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LONDON - In the halls of a London private elementary school, in some ways not so different from the Hogwarts of J.K. Rowling’s wizard world, talk turns often to the final installment of the Harry Potter saga.


Just how will students get their hands on the seventh and last Potter book, which hits the store shelves on July 21? Who will die? (Rowling herself has promised to kill off two characters.) Will stricken headmaster Dumbledore return from the dead? And what’s in store for the dark lord, Voldemort, in what promises to be a page-turner extraordinaire for the under-16 crowd.


“It’s like, what will happen to Harry?” wonders one of these students, 9-year-old Sophie Abrahams, who is keen to line up outside a bookshop in the central London borough of Islington awaiting the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”


“Everyone just wants to know,” Abrahams said.


The international launch of the final Potter book, which will be published in the U.S. by Scholastic Corp. and in the U.K. by Bloomsbury Publishing, is expected to become the fastest-selling book of all time.


For months, the Potter marketing machine has been in overdrive. Advance orders by readers already have smashed publishing industry records, and many retailers will open at midnight on the launch date so that fans can nab a copy before anyone can publicize the denouement of the Harry legend.


“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the release of the most eagerly awaited book ever,” said Wayne Winstone, children’s manager at Waterstones, Britain’s largest specialty bookseller.


“There are not many people who want to wait weeks to find out what happens, and risk hearing the news from their friends,” Winstone said.


Speculation has run wild about how Rowling will bring down the curtain on the boy wizard’s adventures.


For the time being, the publishers have remained tightlipped on the plot details, in keeping with the book’s highly mystical posturing.


And with “Deathly Hallows” in the title, many theorize that Harry will be killed off - a traumatic end for millions of children to the publishing phenomenon that has reigned the marketplace for nearly a decade.


Booksellers are bracing for kids to take a blow. Waterstones says it’s considering “setting up a helpline for them.” The company is part of the HMV Group and has about 350 stories throughout the U.K., including its flagship store in the posh Piccadilly area of central London, near Buckingham Palace.


A poll on Web site harrypotterfanzone.com of nearly 5,000 fans recently showed that more than 1,900 believe Harry will survive book No. 7. Almost 1,600 say it’s all over for the young wizard. Nearly as many wouldn’t dare to guess.


For its part, publisher Bloomsbury is teasing the fans with this summation posted on the book’s official Web site: “Harry has been burdened with a dark, dangerous and seemingly impossible task: that of locating and destroying Voldemort’s remaining Horcuxes. Never has Harry felt so alone, or faced a future so full of shadows ...”


Harry may not be the only one with hurdles to overcome.


Bloomsbury noted a Potter impact on corporate results when it reported its latest set of earnings results. The period covered a timeframe that went without a new release, and its profit declined sharply.


The London-based independent publisher’s pretax earnings dipped to 5.2 million pounds ($10.3 million) in the year to December 2006, vs. a profit of 20.1 million pounds in 2005, when it did release a Potter installment.


Sales at the children’s publishing division of Bloomsbury dropped 60 percent as it shifted towards a bookselling model that focused on adults, primarily dominated by fewer key authors and a smaller number of bestsellers.


“Bloomsbury could, following a year when everything went wrong, enjoy a blockbuster year in 2007,” said analyst Robert Corden, at Charles Stanley Stockbrokers. “The problem for investors is the visibility for 2008.”


Many sector experts wonder what Bloomsbury will have to hang its hat upon in the post-Potter future.


Probably not another blockbuster, said analyst Adrian Kearsey of Evolution Securities. “They’re not going to replace Harry Potter with another Harry Potter. ... It’s going to be a string of books,” Kearsey said.


In the U.S., Scholastic Corp. also feels some heat. In the yearlong period that ended last May 31, Scholastic said net income rose about 7 percent to $68.6 million, boosted by higher sales from the sixth Harry Potter tome.


Scholastic has also warned that revenue in the year to May 2007 will drop slightly from the year-ago tally of $2.3 billion due to the lack of another Rowling’s installment. This last release is poised to provide a hefty cash injection.


Analysts at Charles Stanley say Bloomsbury’s early feedback on the seventh book was favorable.


The most recently published Harry Potter novel, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” sold more than 2 million copies on the first day of its release, according to data on the Bloomsbury Web site, making it the fastest-selling book of all time.


The entire series has sold around 325 million copies around the world in 64 different languages. Four films have been made with the fifth, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” in theaters on July 13.


In bookshops a mile or so from King’s Cross railway station, where Harry began his Hogwarts adventures at platform 9 ¾, a different kind of journey is under way. With pre-sales ramping up to levels never seen before, British booksellers are bracing for Hallows’ release.


In April, Barnes & Noble Inc. said preorders for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” already had broken all previous records. Since Feb. 1, Barnes & Noble has received more than 500,000 pre-orders. It expects that number to top the 1 million mark by the launch date.


Over at Amazon.com’s U.K. Web site, there’s an entire category devoted exclusively to Harry.


Amazon.com says it has received more than 600,000 pre-orders for the book. Actual book sales after the launch are expected to match pre-orders.


Waterstones has said it’s expecting half a million copies to be sold on the first day of release.


Scholastic reportedly ordered a record number of books to be printed for the launch and expects to print 12 million copies. That compares with 10.8 million printed for the last Harry Potter launch and 8.5 million copies printed for the fifth book.


Retailers are discounting significantly and promoting in an attempt to lock in sales.


Waterstones is offering the book on pre-order at 8.99 pounds (just shy of $18) - half the retail price - while Barnes & Noble promised to knock 40 percent off the list price to offer the book at $20.99. Amazon will sell the book for $18.89.


Retailers around the world are trying to inject a little Harry-style magic into their launches, with U.K. newsagent chain WH Smith tracking book orders to try and find the “pottiest” place in Britain.


While company fortunes are debated, the Potter finale remains safely in the vault.


Rowling’s Web site provides few clues as to the series’ outcome, though the author is misty-eyed about parting ways with her wondrous little wizard.


“I always knew that Harry’s story would end with the seventh book, but saying goodbye has been just as hard as I always knew it would be,” Rowling writes in a diary on her official Web site. “I can hardly believe that I’ve written the ending I’ve been planning for so many years.”

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