Harry Potter frenzy is familiar story

The Baltimore Sun

As a clerk at The Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, Emma Casale is a big fan of Harry Potter, the series about the boy wizard whose final installment will arrive in the shop sometime this week.

"This one ends it all," says Casale, 28, who has helped roll out the six previous J.K. Rowling novels in her 10 years at the cozy store. "I need to know -- will Harry defeat Voldemort? Will Hermione free the house-elves? ... The anticipation is tremendous."

As a professional, however, she'll have to keep her excitement in check -- for a time, anyway. From the instant Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits the store in sealed boxes -- Scholastic, the U.S. distributor, won't announce the day -- through 12:01 a.m. Saturday, when sales finally commence, workers like Casale are bound by ethics and the law not even to open the containers, let alone see, read or share anything of their contents.

The clerk's dilemma -- the yen to peek, the directive not to -- reflects a contradiction at the heart of the Potter publishing enterprise, long since a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. Those in the loop, from Rowling on down, work to build audience and whet appetites, and with 325 million copies sold so far, they've made a whopping hit of that. But they also try to keep secret the very plot twists for which they've made millions of readers pine.

"It's like a basketball game," says Emerson Spartz, Webmaster of MuggleNet.com, an independent Potter site that draws 40 million hits a month and has stringent anti-leak policies. "You might want to watch it [on tape] even if you already know the final score, but it won't be the same experience as seeing it unfold."

How does one prevent leaks of an intellectual property so sought-after it's already slated to be read by 12 million in its first U.S. printing alone? That question could make Saturday's unveiling an event like no other in the history of publishing.

The logistics of maintaining secrecy, especially in the Internet age, can be mind-numbingly complex. The size of the Potter phenomenon means that thousands of workers in the industry, from editors to truck drivers and clerks, will have touched the book before the public sees it. These people can, if they choose, make electronic copies, spoiling secrets worldwide with the push of a button.

The distribution process began shortly after Rowling wrote the final words of Deathly Hallows in January, in a Scotland hotel. That was when Scholastic's general counsel flew to Great Britain to pick up a manuscript copy. (According to Time magazine, he sat on it during the flight home.) A select group of about 12 Scholastic employees, including Rowling's editor, Arthur A. Levine, got copies. Once Rowling made her edits, the books made their way to printing plants, the names of which Scholastic has kept secret.

This week, trucks closely tracked by the company are to deliver Deathly Hallows to chain stores in plastic-sealed pallets, to smaller shops like The Children's Bookstore in sealed boxes and in individual form to independents with even smaller orders, such as Atomic Books in Hampden, which requested just a few dozen. Every bookstore owner has signed a tightly worded agreement with Scholastic promising that no employee will open the sealed packages, or read or sell the books, at least until Saturday's witching hour.

It's hard to imagine a more desperately awaited final episode to a series, but the phenomenon is hardly new.

Serial fiction enjoyed a heyday during the Victorian era a century and a half ago, when the world's best authors, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Tolstoy, released their novels a section at a time in regular periodicals. Dickens in particular was "the Rowling of his day," according to Michael Lund, a professor of English at Longwood University in Virginia, who specializes in the form. "He did everything the Potter series is doing now, developing characters over time, building readership. ... Everyone wanted to read the next [installment of a] Dickens novel."

Just as the Potter series exploded in popularity, serialization blossomed with his tale The Pickwick Papers, which ran in 19 issues in 1836 and 1837. As installments came out, critics debated plot twists, families held readings, the literate in boarding houses read aloud to their illiterate brethren -- antecedents to Potter classes, seminars and online chatrooms -- and nearly everyone looked forward to the next chapter. Dickens even whipped up Potter-esque interest. The Pickwick run began at 400 and skyrocketed to 40,000 by series' end. In February 1841, a crowd of U.S readers hooked on The Old Curiosity Shop gathered on the New York wharf, where monthly chapters arrived by boat. "Is Little Nell dead?" they yelled to passengers.

Like Rowling, Dickens became the richest author of his day. Both followed the credo of Victorian serial novelist Willkie Collins: "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait, exactly in that order."

