Anatomy of a Harry Potter Release Party

If you’ve ever been to a Harry Potter Midnight Release Party, then you know how awesome they can be. Bookstores that range from independent to corporate-run didn’t take long to realize how popular Harry was, and they’ve been rocking the midnight releases ever since. But what exactly goes into these events? And how does a store handle what might amount to thousands of books in a single shipment? Turns out there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than you may have thought.

Planning for a Harry Potter release party starts months in advance. The instant a concrete release date is confirmed, things get rolling. Stores have to consider all sorts of elements: manpower, volunteers, activities, decorations, sorting out giveaways and prizes, event space, and of course, the books themselves and all the protocol behind them. A corporate run store (such as Barnes & Noble and, at the time, Borders) does a little of everything on each level. Some of folks at corporate headquarters work directly with publishers to figure out the do’s and don’ts when it comes to handling the books and even the boxes the books come in. Other people will come up with certain event ideas they want the stores to do in order to be able to advertise it in press releases across the country. Independent bookstores handle everything on their own time. As Harry got more popular, any bookstore that didn’t have a release party would miss out on huge sales.

Decorating the store is the job of the employees — and some of you may have seen some truly awesome decorations. Everything from recreations of the Whomping Willow to Platform 9 ¾ have been created within store walls. People can get amazingly crafty and a lot of it is done on their own time and money. (Personal note, walking into Michael’s knowing you’re going to host a Harry Potter release party is a huge mistake because out of sheer excitement you’ll want to buy EVERYTHING). The same can be said for someone’s wizarding outfit or the props they need in order to host an activity. All of this in addition to whatever their daily activities are.

Manpower and volunteers can be tricky given what a store is able to afford and who they are able to contact. Luckily a lot of people love Harry Potter and are willing to help out. Friends and family members might also come in to provide assistance. With the right amount of time, a store may even be able to secure special guests or exceptional volunteers such as professional face painters or (as in our case) a professional wandmaker.

Like any business, you have to check on the technical side as well. Will you have enough change on hand? Are all your registers working properly? For stores that sell food and drinks, how much extra should be ordered? Have additional Harry Potter products been ordered? People buying the newest book may not have been in the store for a while and might not realize you now have a plethora of Harry Potter goodies like Sorting Hat replicas or tiny adorable dragon plushies. True, you want people to have fun, but you also want them to buy something — hopefully something more than just the newest book. After all, you need sales to make up for all the additional manpower being used to host the party. This is why you don’t see a lot of release parties for other books, despite their popularity — the sales wouldn’t support the required effort.

There is also crowd control to be considered. Every store needs to be aware of their maximum occupancy. How many people can be in the store at one time? Will people wait outside? If so, how will you handle this? Line management may mean additional manpower so you can wrangle people throughout the night. If you’re at maximum occupancy, you’ll have to remain at the door and let 5 more people in once 5 people leave. Once the time comes for the books to be sold, you need to have a plan in place to start moving the dozens, if not hundreds (and usually it’s hundreds) of people into some kind of line or designated waiting area and then keep things orderly.

And then there are the books themselves. In the book world there are titles that are labeled as strict on sale, or SOS, that cannot under any circumstances be sold before the release date. The majority of big name authors have books that are strict on sale. It doesn’t matter when the book comes into the store’s stockroom — you can’t buy it until that SOS date.

PotionCropHarry Potter books are far more extreme to the point that it seems excessive and yet somehow impressive at the same time. It’s as though gold is being transported instead of books (though some may argue that the two could be considered one in the same, and I’d be inclined to agree). Basically, when it comes to Harry Potter books, the rules about them are a lot like the rules of Fight Club. First rule about new Harry Potter books: Do not talk about the new Harry Potter books. Publishers release a laundry list of things that can get a store into some big time trouble if they are ignored. This may range from not telling the customers the books exist (“Do you have them?” We will on the release date.) to keeping them within the watchful eye of a security camera 24/7 to wrapping the boxes up with paper. No photos. No opening the boxes. NO TOUCHY, PERIOD.

But then the time finally comes. The time you’re allowed to sell the books. 12:01 am. Every register begins ringing. People come up, get their order, pay and leave. Depending upon the organization and number of people, a store might be open until 2 am or later. And then, like at the end of any party, there is the cleanup. Tables and chairs need to be put away. Sprinkles from the cupcake decorating station need to be swept up. And then some employees have to come back the next day to keep the store running and hope that the HP books stay in stock for customers who didn’t go to the party but still want to buy it.

Harry Potter release parties can be exhausting to plan, and occasionally you may want to throw things at your co-workers (and they at you) as you try to work out the logistics of everything. But once it all kicks off, the party can be a fantastic time. Knowing that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and walked out with a new Harry Potter book is a grand reward in itself. And in the end?

Accio sleeping powder.

4 Comments

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier September 1, 2016 at 7:22 am

    I remember attending the Midnight Magic parties for book 5 and 6 back when I was in in high school/college, and it was such an interesting experience. I don’t remember too many of the events the store put on (besides trivia as a way to keep fans from going nuts while waiting), but I remember being in awe of the sense of community present. THAT many people THAT excited about a new book? You don’t get to experience something that often as a reader.

    I suspect the fanfare for Cursed Child wasn’t quite at the level for the original midnight magic parties.

    Reply
    • ntaft01 September 1, 2016 at 11:04 am

      Very true. This is the only midnight party I’d ever helped work on (or even attend, for that matter) so I was pretty excited to be able to do so. Fellow managers kept telling me stories about past events, from line management to volunteers they’d had. From what they told me later, we definitely didn’t have the same sort of turnout, but I’ve never seen that many people in the store for an event before, and given the book was only a script book, I say we had a pretty good turnout!

      Reply
  • steelvictory September 1, 2016 at 8:03 am

    My short time working at the Borders Express at my local mall overlapped with the release of book 6! We had a midnight release party, and we were able to spill out into the food court for our activities, which included stations for people to do or receive things related to the major Hogwarts classes. I was in charge of Potions, and had fun channeling my inner Snape while I doled out fruit punch from a giant cauldron. Dry ice was involved, and the amount of punch you got depended on correct answers to Harry Potter trivia questions.

    Reply
    • ntaft01 September 1, 2016 at 11:05 am

      A fellow potions master! I wanted to get dry ice, but didn’t get the chance. I also forgot my cauldron at home since I was bring so many other things!

      Reply

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