Harry Potter Mania Hits the Web

Online booksellers finally got fat off a major book launch when the number of pre-ordered copies of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” dwarfed all previous records.

The number of books pre-ordered at Amazon.com surpassed 320,000. This was the largest number of books pre-ordered in the site's history. “This is 7 1/2 times our [previous] biggest order,” said Lyn Blake, general manager of books at Amazon.com, Seattle. John Grisham's “The Brethren” had held the record at more than 42,000.

BarnesandNoble.com also set a site record, with more than 80,000 consumers pre-ordering the book. Borders.com refused to quantify the number of books ordered in advance, other than to say it was substantial.

The demand was so great that Canada Post made special arrangements to deliver the book on its July 8 release day to the first 10,000 Canadian consumers who ordered it online at Chapters.ca, the online arm of book retailer Chapters Inc. Normally, there is no mail delivery in Canada on Saturday.

Advance hardcover sales totaled 5.3 million in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States.

As the buzz grew for the fourth installment of the much-ballyhooed Harry Potter series about wizards and secret worlds, the online book sites made sure to fuel the fire with marketing efforts.

Borders.com, for example, is using the opportunity to create a cohesive marketing campaign that combines its offline stores and online presence. In one effort designed to pull consumers online, the bookseller is giving away 50,000 decoder cards at a number of its 300-plus stores. Consumers can visit Borders.com/hogwarts and hold the decoder up to a special blue screen to see whether they won a $1,000 Harry Potter shopping spree at Borders bookstores and Borders.com.

In an effort to draw consumers offline, those who purchase the 752-page book online will receive $25 in coupons redeemable at stores. The coupons include a free coffee and 10 percent off an in-store purchase.

“[The book's release] is huge, obviously, for us. We're battening down the hatches and getting ready for what we know is a massive release,” said Rich Fahle, spokesman at Borders.com, Ann Arbor, MI.

BarnesandNoble.com, as well as competitor Amazon.com, relied heavily on e-mail marketing to alert consumers about the pre-ordered books.

“We wanted to let them know they could pre-order the book. Our priority is to get books to customers on July 8 and not to disappoint anyone,” said Lesley Feingold Greene, editorial director for children's books at BarnesandNoble.com, New York. Neither site would quantify how many e-mails were sent out.

Amazon.com received most of the press about the pre-ordered books — not because of its offer of free overnight shipping for the first 250,000 consumers, but because of the beef the American Booksellers Association had with the site shipping the books a day early.

The book’s publisher, Scholastic Inc., allowed a number of sites, including Amazon, to ship the book a day early so online consumers could receive it the day of its release.

This has infuriated small-bookshop owners and the American Booksellers Association. Most bookstores were forced to sign an affidavit stating they would not open the boxes until midnight Friday. The association was irritated because the Web sites were not held to the same rule.

According to a letter from Michael Jacobs, senior vice president of trade at Scholastic, the company decided to allow the early shipping after learning that its British publishing arm had made similar accommodations with online and offline booksellers “for delivery no sooner than the on-sale date of July 8.”

“We're not getting it to the customers any earlier than the bookstores. I feel it's a level playing field,” Blake said.

Bookstores large and small will still beat the Web sites to the punch, as many were planning Harry Potter parties at the stroke of midnight Friday. Borders was no different, except that it taped one of the parties featuring a magician unveiling the new book. The clip will be aired at its site’s new streaming video feature section, Borders Vision. The section was launched July 6.

BarnesandNoble.com launched a similar feature, Barnes & Noble Television, last month.

Ironically, with all the criticism about dot-coms sending the books out early, it was the bookstores that provided the first glimpse of the new Potter installment. A handful of books were sold accidentally at Wal-Mart and an unidentified store in the Richmond, VA, area this month. They were quickly taken off the shelves once the error was discovered.

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