The serial novel eventually fell out of favor, but radio, TV and film picked it up, familiarizing audiences with Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy (1933-1951), the Cartwrights of Bonanza (1959-1973) and Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977-2005), among others, drawn from episode to episode by cliffhangers and other developments.

It might be TV fans who are most used to the phenomenon of the blockbuster finale. Millions tuned in to see whether Hawkeye Pierce would stay in Korea (M*A*S*H, 1983), if George Costanza could get a job (Seinfeld, 1998) or if Tony was fated to get clipped (The Sopranos, last month).

As long ago as April, Barnes and Noble reported it had received a company-record 500,000 pre-orders for Deathly Hallows. Speculation is rampant on Web sites about whether Snape, the teacher turned killer, is evil or good. A book by Spartz and his colleagues at MuggleNet.com, What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 -- it lays odds on every main character's chance of survival -- has hit No. 2 on the New York Times children's best-seller list.

But people known in the trade as "spoilers" try to get hold of Potter material early and spread it around the world. Some get to release parties early, flipping to the end of the book and shouting out plot points. (Insiders advise wearing headphones.)

Webmasters at the Leaky Cauldron, a Harry Potter site, say a man in Malaysia sent them photocopies from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the series, a week before its release in 2005, which ruined the ending for staffers. About the same time, two printing-plant workers in England stole a copy of Half-Blood Prince and tried to sell it to a London tabloid. The copyright violation landed one in jail, where he's serving a 4 1/2 -year sentence.

This year, a computer hacker who calls himself "Gabriel" claimed he raided the computer of an employee at Bloomsbury, the series' British publisher, and read Deathly Hallows. He posted what he says are details from it on a Web site, insecure.org. But Kyle Good, a Scholastic representative, dismissed it, saying, "There's a lot of junk flying around."

MuggleNet.com, like most Potter sites, sees itself as a guardian of the reading experience. It will shut down its comment section for a week beginning Wednesday to prevent untimely remarks. For several months thereafter, any mention of the new book's contents will be flagged with multiple warnings.

But with a franchise this vast, in a technological era more complicated than the Victorians ever dreamed of, readers might want to use extra caution. After all, says Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, if you're a fan, you've likely been immersed in the Hogwarts world for a decade -- five times longer than the ones Dickens fans sustained. His advice?

"By 12:30 p.m. [Saturday], it's all going to be in the air," he says. "Take the book home. Read it. Don't stop till you're done. And enjoy the magic."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

The stars' forecasts

What the stars of the Harry Potter films have said about what they think might happen in the last installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter): "I think [Harry] might die. ... That's just my prediction. I think so, but I've no idea at all; I have no inside hints." Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley): "[Snape] is definitely pretty evil, I think ... I think it's going to be Dan [Radcliffe] or Voldemort [who dies]."

Emma Watson (Hermione Granger): "I hope [Hermione] ends up doing something she loves ... maybe [being] with Ron [Weasley], if that makes her happy." Sources: Reuters, msnbc.com, Scifi.com

Timeline of cliffhangers

1841 -- The Old Curiosity Shop: 100.000 readers followed Charles Dickens' serial tale of Little Nell Trent. Some wrote the author, begging him not to "kill" her in the final chapter. He did.

1983 -- M*A*S*H: In a 2 1/2 -hour finale, characters reacted to news of a cease-fire in the Korean War. It remains the most-watched episode of a TV series, attracting roughly 50 million households -- more than three-quarters of the viewing audience.

1988 -- St. Elsewhere: Final episode of popular TV hospital drama suggested the whole seven-year series took place in the mind of an autistic boy.

1991 -- Dallas: In final episode, J.R. Ewing pondered suicide. Viewers couldn't tell whether he succeeded. (The famous "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger actually ended the show's second season in 1980.)

1998 -- Seinfeld: About 76 million viewers made the finale of the comedy show the third-most watched finale of a U.S. television series ever. The main characters ended up in a Massachusetts jail.

2005 -- Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith: George Lucas completed his movie saga with the final part of a three-film prequel. It earned more than $850 million worldwide.

2007 -- The Sopranos: In a ballyhooed finale on HBO, the screen faded suddenly to black, leaving major questions unanswered.

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