Stores plan Harry Potter marketing blitz

— Bookstores are hoping Harry Potter will create some cash-register magic with next month's publication of the fourth story in the best-selling series about the young wizard.

Many stores will be open just after midnight July 8 to offer the as-yet-untitled book the moment it is released. Some are organizing Harry Potter theme parties with magic shows and live owls. And Amazon.com is countering by promising free overnight FedEx delivery for the first 250,000 people who order the book online.

"People are extremely anxious for it," said Becky Whidden, a manager at The Children's Book Shop in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

Since the first Harry Potter book was released in Britain in 1997, the series by J.K. Rowling has been a runaway sensation, remaining a constant on best-seller lists.

The fourth book will have a first printing of 3.8 million copies, which many in the publishing business say is a record. It will be launched simultaneously in the United States and Britain; the first three books appeared overseas first.

Demand has been so great for No. 4 that its U.S. publisher, Scholastic, has set up a help desk for book sellers just to ask questions about orders of the new book.

The craze for Harry Potter, the orphan who hones his magical skills at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, has managed to turn many children on to reading in general. And while it was written for the younger set, it has become a phenomenon among adults, too.

"I think they're going to be classics, like right up there with 'Old Yeller' and 'A Wrinkle in Time,"' said 12-year-old Leah Williams, who plans to be at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., the morning the new book goes on sale. "I like stuff that's not real because it takes me into a different world."

With all the attention, many bricks-and-mortar stores see the launch as a way to offer shoppers something more than they could find at the Internet superstores, most of which will take a few days to deliver the new book.

At the Red Balloon Books in St. Paul, Minn., face-painters will be drawing lightning bolts on children's foreheads -- just like the one Harry Potter has on his skull -- and there will be three live owls, which are considered friends and messengers in the books.

The staff at The Blue Marble in Ft. Thomas, Ky., will dress up like witches and wizards and offer cinnamon oatmeal from a black cauldron for breakfast.

Many cyberstores are offering deep discounts, with Amazon slashing 40 percent off the $25.95 price and Barnes & Noble.com cutting 30 percent. That's something that most smaller stores can't afford to do.

Donna Anderson, a Lake Tahoe resident shopping in San Francisco, said she bought her 8-year-old grandson his first Harry Potter book, and as soon as he finished it, he asked, "Nana, when is the next one coming out?"

"It's great to see kids excited about a book coming out," Anderson said.

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