Grossman, Lev and Andrea Sachs. "Harry Potter and the Sinister Spoilers." Time Magazine, June 28, 2007.

You might think the most important product that the publisher Scholastic will release this summer is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and last book in J.K. Rowling's nearly infinitely bestselling fantasy series. But you would be wrong. Deathly Hallows, which goes on sale at the stroke of midnight on July 21, is merely a by-product, the catalyst for something else. The real product is something that Scholastic executives call, in hushed, reverential tones, "the magic moment."

This is the moment of ineffable, intangible ecstasy that occurs when a reader opens his or her brand-new $34.99 copy of Deathly Hallows for the first time. "All the way through the process, everybody who touches this [manuscript] has the same goal in mind," says Arthur A. Levine, Rowling's editor. "Midnight. Kids." The magic moment is a rare and delicate thing: it occurs only when the reader comes to the book in a state of pure ignorance, with no advance knowledge of its contents. For the magic moment to happen, the theory goes, the reader's mind must be preserved in a state of absolute innocence--it must be, in Internet parlance, spoiler-free. So to preserve the magic moment against informational contamination--via the Web or watercooler conversation or the Rita Skeeters of the global media--Scholastic has created an infrastructure around Deathly Hallows unlike anything the publishing world has ever seen.

On Tuesday, July 3, if they stick to their custom, roughly a dozen people will gather in a conference room on the sixth floor of Scholastic's headquarters in Manhattan, as they have done nearly every Tuesday this year. They are members of the Harry Potter brain trust, the people in charge of every aspect of the seventh coming of Harry Potter in the U.S. The group includes, among others, Levine; Lisa Holton, president of Scholastic's trade division; Scholastic's art director and its heads of sales, marketing, production, communications and manufacturing; and the company's general counsel, Mark Seidenfeld. "This room is really the most paranoid room," says Holton. "We don't talk to our children and spouses for months." The seriousness with which the members of the Harry Potter brain trust regard their collective mission cannot be overstated. "We have always known that the series is already a modern classic," Holton says. "If you think about it in terms of literature, I can't think of another series--not just in children's literature but in adult--that does what J.K. Rowling does. Even Dickens doesn't come close."

The job of the Harry Potter brain trust begins when Rowling's creative process ends. In the case of Deathly Hallows, that happened on Jan. 11, 2007, when Rowling (whose name, let it be said for now and all time, rhymes with bowling and not howling) wrote the very last word of the Harry Potter saga in a suite at the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh. The task of traveling to England to pick up the manuscript fell to Seidenfeld. To make absolutely sure the manuscript was safe on the plane, he sat on it.

But he didn't read it. Even this close to the book's release, very few people at Scholastic have had any actual contact with the contents of Deathly Hallows--"a handful," according to Kyle Good, Scholastic's head of communications. Among that handful was Levine, who gets to edit the world's most famous writer. ("She's very strong, but she's not blind," he says. "She seems really to value when we ask her questions. She'll say, 'Oh, I knew what that was in my mind, but if it's not coming across that way, why don't we say X.'") Another early reader was a studious 28-year-old named Cheryl Klein, whose job title is continuity editor. Rowling's books have become so complex--and their fans so obsessively nitpicky--that it takes a full-time Potterologist to make sure Rowling's fictional universe stays factually consistent. "I keep track of all of the various proper nouns that appear in the series," says Klein. "For instance, with Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, I make sure it's always B-o-t-t-apostrophe-s. Every Flavor is not hyphenated, and Flavor does not have a u." It's a tough beat: Klein acknowledges, for example, that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Moaning Myrtle sits in a U-bend toilet, whereas in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she occupies an S-bend toilet (this crept in, it should be noted, before Klein's tenure, which began after Goblet ). Klein has either the worst job in the world or the best, depending on how you look at it.

Like everyone else at Scholastic, Klein maintains the Harry Potter omertà. "Most people know better than to ask," she says. "That includes my friends and my family and everyone else." After Rowling revised the manuscript, per Levine's and Klein's suggestions, Klein flew to England to pick up the new draft. On her way home she was stopped for a random security check at Heathrow. "The woman opens up my bag, and she starts pawing through it. And she says, 'Wow! You have a lot of paper here.' And I thought, Oh, God, she's going to look at it, and she's going to see the names Harry and Ron and Hermione. But I just smiled, and I said, 'Yes, a lot of paper!' And she said, 'Uh-huh,' and she zipped it up. That was the end of the scariest two minutes of my life."

At first the number of copies of the Deathly Hallows manuscript was kept to an absolute minimum. One went to the book's designer. Also admitted to the inner circle was Mary GrandPré, the Florida-based artist who illustrates the U.S. editions. (If you've seen the English cover for Deathly Hallows, you know how lucky Americans are to have GrandPré.) "She is a wonderful lady," Good says. "She had an image of what Harry Potter looked like, but when she went to actually draw his face, she was really having a lot of trouble. She had the messy hair, the glasses, but what did his jawline look like? She walked over, and she looked in the mirror, and she sketched her own face."

