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ENTERTAINMENT

Harry Potter hits midnight frenzy

'Half-Blood Prince' begins flying off shelves

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"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" comes out July 16.

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(CNN) -- The frenzy over the latest Harry Potter book has begun.

At one minute after midnight in author J.K. Rowling's Great Britain, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" began landing in the hands of eager readers who've been waiting at bookstores across the country for hours.

The scene is likely to repeat itself at midnight local time in the United States and Canada, and fans are snapping up the book in spectacular fashion.

Those lucky to be at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland are being treated to a reading by Rowling. Fire dancers are expected to perform in the Changing Hands parking lot in Tempe, Arizona, and a New Orleans, Louisiana, bookstore is co-sponsoring a neighborhood Potter adventure, The Associated Press reports.

The book is the sixth in the series and has sat in the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com's best seller list since it was announced late last year.

"Prince" already has worldwide pre-orders of more than 2 million copies, 1.4 million from Amazon alone. Half of those are in the United States, so many that the United Parcel Service and the U.S. Postal Service are teaming up to deliver them all.

Scholastic, the book's American publisher, is printing a record 10.8 million copies of "Prince." That dwarfs the previous record of 8.5 million copies boasted by the book's predecessor, 2003's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

'A huge amount of security'

As with past Harry Potter releases, a few have slipped out: 14 in Vancouver, British Columbia; one in upstate New York; and two, allegedly, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The New York buyer said she would return the book; in the Canadian case, a judge ordered purchasers to avoid disclosing the plot if they wouldn't return their copies. According to some reports, they were even told not to read it.

Rumors have been as prolific as a sorcerer's apprentice's broom, and as impossible to verify as a crystal ball's revelations.

In May, a bookmaker suspended betting on the death of a certain character after suspecting a leak. Rowling has released just three chapter titles -- "Spinners End" (Chapter 2), "Draco's Detour" (Chapter 6) and "Felix Felicis" (Chapter 14) -- and security is extremely tight, with booksellers selling "Prince" before Saturday in their respective time zones facing the wrath of Rowling's publishers, if not the publishers' attorneys.

"There is a huge amount of security around the book right up to the moment the clock strikes midnight," Richard Cristofoli, an executive at British bookseller WH Smith, told Reuters.

Potter Web site MuggleNet even offers a page of rumor debunkings, including "[Hogwarts Headmaster] Dumbledore is not a relative of Harry," "Harry Potter will not be the new Minister of Magic" and "There will be no character named Icicle."

What is known is that Rowling has said the books would get progressively darker as Harry -- now entering his sixth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry -- gets older and closer to his ultimate battle with Lord Voldemort, the series' personification of evil.

Romance has begun entering the air -- perhaps even involving Harry, not to mention his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger -- and so has death.

Indeed, a couple characters were knocked off in previous books, and ugly politics hung heavy over "Order of the Phoenix."

Excitement

"Prince" is the second-to-last novel in the Potter series. Its serialization has helped the book's popularity, says Philip Nel, who teaches a Harry Potter course at Kansas State University.

"This is a very long mystery novel we are getting in installments," he told USA Today. "Each book ends with some suspense. You want to know what happens next."

The numbers speak for themselves.

There are 270 million of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books in print, 80 million in the United States.

The Potter books have been translated into more than 60 languages.

They have spawned three movies (total worldwide take: about $2.6 billion), with a fourth on the way this holiday season.

And Rowling, who a decade ago was an unemployed single mother writing the first Potter book in an Edinburgh café, is now believed to be the richest woman in Britain, worth an estimated $1 billion.

"There's nothing quite like Harry Potter in publishing," Bookseller magazine children's book expert Caroline Horn told Reuters.

In some ways, Pottermania has calmed down. Potter paraphernalia, for instance, suffered disappointing sales in 2003, and retailers have decided not to make the same mistake again.

"I think everyone expected an explosion the last time and went overboard. Everybody way overstocked," Candace Corlett, a partner at the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, Inc., told the AP. Corlett was one of those who had predicted blockbuster merchandise sales.

But the books ... well, the books are in no danger of going wanting.

"Even though I'm a teenager, it's still something that excites and interests me," 18-year-old Laura Schreiber -- who's been reading Potter since the first book came out seven years ago -- told USA Today.

"Even if you're an adult, it doesn't change the fact that it's a really great story that people get hooked on."

The Harry Potter movies have been made by Warner Bros. The studio, like CNN, is a division of Time Warner.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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