Within 100 miles of the Washington Beltway, where denizens leak secrets as a way of life, one of the biggest covert missions in children's literature was wildly compromised.
Despite exceptional measures taken to shield the contents of the yet-unreleased "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," about three dozen copies of the much-anticipated sequel fell into the hands of an eager public last week. The breach took place more than 10 days before Saturday's official release date. Scholastic, the "Potter" publishing house for the American edition, has insisted on affidavits and tight security around the latest release in its best-selling series.
In Richmond, a Wal-Mart mistakenly sold 31 copies of J.K. Rowling's fourth installment before realizing its error and pulling the remaining 21 books from its shelves. Yvonne Lund, a substitute teacher in Howard County, purchased one of the illicit copies Thursday while visiting friends in her former hometown of Richmond.
"My friend walked in with it and thought I had already pre-ordered it so he didn't pick one up for me," Lund recalls. "I went right back out and got it because I was afraid it was either going to get pulled off the floor or would sell out."
When Lund returned to the discounter, the books were sitting there, almost lonely for lack of attention. "They were right there in the middle of the aisle. I was thrilled. I've been dying to read this book and I was so glad to see it was so thick," says 36-year-old Lund, confirming reports that the book is 734 pages and 37 chapters long.
She had one close call at the cash register before making a clean getaway. As Lund was checking out, the register issued a "Do Not Sell" message. Her cashier, unaware of the best-selling Harry Potter name, overrode the message and sold it to her for the Wal-Mart steal of $12.97. (The suggested retail price is $25.95.)
"I should've bought the rest of the copies and sold it on eBay for megabucks," Lund says jokingly. "I better hurry up and read it and the highest bidder can have it!"
Then she adds seriously, "I'm not going to make a money off of kids." She's also reluctant to reveal any significant details of the book, of which she's read 61 pages so far. "I would only say that right off the bat, his scar starts to hurt again. I haven't gotten to anything juicy yet."
According to a Wal-Mart spokesman, the Richmond fiasco is "an isolated incident." "We inadvertently moved those books onto the floor before we were supposed to," says Rob Phillips from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "It's an honest mistake, and we feel very bad about it. We're making sure it won't happen at our other stores." An "alert customer" tipped off the store's manager on Thursday afternoon, at which point the display was immediately pulled.
In another embargo-breaking episode, the Cantwells of Fairfax, Va., snagged a copy of the newest title in the Harry Potter series. Eight copies of the book were spotted at an unnamed store by a family friend, who, not being an avaricious sort, picked up only two. The Cantwells refuse to disclose either the name of the bookstore or the friend for fear of the consequences from Scholastic.
While they are staying mum about certain things, 8-year-old Laura Cantwell has disclosed some revealing chapter names: "The Riddle House," "The Scar," "The Triwizard Tournament," "Beauxbarons and Durmstrang" and "The Beginning." Young Cantwell and her father, Tim, appeared on yesterday's "Today" show confirming reports they had the book.
Scholastic spokeswoman Kris Moran released a statement yesterday amid the flurry of developments. "Scholastic sincerely hopes that everyone will honor author J.K. Rowling's wishes to have children across the nation experience 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' on the same day, July 8. With this in mind we are taking any reported breaches of the July 8 on sale date of 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' very seriously and we are investigating them. Accounts violating the July 8 on sale date will put future shipments of Harry Potter books to them in jeopardy."
Online auction sites such as eBay, Amazon and Yahoo already have editions of the new book going for more than $80 each.
If you're the kind of reader who loves surprises, then you're the audience Rowling was aiming for in her strict orders with Scholastic to keep the plot of this book under maximum security. Almost everyone associated with the manuscript is tethered by affidavits and other mechanisms from revealing or selling advance copies until Saturday.
Even the audiotapes receive the same treatment. Tim Ditlow, publisher of the Listening Library, is prevented from discussing anything but the bare essentials. A special lock was installed in his office to keep the script safe.
Amazon.com has hired guards to watch over its cartons of the highly prized books. Lyn Blake, general manager of Amazon.com Books, says Harry Potter IV is "the largest pre-order we've ever had, but it may very well be the largest pre-ordered item in e-commerce history."
It's held the No. 1 position on Amazon's bestseller list for 16 out of the past 21 weeks. As of yesterday evening more than 300,000 copies had been sold, according to the site's "Hour-by-Hour Muggle Count."