While GrandPré studied her jawline in the mirror and searched for inspiration, the heavy industrial gears of the Harry Potter engine were beginning to grind up north. The more copies of a book a publisher prints, the more security issues multiply, and Deathly Hallows has the largest first printing of any book in history. By July 21, Scholastic will have shipped 12 million copies for the U.S. market alone. The threat to the magic moment is quite real. In 2003 a forklift driver at a British printing plant was caught hawking pages from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. A month before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince went on sale, two men were arrested in England for trying to sell a copy to a reporter; one of them is currently doing 4 1⁄2 years. As a result, Scholastic won't give out the locations of the printing plants it uses or even how many there are. (As for Bloomsbury, the series' British publisher, it fiercely denies a rumor that it forces factory workers to print Deathly Hallows in pitch darkness.) The finished books travel to stores on pallets, sealed in black plastic, in trucks tracked by GPS.

But Scholastic's reach can extend only so far, and once the books are delivered, security is in the hands of the bookstore owners, all of whom sign a long, tightly worded legal agreement requiring them to keep the boxes unopened until 12:01 a.m. on July 21. "No one here sees them," says Kim Brown, vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble, which hires an outside security firm to guard the padlocked trucks in which it stores its copies of Deathly Hallows. "We have our fulfillment centers cordon off a special section for the Harry Potter books," says Sean Sundwall of "Only a very small number of people are allowed to look at it--or breathe on it--and even a smaller number of people can touch it."

That's all well and good for the big players, but libraries and smaller bookstores aren't set up for Azkaban-level security. "The boxes say HARRY POTTER on them, so people get all excited," says Dana Harper, who co-owns Brystone Children's Books in Fort Worth, Texas, with her mother and sister. "Behind the counter, we have them covered with a cloth before we cut into them, just in case. We do get nervous that someone will break in, but that hasn't happened yet." For owners of small businesses, trapped between the demands of millions of ravenous fans and those of a large corporation protecting a major asset, the experience can be disconcerting. "I can't even tell you where the books will be!" says Liz Murphy, owner of the Learnéd Owl Book Shop in Hudson, Ohio. "We had to sign our life away."

It's all in the service of that magic moment, when readers turn the first page of what Rowling swears will be the last Harry Potter novel ever published. When Scholastic executives start in on the experience of reading J.K. Rowling, there's pretty much no limit to how elevated the rhetoric can get. "Each of us can picture that midnight moment that we've all been talking about," says Levine. "We all love to be at those parties. All of us are doing it for that intense moment when we see the realization of our whole lives right in front of us!"

If the goal of Scholastic's strenuous secrecy campaign is to turn the release of Deathly Hallows into an event comparable to the premiere of a movie or the series finale of a beloved TV show, then by all means, mischief managed. There's certainly more than a whiff of "Who shot J.R.?" in the air, and a satisfying sense that the written word is for once getting the hype usually accorded only to hipper and newer-fangled media. "The kids are very excited," says Harper. "The adults are just as excited. If they're toward the counter when the boxes are sliced into, you might hear a sort of screaming or some oohs and ahs and breaths being taken in."

But with all that emphasis on the magic moment, there is the risk that people will forget why books are, in fact, books and not movies or TV shows. They're not about midnight parties or hype or even moments, however magical. Reading is, after all, the most solitary and contemplative and long-lasting of all aesthetic pleasures. "We'd just like to sell it like other books," Harper admits, a little wearily. "Just get it in and sell it. It can be kind of a circus." If Harry were real, he would find all the fuss intensely embarrassing. After all, if all readers cared about was the outcomes, then why would they turn out in such numbers to see the movie versions of the books, the fifth of which (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) hits cinemas 10 days before the seventh book is published.

Ironically, the Harry Potter brain trust could be guilty of underestimating the power of the books it's trying so energetically to sell. The magic-moment strategy promotes a myth about Rowling's work--and reading in general--which is that the pleasure of a book is a fragile enchantment that's easily dispelled. On June 18 a hacker calling himself "Gabriel" announced on a website that he had done exactly what the Harry Potter brain trust most feared: stolen the text of Deathly Hallows. Explaining that he had gained access to a Bloomsbury employee's computer using an e-mail-borne Trojan-horse program, he posted what he claimed were key plot points from the book (which won't be repeated here). He framed his actions as a Christian counterattack against a work that promoted the "Neo-Paganism faith." Quoth Gabriel: "We make this spoiler to make reading of the upcoming book useless and boring."

The spoilers are almost certainly fake. Gabriel didn't offer a shred of evidence supporting their authenticity, and anyway, boasting about things that you haven't actually done is pretty much what hacker culture is all about. But even if the spoilers were genuine, it wouldn't matter.

On this point, both hacker and publisher share a key misunderstanding of what reading is all about. People read books for any number of reasons; finding out how the story ends is one among many and not even the most important. If it were otherwise, nobody would ever bother to read a book twice. Reading is about spending time with characters and entering a fictional world and playing with words and living through a story page by page. The idea that someone could ruin a novel by revealing its ending is like saying you could ruin the Mona Lisa by revealing that it's a picture of a woman with a center part. Spoilers are a myth: they don't spoil. No elaborate secrecy campaign is going to make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows any better than it already is, and no website could possibly make it useless and boring.

--with reporting by Kristina Dell and Laura Fitzpatrick


Original page date 28 June 2007; last updated 28 June 2007.