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Book release pits Amazon against local bookstores

The stampede to get the latest "Harry Potter" book is opening a window into the ongoing battle between Amazon.com and independent bookstores.

The stampede to get the latest "Harry Potter" book has opened a window into the ongoing battle between Amazon.com and independent bookstores across the country.

Amazon announced today that it is teaming up with Federal Express to deliver 250,000 copies of the children's book to customers on July 8, the day it is released. Meanwhile, independent bookstores across the country are offering same-day delivery, special parties and early openings to "Harry Potter" customers.

"A lot of independent stores are doing a lot of different promotions for the book with all kinds of quirky, peculiar wiggles as only independent bookstores can do," said Richard Howorth, former president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). "We're trying to beat the big guys with service."

The hoopla over the fourth "Harry Potter" book follows the international success of the first three in the series. Customers have pre-ordered thousands of copies of the book at Amazon and other bookstores, and it is expected to be one of the biggest sellers among children's books this year. Stores say they hope the book will not only draw in return customers but bring in new shoppers as well.

The book is just the latest battleground between the independents, Amazon and bookstore chains:

• Early last year, Amazon came under heavy criticism from independent bookstores after the e-commerce giant disclosed that publishers were paying it up to $10,000 to feature their books on its site. Amazon later said it would disclose which title placements were paid for.

• Last fall, the ABA announced plans to launch an online bookstore that would link to local independent book merchants. After several delays, the store is now expected to debut later this summer.

• In December, the ABA announced that it joined the e-Fairness coalition, a group of offline merchants that is pressing the federal and state governments to require e-tailers to charge sales tax on all transactions. Typically, e-tailers only charge sales tax to customers who reside in a state where the e-tailers have an office or other physical presence.

What the independents are battling is Amazon's growing stake in the book market. The company said its book business was profitable in the fourth quarter last year on $317 million in revenue.

Meanwhile, analysts expect the online book market to continue to skyrocket. Jupiter Communications, for instance, projects that online book sales will grow from $1.2 billion this year to $3.3 billion in 2004.

In the face of these daunting figures, independent stores have seized on "Harry Potter" as a way to combat Amazon and the other large online and offline bookstores.

Corte Madera, Calif.-based Book Passage, for instance, is offering free same-day delivery of the new "Harry Potter" book beginning at 7 a.m. on July 8. Howorth, who owns Square Books in Oxford, Miss., said his store will open at 6 a.m. that day and will give discounts to anyone who shows up in pajamas.

Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif., allowed pre-ordering for the first time and will also offer same-day delivery service.

"We're trying to be as competitive as we can be," said store owner Andy Ross.

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Delivery strategies
That competition from independent booksellers and other bookstores played a role in Amazon's announcement today that it would deliver the new "Harry Potter" book to customers via FedEx on July 8 for the standard, non-express shipping price.

Lyn Blake, general manager of Amazon's bookstore, said the company did not want its customers to have to go through the "inconvenience" of going to a physical bookstore.

"We wanted to get the books into customers' hands as soon as possible without them having to go to midnight madness rushes and worry about whether the store has enough copies to go around," Blake said.

Cody's Books and the other independent bookstores may have a long way to go to catch up with Amazon. While the Seattle-based online giant has already received some 170,000 pre-orders of the new "Harry Potter" book, pre-orders at the independents have been far more modest.

Cody's Books, for instance, has had about 475 pre-ordered copies of the book, while Book Passage customers have pre-ordered about 1,000 copies.

Still, independent booksellers say they can offer what Amazon cannot: personal service.

"An online retailer doesn't have the personal touch," said Robert Dry, director of operations at Book Passage. "A computer, as good as it is, can't answer questions."

The magic of Amazon's online book sales caused a commotion in the book industry with the last "Harry Potter" book. In a move that upset the book's U.S. distributors and offline bookstores, Amazon allowed its U.S. customers to order the British version of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" through its United Kingdom-based subsidiary months before the book was released in the United States.

All English-language versions of the upcoming "Harry Potter" book will be released on the same day.