"Harry Potter Frenzy Begins in England"
by Alan Cowell (Agence France-Presse, July 7, 2000)
|LONDON -- Think of a book party and the familiar images might run to sipped wine and slick chatter. Last night, as the much-heralded, midnight launch of the fourth Harry Potter book approached, it was all sleeping bags and spilled popcorn, peanut butter sandwiches and, as the P.R. companies' list of scheduled events put it, mayhem.
Finally, after months of finely tuned, obsessively orchestrated preparation by publishers in Britain and the United States, British author J.K. Rowling's fourth Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," went on sale at midnight in London -- traditionally the witching hour and tonight the wizarding hour, too -- five hours ahead of the earliest U.S. launch on the East Coast. For once, a book industry publicist sighed, the time difference meant that Britain had a brief edge over the United States in the hoopla surrounding these volumes chronicling the life and times of Harry Potter -- the fictional teenage British schoolboy-cum-wizard-
cum-publisher's-dream whose life and times at Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry have sold some 30 million copies worldwide in just four years. More than 20 million books have been sold in the United States, where they are published by the Arthur Levine Books imprint of Scholastic Inc.
At an upstairs room in the six-story Waterstone's bookstore on London's Piccadilly, 60 children gathered to celebrate the moment, brought there along with television cameras and reporters, balloons and magicians to celebrate a tome whose bulk -- 636 pages in Britain and 734 pages in the United States -- was almost as massive as the nurtured sense of expectation surrounding its arrival. When midnight approached after a countdown, the party-goers scrambled. Louis Schulz, aged 12, from the Highbury area of London got the first one. Outside the store, a crowd a 500 or so people snaked around the block. TV cameras milled and filmed.
Billed by Waterstone's as a sleepover -- one of many events arranged by book-stores across Britain -- the festivities during the hours before publication were filled for the invited children with feasts of sandwiches, bowls of popcorns and a magician playing to a captive crowd on sleeping bags laid out for them. And they were filled too with questions and fevered debate about what new secrets the book would reveal.
"Harry Potter is my favorite book and I hope it will be even better than the other ones because I've finished them already," said Charlotte Smart, aged eight, from southwest London. Ettie Bailey-King, aged nine, said she liked the books because they were not like others where "everything goes perfectly."
Waterstone's -- Britain's biggest book-chain -- laid on the occasions at its flagship store to climax a crescendo that has built on hints and rumors that this newest book will embrace themes that have driven headier literature for centuries -- death and love. Would Harry Potter, now in his early teens, find a girl-friend? Who would be the character that, Ms. Rowling has indicated, will die in this fourth volume, billed as pivotal in the seven-book series she plans?
Amid the spilled popcorn, Dexter Lateef, 11, from the state-run Westminster City School, and his buddies had some thoughts on those questions -- and on why he has consumed the books that conjure a world, he said, that's "a fantasy place that I can get into and escape from reality." And yet, he and his friends said, the books provide echoes of their own lives, an aspect of the books' success that some adults still find elusive. In the Harry Potter books, said Ronald Cummings-John, aged 12, "the good thing about the books is that it proves that if you are different you can still have friends."
Dexter Lateef said that the fictional boarding-school was not too far removed from his own world in an inner-city day-school. "There's always a person who's a ringleader, a troublemaker," he said, referring to a fictional character called Draco Malfoy. "We've got one of them, too."
And what about the big issues of death and love? In particular the troublesome notion that, in this volume, Harry Potter might find love, a development not too popular with some fans?
"Well, he's growing into adolescence," said Angelo Weekes, aged 12, "and it might have to be that he has to please his girl-friend and he'll be slowed down because he's always mooching over her and stuff."
Ronald Cummings-John fretted, too, that Harry Potter would have "too much commitment to a girlfriend do everything he does now." (The romantic interest is betrayed in the dust jacket of the American edition, which says Harry Potter develops a crush on Cho Chang, whom he first encountered in the third book in the series during a game of Quidditch -- the fictional and magical airborne game, resembling basketball, played on broom-sticks.)
And if someone does die in the fourth volume, Charlotte Smart said, "I don't mind so long as it's not someone I like. If it's someone I like, I might just stop reading."
Precisely at midnight, the books went on sale, at a discounted $15 each, handed out for free to the invited guests at the launch sleepover. "I don't think there'll be any clues about this in the first chapter," said Ettie Bailey-King, promising to begin reading as soon as possible.
There is, of course, no doubting the books' commercial success. Ms. Rowling's earnings were widely reported to total some $22 million - before the sales of "Goblet of Fire" even began. The Daily Mirror tabloid placed her third in a list of Britain's top-earning women. A movie deal with Warner Bros -- in which Ms. Rowling has insisted on a British actor playing Harry Potter -- could well propel her to the top of the list next year when the full might of merchandising mobilizes to produce all the familiar spin-offs that define 21st century success. (Ms. Rowling has said she is fighting to protect her characters from such exploitation.)
Yet, Ms. Rowling's public persona -- the onetime single mom on welfare who wrote her first works in Edinburgh coffee-shops as her infant daughter slept beside her in a stroller -- has begun to come under attack from Britain's tabloids.
One newspaper sought out her former husband, Portuguese journalist Jorge Arantes, in Oporto, Portugal, who was quoted as saying that Ms. Rowling began the first book -- "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" -- in Portugal. Indeed, he even said he already knew how the whole seven-book cycle will end. (Ms. Rowling has said in published interviews that the final chapter of the seven books she plans to write has been written and is being kept in an undisclosed safe place).
And even the heavyweight Sunday newspaper, The Observer, weighed in a with a lengthy article last month by author Anthony Holden attacking both the book's literary merits and the closely-orchestrated, pre-publication manipulations leading up to and beyond tonight's midnight launch. Referring to Mr Rowling's British publishers, Mr Holden wrote: "Haven't Bloomsbury sold enough copies of J.K. Rowling's three volumes so far without resorting to advance hype worthy of a Wonderbra." He dismissed the books as "Disney cartoons written in words, no more."
Indeed, the pre-publication maneuvers have built steadily not simply on the creation of a publishing moment but also on the embellishment of what is already one of the most spectacular marketing and literary phenomena of the young millennium. To maintain the suspense, no early review copies were sent out. For weeks, even the title was kept secret. Initially, both the British and American publishers said Ms. Rowling would give no pre-publication interviews. That has changed and, in a series of conversations over the past week, Ms. Rowling has let it be known that a major character in the series dies -- adding to the fevered anticipation of the book's publication.
The newest book is setting records of its own. Amazon.co.uk, the British subisidiary of Amazon.com, the online bookseller, said advance orders of 400,000 copies made it the biggest seller in the albeit short history of online bookselling. The publishers have ordered print-runs of 3.8 million in the U.S. and one million in Britain. At over 700 pages in the U.S. edition, it is twice as long as the third in the series - "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'."
To celebrate the publication, the British publishers have hired a steam-train that on Saturday morning will depart -- as Harry does on each of his adventures -- from platform 9 3/4 at London's King's Cross station with the author on board to tour Britain with book-signings at various halts.
At tonight's party, some of the young fans seemed reluctant to see their fictional hero turned into just one more item of pop merchandising. "People might see the movie and not actually know the book," said Dexter Lateef.