Leave it to the Muggles to ruin a book launch.
Despite the Code Red-level security measures taken to keep the seventh and final Harry Potter installment under wraps until Saturday, details of the boy wizard's fate have started leaking. At least three conflicting versions of the book were posted on Web sites yesterday.
And in Maryland, one surprised customer opened his mail to find his own copy -- delivered four days before the official worldwide release. Jon Hopkins, a 25-year-old software engineer, said he has no plans to divulge the book's secrets.
"I couldn't believe it," he said yesterday after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows arrived at his Davidsonville home. He had ordered the book from DeepDiscount.com on June 3. On Friday, he received an e-mail saying his order had been shipped. He never thought it would come this early.
Neither did Scholastic Inc., the Potter publisher. Scholastic has cracked down on Web sites purporting to have obtained the book, going so far as to send one a subpoena. Libraries were made to sign strict contracts to keep the book locked up until Saturday. And pallets of the books on delivery trucks have been fitted with alarms.
So the publisher wasn't happy to hear of the case of Harry Potter and the Early Delivery.
"You're kidding me," said Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman. The company has spent millions orchestrating the launch of the last Potter book -- and Internet leaks or early delivery of the novel could spoil that plan. Readers are eager to learn what happens to their beloved characters. Author J.K. Rowling has hinted that one or more of them might die, perhaps even Harry himself.
"There hasn't been this much anticipation around a book, perhaps ever," said Sean Sundwall, a spokesman for Amazon.com. The online bookseller has taken orders for 1.3 million copies of the book in the U.S. and 2.1 million worldwide. The books are being shipped in red Potter packaging that says, "Attention, Muggles -- Do not deliver or open before July 21!"
Other online retailers have created labels to prevent early delivery. And libraries that wanted advance copies for distribution Saturday had to sign extensive contracts limiting the number of people who can see the books and how they are handled.
The frenzy surrounding the book's release is unprecedented in the publishing world. (The Sun will post a review of the book at baltimoresun.com this afternoon.) Twelve million copies of the book are being published worldwide, and already at least three different versions have appeared online, many with conflicting content.
When Scholastic becomes aware of an online posting, it contacts the Web site owner to ask that the book come down. They almost always comply, Good said. She said the publisher is going to such extremes to protect the fans.
"The fans are the ones who really care about getting the book, going to the midnight parties, having a great time and reading all night and weekend," Good said. "It's our goal, and the goal of the author, to be sure the fans can all come to the book at the same time."
But in Anne Arundel County, the book came to Hopkins shortly after noon yesterday. He had left work early because the air conditioner was broken. After he returned home, he spotted an unmarked sport utility vehicle pulling into his driveway, and a uniformed postal worker left a package on the porch.
He opened the plain brown package and, to his surprise, found the book that it seems the whole world is waiting for.
DeepDiscount.com was not as pleased as he was. Informed that a customer had received the book, the company's director of merchandising, Rob Broggi, said, "Oh. That's never good."
Broggi said DeepDiscount.com is in the process of shipping an unspecified number of Potter books from its warehouses in Chicago based on estimated delivery times provided by the U.S. Postal Service. Shipping from Chicago to New York is estimated to take five days. Shipping to Maryland and points south takes even longer.
"Apparently, this one streamed through incredibly quickly," Broggi said of Hopkins' copy. He didn't know how many other copies would arrive early. "It's a freak accident. I would say all we ask is for it not to be read or to keep the ending to yourself."
At Scholastic, after Good looked into the early delivery yesterday, she said she was satisfied that a "human error at the distribution level" had caused the book to be shipped earlier than it should have been. Asked whether DeepDiscount would suffer for its transgression, she said, "We'll have to talk with them about how we handle it."
Thousands of copies of the book are in the U.S. Postal Service pipeline. But postal workers have been warned to hold the books until Saturday, said spokeswoman Monica Suraci. The post office expects to deliver about 1.8 million Harry Potter books.
"Our mandate is to hold them so nothing goes out before Saturday," she said. "We've done a great deal of internal outreach on a lot of different levels to reassure that our folks are containing Harry Potter and do not go before that date."
Many online retailers worked with the post office to ensure delivery Saturday, and no earlier. "Obviously," Suraci said, "DeepDiscount didn't work with us on this."