When the new Harry Potter book - all 896 pages of it - lands with a thud in bookstores after midnight tonight, it will punctuate what's shaping up as a summer of blockbusters for the book industry.
Taking a page from Hollywood - and battling buying trends as dreary as the New England weather - publishers are pushing their fare with all the hoopla usually assigned to movies starring Keanu Reeves.
Thanks in part to a publicity campaign rivaling that of the "Charlie's Angels" sequel, Hillary Clinton's memoir, "Living History," became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books ever at its debut last week, according to the publisher. In a matter of days, some 600,000 copies were sold - helping recoup the senator's $8 million advance. Up next is "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which by Saturday will have 8.5 million copies in print - enough for the entire population of New York City.
Just as the summer movie season now starts in May, publishers are often debuting potential blockbusters ahead of the industry's fall rush. The book "events" bring traffic into bookstores and, with weightier fare, are altering the perception that summer is for breezy "beach books."
"I sense more variety being bought this summer," says Pat Holt, a former book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Among the reasons, she says, is the success of more serious books, like Alice Sebold's critically acclaimed "The Lovely Bones," a novel from the perspective of a young murder victim looking down from Heaven.
"The fact that 'The Lovely Bones' took off last summer ... gave more cachet to more challenging books," says Ms. Holt, who tracks the industry through her website. As book clubs flourish, they, too, feed the demand for "meatier" reading year-round, she says. And with blockbusters bringing people into stores, there's more foot traffic for summer options beyond mysteries and romance novels.
To peddle their wares, publishers are turning to full-page newspaper ads and monitoring when competitors launch anticipated books, taking care not to dilute the impact of their fanfare - two more echoes of Hollywood.
Summer is a perfect time to try and stand out, they say: With fewer "big" books debuting, reviewers are more likely to notice them. That's one reason "The Lovely Bones" was launched in July of 2002. It wasn't marketed as a blockbuster, but as a first novel that the publisher wanted to unveil at a time when it could shine. "The initial plan was to publish it in a month when we thought there was not a lot of competition," says Little, Brown and Company publisher Michael Pietsch. The approach paid off: By August the company had shipped about a million copies, and a year later, the book is still on hardcover bestseller lists.
No matter how much anticipated a book is, publishers fret about it getting on - and staying on - those all-powerful lists. Many launch books before autumn, hoping the slow days of summer will garner more time at the top.
Simon & Schuster, publisher of the Clinton memoir, says the bestseller list was one consideration for releasing the senator's book in June. But spokesman Adam Rothberg contends that the company has been "counterprogramming with big nonfiction titles in summer for a number of years," citing books like "John Adams," by David McCullough, released in May 2001.
Another likely "event" book this summer will be the latest from Jon Krakauer, author of the Mount Everest-climbing saga, "Into Thin Air."
Mr. Krakauer's exploration of fundamentalist Mormonism - "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith" - is not a typical candidate for summer reading. Originally scheduled to debut in September, it will be published next month instead, in part for its bestseller potential and on account of booksellers' early enthusiasm, says David Drake, a Doubleday spokesman.
Krakauer is already scheduled for a spot on NBC's "Today" show and for a segment with Tom Brokaw on sister program, "Dateline," set to air near the official publication date of July 15.
But like the rest of the entertainment industry, publishers are finding that their best efforts at staging events - including embargoing books to generate buzz - aren't always enough to thwart a pesky threat: piracy.
Portions of several recently embargoed books, including Ms. Clinton's memoir, have been leaked by journalists who obtained copies before the publication date. The latest Harry Potter, too, has suffered that fate. In England, there are reports of organized thefts of the fifth book before its release. And this week, US publisher Scholastic and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling sued the New York Daily News over the tabloid's publication of plot details from a book it reportedly purchased in a "health-food store."
Assuming there are still a few people who don't know the secrets of Harry's latest adventure, Saturday's publication of "The Order of the Phoenix" could buoy flat sales in the book industry - a boost that competitors are hoping to share. Instead of distancing themselves from the highly anticipated novel, as in the past, many publishers are using it to hawk their own wares.
This time around, book companies are running newspaper ads luring adults to their own reading while they pick up the wizard's tale for children. "Here's Your Harry Potter!" announced a recent ad from Little, Brown, referring to "The Lake House," a thriller by James Patterson.
Knopf, too, is targeting readers with an ad touting books for adults: "When you head for the bookstore to pick up your Harry Potter, bring this checklist of Knopf books for grownups." Among the options: Norman Rush's "Mortals" and John Burdett's "Bangkok 8."
"This year's the first time people have really seen it as an opportunity," says Patricia Johnson, associate publisher at Knopf.
But competitors' plans to snag more customers may be thwarted by the ingenuity of others wanting to capitalize on Potter magic. The Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., for example, is offering a package that includes Harry Potter DVDs to wile away the evening until the book is hand-delivered to hotel rooms after midnight.
Complete with Harry Potter jelly beans, it's an offer even villainous Voldemort couldn't refuse.