Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Harry Potter and the shrinking stuff

As publication nears for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," to be unveiled to the world July 16, expect some of the usual midnight madness and at least one new twist: less Potter merchandise.

"We've got Harry Potter pens and bookmarks, and a few of those types of things. But that's really it. There definitely will not be as much as the last time," says Beth Bingham, a spokeswoman for the superstore chain Borders Group, Inc.

"I told the staff not to sell any of it," says Gayle Shanks, owner of the Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz. "We failed with it last time. It was really pricey merchandise for pretty bad stuff, to be honest."

Potter paraphernalia, from cakes to capes, was on display everywhere when J.K. Rowling's last novel, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," came out in 2003. Candace Corlett, a partner at the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, Inc., had predicted that "Order of the Phoenix" would "trigger an explosion in sales of all things Harry Potter.

She now acknowledges that no such "explosion" happened.

"There seems to be a pause," Corlett says. "I think everyone expected an explosion the last time and went overboard. Everybody way overstocked."

The release of "Half-Blood Prince," the sixth of Rowling's seven-book fantasy series, should confirm that Harry Potter mania is essentially a celebration of reading, a phenomenon created by children, not marketers.

Demand for the book is higher than ever. Scholastic, Inc., Rowling's American publisher, has announced a first printing of 10.8 million, seven times the first run of Bill Clinton's "My Life" and 4 million more than for "Order of the Phoenix." Meanwhile, Random House's Listening Library has commissioned 635,000 copies of the audio version, again read by the beloved Jim Dale.

Pre-orders from Barnes & Noble, Inc., and Amazon.com have already made "Half-Blood Prince" a million seller.

"We will sell about 50,000 copies per hour in the first 24 hours," says Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio. "Less than 1 percent of all books sell that many in their lifetime."

The release of "Half-Blood Prince" renews a kind of summer tradition, as retailers again deck out their stores and fans of all ages prepare for a late and long evening. The books won't vary from store to store, but the parties will.

With a police permit obtained, fire dancers are expected to perform in Tempe's Changing Hands parking lot. In New Orleans, Octavia Books has joined with other local businesses, including a toy store and a candy shop, for a neighborhood Potter adventure.

Darkness will prevail at the Book House in St. Louis, a Victorian structure with its very own dungeon, and, says owner Michelle Barron, its own ghosts. At Brystone Children's Books, in Fort Worth, Texas, the night will belong to Hogwarts' dreaded Professor Severus Snape and his Slytherin House.

"Our concept is that the Slytherins have taken over," says Dana Harper, a book seller at Brystone's. "We're going to dress up like Slytherin students and part of the store will be turned into Professor Snape's office. He'll be passing out demerit slips and house points."

Rowling will read at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland just after midnight. According to her Web site, newspapers and bookshops in six countries will choose 70 children who aspire to be journalists to attend the reading, go through the book in a special reading room at the castle and question the author during a "children's press conference" on Sunday, July 17.

Rowling's midnight appearance will be simulcast to a Barnes & Noble store in Manhattan's Union Square, where audio reader Dale is scheduled to appear on the night of July 15, Harry Potter Eve. But at Malaprop's Bookstore, in Asheville, North Carolina, no one will be reading, except, of course, the people who have bought the book.

"We've found that most people just grab their books and go, and it sort of peters out," says book seller Caroline Green. "People aren't listening. They want to read it themselves, and at 1 a.m. everybody is really punchy

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