Release of new Harry Potter book causes a marketing frenzy

The New York Times, via The Kansas City Star, June 18, 2003

When the fourth book in the wildly popular Harry Potter series went on sale three years ago, fans contrived homemade robes, glasses and wizard hats for the occasion.

This time, merchandisers are leaving nothing to the imagination. When the next installment,

More Information:
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix‘, CAPTION, ‘Browsing Tip’, STICKY, CLOSECOLOR, ‘white’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, goes on sale at midnight Friday, fans can buy officially licensed paraphernalia like a Harry Potter robe with built-in fiberoptic lights, ($55.99), a battery-powered magic wand with flashing lights and sound effects ($12.99) and forehead-scar makeup ($7.49).

J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, has often said she wanted to protect her stories from becoming encrusted with marketing pitches and merchandising plugs, but she may have finally lost the battle. Her fifth novel is the first to arrive since Warner Bros. began making Harry Potter movies and selling the licensing rights. Out of deference to Rowling, the licensing agreements try to block toy or candy companies from tying their products directly to the books. But retailers are capitalizing on the anticipation of the new novel to push everything from Harry Potter video games to bubble bath.

Officially under wraps until the day of release, the new book is setting off an unprecedented marketing melee. Wal-Mart and Toys R Us will stack copies of the book alongside piles of DVDs, Legos, action figures, candy and stuffed toys.

Bookstores large and small are defending their turf with elaborate spectacles, including a miniature golf course, a human chess game, a functioning train and carnivorous plants, owls, rats and lizards. Other publishers are hoping to ride Harry Potter’s coattails, with one even pushing a Marxist critique of the marketing of Harry Potter.

Scholastic, which publishes the Harry Potter books in the United States, says it expects early sales of the new book to double the record-breaking sales of the last one, even though it is nearly 900 pages long and has a $29.99 cover price. Judy Corman, a company spokeswoman, said it planned two initial printings totaling 8.5 million hardcover copies of Order of the Phoenix, compared with an initial printing of 3.8 million for the previous volume, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are 11.5 million hardcover copies of Goblet of Fire in print, at 760 pages with a $25.95 cover price.

The movies now account for much of the growth in the already extraordinary popularity of the books. Barbara Marcus, president of children’s books at Scholastic, said that more than half of the 80 million Harry Potter books in print in the United States were sold in the last three years, when film versions of the first two books were released. The biggest jump, she said, came with the release of the first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“In our world, not everyone is a reader first,” she said, “There are people who go to movies and then realize there is a book.”

Although Rowling knowingly sold the film and merchandising rights to Warner Bros., a unit of AOL Time Warner, she has often worried aloud that movies and merchandising might overshadow or cheapen her stories. “I would do anything to prevent Harry from turning up in fast-food boxes everywhere,” she said in an interview three years ago. “I would do my utmost. That would be my worst nightmare.” He is not in fast-food boxes yet, but he is in Coca-Cola ads.

Even some young fans now roll their eyes at the flood of Harry Potter products, from lunch boxes to souvenir stones. “None of the kids are crazy about it,” said Emma Bradford, 9, of Brattleboro, Vt. “Some people say how stupid it is that they are coming out with Harry Potter toothbrushes and things like that. I think they should just stop with the books and movies, otherwise it just goes sort of overboard into a more Disney thing.”

Diane Nelson, the senior vice president of Warner Bros. in charge of marketing for Harry Potter, said the studio would deliberately lay low during the book’s publication “primarily out of respect for Jo Rowling’s wishes to keep the movies and the books separate so that the books can be appreciated for their own integrity.”

For example, the toy makers Mattel, Hasbro and Lego encourage stores to promote their products along with DVDs of the Harry Potter films by including coupons for the toys or by displaying them together, but agreements with Warner Bros. preclude any coupons or toy promotions tied directly to the books.

Still, that does not stop retailers from doing anything they can to sell Harry Potter knickknacks and candy along with each book. Discounters, toy stores and retailers that do not specialize in books now account for the majority of sales of many blockbusters such as Harry Potter.

Chains like Wal-Mart, as well as the major bookstore chains and online stores, all plan to sell the new book at discounts of as much as 40 percent off the cover price — nearly the same as the wholesale cost — in part because they hope to sell shoppers other goods. And almost all will be displaying the new books surrounded by Potter paraphernalia.

Roughly 1,300 Wal-Mart stores, for example, will hold special midnight events for the release, including food from the stores’ bakeries decorated with a Harry Potter theme and coordinated displays of Harry Potter toys, clothing and DVDs, said Karen Burke, a spokeswoman for the chain.

Jenie Carlen, a spokeswoman for the bookstore and music chain Borders, said its stores have sought “creative ways” to sell the products while respecting Rowling’s wishes. For example, she said, in some stores it uses three-sided displays, with Harry Potter books on one side, CDs of the soundtracks and audio books on another, and DVDs on a third. Its stores sell the Bertie Botts beans in its cafes. But at Scholastic’s behest, she said, Borders does not mention any other products in its advertisements featuring the book., which offers more than 480 Harry Potter products, has reaped a windfall of publicity by beginning to take orders in January, posting a Harry Potter countdown and an hourly total of the orders. Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore company, and its Web site,, are raffling off a five-night trip to England, and its stores will hold their own midnight events.

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