Book fair entranced by absent Rowling installment

Publishers at the annual trade show Book Expo America unveiled truckloads of deluxe advance editions of books that publishing insiders hope will rescue the biz from its recent sales doldrums.

But the title that carries the highest expectations was nowhere in sight.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth installment of J.K. Rowling’s massively popular children’s series, remains shrouded in secrecy just three weeks prior to publication.

The launch of Harry Potter V is almost certain to be a sales event unprecedented in publishing history. Rowling’s U.S. publisher, Scholastic, has committed itself to a first printing of 8.5 million copies, with the first 6.8 million arriving in bookstores prior to the on-sale date of June 21 and 1.7 million more on hand to ship in subsequent days.

That inventory dwarfs the first print run for new books by industry giants like Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, and it’s more than double the first U.S. printing of Rowling’s last installment, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which has sold 10 million copies in hardcover to date.

Scholastic is taking a cue from Hollywood in hitting the market with maximum impact in the first week of release.

Hype happens

That puts immense pressure on its distribution team to respond quickly to sales data, keeping key supply chains restocked from day to day. And it increases the risk that Scholastic will overshoot its mark if sales fizzle after the initial burst of hype.

“There’s no question the ramp is huge in the first 10 days,” Scholastic senior VP of trade sales Michael Jacobs said. “But that doesn’t mean that after 10 days it’s all over.”

While other publishers hope that “Phoenix” will drive a wedge in a sluggish sales market, driving bookstore traffic and sparking a sales spike across the industry, Scholastic has the most to gain. Company, which recently laid off 4% of its international work force, is counting on “Phoenix” to provide 5% of its revenue and more than 5% of its profits for the next fiscal year.

Begging for more

Top execs at distribution and wholesale firms told Daily Variety that demand for the book is already outstripping supply, as every American retail outlet that sells books scrambles for copies. “I call Scholastic everyday and beg for more books,” said one.

With hundreds of thousands of copies pre-ordered online, “Phoenix” has topped Amazon’s sales chart for months.

Book will be shipped from approximately 14 plants around the U.S., and every bookseller, manufacturer or freight service handling the book has signed affidavits vowing not to raise the veil of secrecy.

“Harry Potter” had a relatively low profile at Book Expo, occupying just one panel of the Scholastic kiosk, alongside other Scholastic properties like “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “Captain Underpants.”

‘Potter’ bulks, ‘Hulk’ sulks

Across the L.A. Convention Center, Newmarket Press touted its official companion to another Hollywood franchise, “The Hulk.” The Universal feature, directed by Ang Lee, reaches the market just 24 hours prior to “Harry Potter.” There’s no precedent for a book release affecting a film’s opening weekend grosses, but given the massive scale of the “Potter” distribution campaign and the inevitable wall-to-wall media coverage, it may provide some turbulence in the marketplace.

One of the most surprising displays at the convention was the massive AOL Time Warner banner draped above the Little, Brown and Warner Books booth.

AOL’s book unit is on the auction block, and top industry sources said Saturday that Bertelsmann was close to a deal to buy the imprints and absorb them into Random House. But Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum said Saturday the rumors were untrue.

Book Expo America, which attracted hundreds of publishing companies to Los Angeles, wrapped Sunday. Confab is owned by Reed Exhibitions, an affiliate of Daily Variety.

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