Harry Potter book is even hotter after thief drives off with 8,000 copies

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The hottest property in publishing just got hotter. Days before the latest Harry Potter book is to go on sale, a raider drove off with a lorry-load of about 8,000 copies of the book in Merseyside.

Police valued the stolen copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at about £130,000, but experts warned that the thief would have trouble selling them on. Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association said yesterday: "Perhaps he thought it would be an enormous quantity of cigarettes."

The trailer of books was stolen from a trading estate in Newton-le-Willows on Sunday. The books are to go on sale nationwide on Saturday.

Police said security staff were duped by the driver's false papers and allowed him to hook a truck he had stolen to the trailer containing 7,680 books. He then drove off.

The trailer, owned by the distribution company TNT, was discovered 20 miles away in Salford, Greater Manchester, on Monday afternoon, without any of the books, cover price £16.99, inside.

Police believe that the driver drove to a road by the estate where the pallets of books would have been unloaded and moved. Officers said last night that they were not ruling out an inside job but said that the driver might not have known what he was stealing. None of the trailers parked at the trading estate carried distinctive markings indicating what was inside, other than a TNT logo. The company said it was launching its own investigation.

Chief Inspector John Martin, who is leading the investigation, said: "We don't know if he was targeting these books or if it was speculative. It really has generated a lot of interest and he will find it very difficult to get rid of them."

Police warned that those offered cheap copies of the books before the 21 June publication date should refuse them. A spokeswoman said: "We want to warn members of the public that if they handle the book between now and Saturday in any way other than legitimately, they may face criminal charges."

The book's author, J K Rowling, is aware of the crime and is being kept informed, her agents said. The publishers, Bloomsbury, declined to comment on the security operation behind the launch but said: "An injunction, already in place, prevents any publication of the contents or a summary of the book prior to 21 June and requires the return of the books to Bloomsbury." Despite the clamour for copies of the book - the first four in the series sold almost 200 million copies in 55 languages and 200 countries - the industry said few sellers would consider the risk of handling stolen copies.

And many outlets are offering the book at huge discounts in a battle for customers. The Booksellers Association said that few shops were going to make money on them.

Godfrey George, manager of Baggins Book Bazaar, one of Britain's largest second-hand bookshops, in Rochester, Kent, said: "The main sellers won't touch them with a bargepole. It's going to be hard to hide that amount of books even before you try to sell them on. They could have been stolen for a foreign market."

The book is to be launched simultaneously in Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia, and in English in other countries. It is over a third longer than the previous installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That was the fastest selling book in history on the weekend of its publication in July 2000.

Earlier this month, Donald Parfitt of Worlingham, Suffolk, was ordered to complete 180 hours of community service after he admitted stealing pages from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the printing firm where he worked. He had tried to sell them to The Sun.