LONDON (Reuters) - One of the most hyped books in history goes on sale this week with the release of the seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" hits shelves at one minute past midnight British Summer Time on Saturday, July 21, and anticipation over how the last chapter will end may ensure it becomes the fastest selling novel of all time.
On "P-Day", as it has been dubbed, thousands of Potter fans dressed as wizards and witches will queue at stores in major cities, eager to learn the fate of Harry and his Hogwarts pals after author J.K. Rowling said she would kill off characters.
Twelve million copies of the 784-page tome have been printed for the U.S. market alone, copies of the book are being kept under lock and key, and families are imposing news blackouts in their homes to avoid spoiling the ending.
The publishing world has never known anything like it.
"What's different about Harry Potter is the marketing and PR programme surrounding the launch. You wouldn't have got that in previous periods," said Caroline Horn, children's news editor at the Bookseller publication.
Adults are also a huge target audience, the fictional boy wizard has made it on to the opinion page of the New York Times and writers Stephen King and John Irving have urged Rowling not to kill off her hero.
Rowling will mark the publication with a midnight reading at London's Natural History Museum.
The 41-year-old has described how she broke down in tears when completing the book, which ends a remarkable 17-year journey that she started as an unemployed single mother and ended as the world's first dollar-billionaire author.
Rowling first thought up boy wizard Harry Potter on a train from Manchester to London, and worked for years to turn her idea into a novel. The first book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", was published in 1997.
The six books published so far have sold 325 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 64 languages.
Hollywood adaptations of the first four stories amassed $3.5 billion at the global box office, and the fifth, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", is in cinemas now.
The Potter phenomenon has been credited with encouraging young people to read more and revitalizing children's publishing, but it also has its downside.
Independent booksellers stand to make little, if any money from the seventh book, with online retailers and major bookstore chains discounting heavily to guarantee big sales. Unable to compete, some shops have not bothered to order copies at all.
With so much money, and reader anticipation at stake, Rowling and her publishers have gone to great lengths to protect the contents of "Deathly Hallows", including forms imposing a publishing embargo on book stores.
One computer hacker claims to have leaked the ending of the book on to the Internet, which Rowling's publishers did not deny outright, and plot details are likely to appear online within hours of the book going on sale.