivities. And retailers figure that those customers will buy other stuff while they are waiting.

“It’s like a kid’s New Year’s Eve,” said Barbara Marcus, executive vice president for Scholastic Inc., the “Harry Potter” series’ U.S. publisher. “This is the biggest retail reading event ever.”

It’s not clear, however, how much of the sales bonanza will sift to the bottom line, given the slashed prices and additional costs associated with the launch.

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Because booksellers typically acquire titles at a 40% discount from publishers, retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. might be lucky to break even on “Half-Blood Prince,” said Steven Zeitchik, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly.

“I would guess that it’s going to be very tight for them,” he said.

But analysts say businesses can benefit from sales of other merchandise they will be hauling in for the occasion, including earlier “Harry Potter” books.

The series follows the adventures of an orphaned wizard who discovers his magic powers and ditches his abusive aunt and uncle to attend Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he learns life’s lessons and fights the forces of evil.

The phenomenon keeps building on itself as each new launch prompts more interest in earlier books, analysts say. The series has fans of all ages, another key to its success.

“There is clear evidence that the ‘Potter’ books have turned on a bunch of kids to reading in a way that little else has done,” said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Assn.

Certainly they have been a turn-on for retailers.

The five earlier books have sold 270 million copies worldwide -- 103 million in the United States -- and have been translated into 62 languages. Publishing insiders can’t recall another book, or series, that has generated so much hype and money.

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“I’ve been in this business for about 16 or 17 years, and the ‘Potter’ launches are unique,” Teicher said. “People weren’t lining up at midnight to buy ‘The Da Vinci Code’ when it came out.”

“Half-Blood Prince” has topped Amazon’s bestseller list since Dec. 21, when its launch was announced. (Except, that is, for a few days when it was eclipsed by “You: The Owners Manual” after that book was trumpeted on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”)

Barnes & Noble Inc. and Borders Group Inc., the No. 1 and 2 bookstore operators, say they have taken record advance orders for the 672-page “Half-Blood Prince.” Barnes & Noble said it expected to sell 1.2 million copies in the first 24 hours.

The book could create significant moneymaking opportunities even for modest-size stores that sell only a few hundred copies, Teicher said.

Big-box stores and warehouse clubs are gearing up to take their share of the sales. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, is promoting itself as the “unofficial global Harry Potter headquarters,” and Costco Wholesale Corp. said it had ordered all the books it could. Costco said it was keeping the book’s price tag cloaked until Saturday, when it can see how much other retailers are charging.

Even some grocery stores are elbowing in on the sales.

“We expect to have people in the stores before midnight Friday night waiting for the clock to ring 12:01 Saturday morning,” Ralphs Grocery Co. spokesman Terry O’Neill said.

The book also could cast a temporary spell on other types of businesses if fans really binge tonight -- eating out at a restaurant or catching a kid-themed movie such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opens today.

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Indeed, Wooster, Ohio, will close down several blocks of Liberty Street, its main drag, from 3 p.m. until midnight today for a “Potter” extravaganza.

“There’s going to be Quidditch matches going on,” said Melody Moses of Wooster Book Co., which is holding magic shows throughout the day.

Elsewhere, the commotion will continue through Saturday when retailers begin luring kids with morning parties.

But Zeitchik of Publishers Weekly said he believed that some people would avoid bookstores this weekend for fear of running into throngs of “Potter” fans.

Booksellers were being hush-hush about how many copies they had ordered or what kind of profit they expected to reap from the hoopla. They wouldn’t even say where they were keeping the books.

“We literally have them under lock and key,” said Kirsten Magi, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Glendale, which will begin handing out wristbands to buyers at 6 p.m. “They’re where nobody else can get them.”

The logistics of getting the books where they need to go have been as complicated as any potion that the Hogwarts School might have concocted.

United Parcel Service Inc., which said it was transporting most of the books, has been preparing for months to orchestrate a “seamless” delivery to neighborhood post offices by today so that mail carriers can then deposit them at homes Saturday, spokesman Steve Holmes said. (Had UPS delivered them directly, it would have cost too much because its Saturday rates are higher, he said.)

The most recent high-profile UPS job that called for this much security involved getting the 9/11 Commission Report to every recipient with a preorder last July 22, he said.

“It was the same situation -- could not arrive early, could not arrive late,” Holmes said. “They wanted everyone to be able to open the commission report and see it at the same time.”

Still, the worldwide effort to cloak “Half-Blood Prince” hasn’t gone off without a hitch. Security was breached last week, when a bookseller in British Columbia sold 14 copies, forcing the Canadian publisher, Raincoast Books, to seek a court injunction barring anyone from leaking the plot.

Once the books do start selling, Wade Munson will be in line. The Fallbrook, Calif., resident was just 11 when his mother coaxed him from sleep so they could hit a midnight book sale and buy one of the first copies of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” five years ago. Soon, he was surrounded by kindred spirits, people who knew the answer to “What’s the incantation of a summoning charm?” -- and didn’t think he was the slightest bit weird for asking.

“I was stoked,” he said. Tonight, Wade -- who is the same age as Harry -- will get the latest edition. “I’m actually growing up with the book,” he said.

Peter Appert, an analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co. in San Francisco, said the appetite for “Potter” books had not waned. Rather, he said, more of the demand has shifted to the front end in recent years, with people buying more-expensive hardcover editions, rather than waiting for cheaper paperbacks.

With only one more book left in the series, many analysts and booksellers wonder what the next big thing will be.

“We always say you can’t plan for the next ‘Harry Potter,’ ” Marcus of Scholastic said.

In fact, with only a few more big-budget films scheduled for the rest of the summer, said Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, the next comparable movie milestone will come in November when “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the movie version of Book 4, premieres.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Potter in print

Initial print run and total books in print in the U.S. for the Harry Potter series (in millions):

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (1998)

Total books in print: 26

Initial printing: 0.05

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (1999)

Total books in print: 24

Initial printing: 0.25

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (1999)

Total books in print: 19

Initial printing: 0.5

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2000)

Total books in print: 18

Initial printing: 3.8

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2003)

Total books in print: 16

Initial printing: 8.5

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2005)

Initial printing: 10.8

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Sources: Scholastic, Times research


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