New York readies for Potter release night frenzy

[18 July 2007]

By Stevenson Swanson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

NEW YORK - Harry Potter may be an English wizard, but here in the center of American publishing, he’s about to get an over-the-top Yankee send-off.

Come Friday night, the front of the Time Warner Center will be bathed in orange light, and the lobby in front of the Borders bookstore at the center will be draped in curtains and decorated with ice sculptures. Magicians and balloon artists will be on hand, and a fortuneteller will look into the future at a “divination station.”

Then, shortly before midnight, a horse and carriage will pull up outside the building on Columbus Circle. The carriage will bear the object of all this marketing magic - a copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” J.K. Rowling’s seventh and supposedly final novel about the bespectacled wizard.

“We’re really looking to create a memorable experience for children and adults,” said Daryl Mattson, Borders’ district marketing manager. “We want Borders at Time Warner to be the place to be to buy the last Harry Potter.”

Not so fast, says competitor Barnes & Noble. Festivities at the giant chain’s four-story store on Union Square start at 5 p.m. and include face painting, wandmaking, a magic show and, upping the ante substantially, a reading by Jim Dale, the British actor behind the award-winning audiobook recordings of the Potter novels. The party will be Webcast starting at 9 p.m. EDT at www.bn.com.

Even the New York Public Library is getting into the Potter spirit. The library’s Donnell branch in Midtown Manhattan, home of the system’s main children’s collection, is hosting a Friday afternoon costume party, with live owls, lessons in potionmaking and the game “Pin the Tail on the Dursley,” in which one of Harry’s overbearing relatives substitutes for the usual donkey.

“It’s a great way to bring people into the library,” said children’s librarian Elizabeth Bird. “And it’s a great event during the day for kids who can’t go to the nighttime events.”

But the shelves will be bare of Potter titles. All of the previous books have been checked out as people hurry to catch up with the series, Bird said.

As for “Deathly Hallows,” the public library has ordered more than 800 copies for its children’s departments and about 400 copies for the adult sections. But the children’s department alone has more than 1,000 prepublication check-out requests that it has to honor before it can put the books on the shelves.

With the book’s release drawing near, speculation has been mounting over how Rowling will end the series. Lisa Holton, president of the trade division of Rowling’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic, refuses to be drawn out, not even admitting to having read the book.

“Only a small number of people at Scholastic have read the book, and we never say who has read it or not,” Holton said.

One person who has read the book in advance is Dale, who finished recording the 784-page tome about six weeks ago. But he refuses to drop even the vaguest hint about whether Harry defeats or succumbs to his mortal enemy, Lord Voldemort.

“That would be like your parents saying, `We have a special present for you under the Christmas tree that we know you’re going to love, and it’s a bicycle,’” said Dale, 71, whose popularity as the Potter narrator landed him the role of the narrator on the new ABC series “Pushing Daisies.” “You want to savor the end like a fine wine. You swish it around in your mouth before swallowing it.”

Not everyone is lighting up the night for the new book. The Bank Street Bookstore, an independent shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, will open at 11:30 p.m. with relatively little fanfare. The store will offer a 20 percent discount on the $34.99 book, compared with 40 percent at Borders and Barnes & Noble and 49 percent at Amazon.com.

“We’re probably doing the lowest-key Harry Potter event that we’ve done,” said manager Beth Puffer, who notes that independent bookstores were important in building the word-of-mouth momentum that lifted the early Potter books onto best-seller lists but have since been overshadowed by mass retailers. “We hand-sold these books, and now they’re available everywhere. And so it’s hard to put a lot of oomph into it when you know that you’re competing with people you really can’t compete with.”

Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, said deep discounters will not make money on their big sales of “Deathly Hallows.” But Barnes & Noble Chief Executive Officer Stephen Riggio said the time that parents and children spend in Barnes & Noble stores on publication night inevitably leads to purchases of other Potter paraphernalia - wands, stuffed animals, games - as well as other, full-price books.

“Fill your store with people - isn’t that a good thing?” Riggio asked. “If we had a Harry Potter book every month, our business would be on fire.”

Even as booksellers and publishers prepare for what is shaping up to be another mega-best seller, they are contemplating the prospect of life post-Potter. Harry may have been a wizard in training in Rowling’s series, but his exploits have conjured a publishing phenomenon worthy of a master. Worldwide sales of the first six books have exceeded 325 million copies, and the Times of London puts Rowling’s fortune at $1.1 billion.

Scholastic’s Holton said the publisher has other children’s books in the works that have the potential to become big sellers. “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, which is already out, is on the children’s best-seller list, with 200,000 copies in print.

“Will there be one book that will take over playgrounds?” she asked. “I’m sure there will be, but one of the great things about our business is that you can never be sure when it will happen.”

Still, other publishers must be relishing the end of Scholastic’s long run with Harry. There’s a German word for enjoying someone else’s troubles.

“Where there is publishing, there is schadenfreude,” Nelson said. “That’s human nature.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/new-york-readies-for-potter-release-night-frenzy/