Mega-author J.K. Rowling today announced that the seventh -- and apparently final -- book in the blockbuster Harry Potter series would be released July 21, as soon as the clock ticks past midnight.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" will be available in bookstores at 12:01 a.m. July 21 in the United States, and at 12:01 a.m. British Standard Time (BST) in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking companies, according to Rowling's Web site{vbar}http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/news_view.cfm?id=97.

The middle-of-the-night publication of previous installments of the widely popular series, about a tousled boy wizard and his evil-fighting mates, has sparked long lines, elaborate book parties and frenzied expectations, all of which are expected only to grow in magnitude this time around.

Bookseller and fan Web sites reacted immediately to the news of the publication date. Amazon.com{vbar}http://www.amazon.com/ and the site for Barnes & Noble{vbar}http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ posted banner headlines and urged readers to pre-order the book for at least 40 percent off the $34.99 sale price. Mugglenet.com{vbar}http://www.mugglenet.com/ set up a countdown clock, which as of 11 a.m. this morning showed 161 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes remaining until the magic moment.

"OMG YAY!!!! SO EXCITING!!!!!!!" read one excited message from a fan on the site [for those uninitiated in digital shorthand, OMG stands for 'Oh my God.'].

Another fan, posting under the name rachel9isfine, wrote: "This rocks!! I'm so excited! This made my month!"

Rowling announced the title of the book on her Web site Dec. 21, prompting huge speculation as to what it might mean (Hallows refers to a holy person or saint, according to the officials at Scholastic, the book's U.S. publisher; it does not necessarily have anything to do with Godric's Hollow, the name of the place where, in the fictional series, Harry's parents are killed when he is a baby).

The use of the adjective 'deathly' fueled the speculation about who would die in the book -- Rowling has said in the past that two characters will meet his or her demise, but she did not (of course) let slip who it would be.

Book Six ended with Harry vowing not to return for his final year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, determined instead to hunt down his mortal enemy Voldemort and make a final, life-or-death attempt to vanquish him forever.

When the title was released six weeks ago, Rowling was still working on the book, according to an entry she posted on her Web site. "I'm now writing scenes that have been planned, in some cases, for a dozen years or even more . . . I am alternately elated and overwrought. I both want, and don't want, to finish this book (don't worry, I will)."

Scholastic said the interior and cover art for "Deathly Hallows" will be illustrated by Mary GrandPré, who has illustrated the previous six books.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth installment in the series, was released in July of 2005, and was the fastest-selling book in history, with 6.9 million copies snapped up in the first 24 hours, Scholastic said.

There are more than 120 million copies of the Harry Potter books in print in the United States alone. Each book published so far has topped the bestseller list in the United States, the United Kingdom and around the world.