Media: Harry Potter and a marketing whizz

School's out, the bookshops are ready. Watch marketing chiefs create a new superhero in children's literature. By Rachelle Thackray
FOR SOME children, watching the hours pass before the end of school next Thursday could be the most agonising wait of their lives. On that day, at exactly 3.45pm, they will be able to find out what Harry did next.

Harry Potter, that is - schoolboy wizard and star of the bestselling series by JK Rowling, whose previous two titles topped the charts and sold 750,000 copies between them. The third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, goes on sale 15 minutes after school finishes on Thursday, at pounds 2 off its cover price of pounds 10.99. The offer runs until 5.30pm the same day, in an initiative designed to stimulate children's anticipation - while appeasing their parents' purses.

It's all part of a marketing campaign that breaks new ground in children's book publishing, one that the publishers have partly based on Disney's launch of The Lion King.

Rosamund de la Hey, head of children's sales at Bloomsbury, said a specific "happy hour" for the launch meant children would have no excuse for playing truant to get their hands on the book: "If we released it at 9am, we could get an awful lot of grief. We wanted a national event, and rather than having it just trickle down, we thought that if we focused on a time it would be fair to the kids. Hopefully there'll be queues of kids up and down the streets, waiting for their copies. It's very much a visual exercise."

Murder One, the crime bookshop in London's Charing Cross Road, used a similar strategy with the adult thriller Hannibal, selling copies of the embargoed book after midnight on its date of release.

Rowling's books have lent themselves to creative marketing, with Harry's adventures trailing a catalogue of delightfully evocative names - Dudley Dursley, Hogwart's School of Witchcraft, Ron Weasley and Nick the Nearly Headless Ghost - through familiar but often magically transformed settings.

The success of visuals and timing are just as crucial to this Harry Potter marketing campaign, acknowledged by booksellers as a one-off event in children's publishing. Last year it capitalised on Rowling's appeal to older readers by publishing the original title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in an adult format.

For Harry Potter's latest launch this Thursday, many shops have hired children's entertainers and lookalikes, and "Spot Harry" competitions will be staged by local radio stations. Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford anticipates such keen demand that it will place a chained-up dummy copy of the book in its front window before the launch. Dillons in Birmingham has put a copy in a cage, under the watchful eye of the security guard. Other bookshops have used display boxes with a "Coming Soon" sticker to herald the book's arrival.

De la Hey, who initiated many of the marketing ideas, said: "We were talking about the way Disney marketed The Lion King. They always do a tantalising teaser, and that's never really been done for books in a big way. We wanted to emulate that. It's been prompted by booksellers who were phoning me in January saying: `When's the new one coming out?' That got us thinking about the timing."

George Grey, of Dillons marketing department, said Bloomsbury's campaign gave bookshops a fantastic opportunity: "The aim has been to generate an interest at one point in time, which enables us to do events, instead of it being diluted throughout the day. I can't imagine any bookshop wanting to be left out." He is working with Waterstone's on a joint promotion.

Humphrey Carpenter, creator of the children's comic wizard Mr Majeika, is one of Harry Potter's few detractors, likening Rowling's books to "fake antique cars".

"They're a competent pastiche of lots of children's books. The books aren't bad, but there doesn't seem to be anything excitingly new. But if the marketing initiative sells books, that's great: I'm in favour of any kind of marketing that can do that," he said.

Despite the jamboree of publicity planned for next Thursday, Joanne Rowling herself - recently named one of Britain's most creative minds by showbiz magazine Entertainment Weekly - is nowhere to be seen. She is not giving interviews or appearances as she is already working on the fourth book in her series of seven Harry Potter titles.