Byline: DAVID SEXTON
David Sexton SHIPS have always been launched. So have spears, and, more recently, spacecraft. Until quite recently, however, books used merely to be published. They would be printed, bound, taken round to the bookshops and left to their fate.
Sometimes there would be a small gathering, plied with glasses of sulphurous plonk, to mark the occasion.
We've changed all that. The launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, at midnight on Friday, is going to make the launch of an Apollo rocket look like a shamefaced sidling-away. It is the largest such event in bookselling history.
Bloomsbury, JK Rowling's publisher, is not saying exactly how big the first print run is going to be, but it has been estimated at two million in this country, 8.5 million in the States.
The previous instalment of the saga, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had an initial print run of 1.2 million copies here; 372,775 of those sold on the first day, 8 July 2000.
This time the stakes are still higher.
The booksellers have long been organising competitions, quizzes and countdowns in anticipation. On Friday, there will be midnight openings all over the country - 100 branches of Waterstone's, 140 branches of W H Smith.
There will be magicians, raffles, puppet shows.
There is going to be a grandiose movie-style premiere party at Waterstone's in Piccadilly, where [pounds sterling]100,000 has been spent turning the shop into Harry Potter World. In America, a million badges and stickers are going to be handed out by Harry Potter lookalikes. And, at King's Cross, platform 93/4 will be recreated once again.
There have been keenly awaited serial novels before. When Dickens was publishing The Old Curiosity Shop in 1840, the weekly numbers caused a great stir far and wide. It is claimed that "waiting crowds at a New York pier shouted to an incoming vessel: 'Is Little Nell dead?' ... " When in 1999, after an 11-year gap, Thomas Harris finally published Hannibal, the third Lecter novel, there was a huge furore - or so it seemed at the time, although Hannibal's return was shy and bashful compared to Harry's latest.
At one London bookshop, fans queued to buy the book as it was released at midnight and were served broad beans and chianti by an Anthony Hopkins lookalike. At Euston, the following day, the publishers handed out bacon sandwiches to commuters, a tasteful allusion to the fact that a number of people are eaten by pigs in the novel.
Unfortunately, many readers decided that it was the novel itself that was hammy - "a snorting, rooting, oinking porker", said Martin Amis. Let's hope Harry hasn't suffered a similar transformation. Or if he has, it's a reversible spell.
But, if it is natural that readers are impatient to hear what has happened to a favourite character, there is now an attempt by publishers to turn the publication of all their biggest titles into spectacular events. …