When "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" comes out in July, children from around the world will line up at stores or wait anxiously at home or summer camp for their copies to arrive by mail.
But anyone looking to read the book online, at least legally, should not even try.
J.K. Rowling has not permitted any of the six Potter books to be released in electronic form, not even during the peak of the e-book craze a few years ago. Neil Blair, a lawyer with Rowling's literary agency, would say only that "this has not been an area that we have sought to license" and did not comment directly on whether pirated e-books, a common phenomenon for Potter titles, were hurting sales.
"We monitor the Internet and take appropriate action," Blair says.
Rowling's choice follows an industry trend. Young people are supposedly more open to new technology, but the e-book market works in an opposite way. Adult bestsellers such as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and David McCullough's "1776" are available electronically, but not books by Rowling and many other popular children's authors, including Lemony Snicket, Cornelia Funke and R.L. Stine.
"It's not like we haven't tried this market," says Jason Campbell, marketing director for Harper Media, a division of HarperCollins that oversees e-book distribution.
"We've done R.L. Stine and [Meg Cabot's] 'The Princess Diaries' and it didn't work. 'Princess Diaries' has been our most successful young adult series in e-books, but it pales in comparison to e-book sales for Michael Crichton."
Several reasons are cited, from authors preferring books on paper to concerns over digital piracy to competition from television and other media. But the greatest problem is the lack of a popular reading device, a handicap that has held back the e-book business from the start.
"I didn't think then, and I don't think now, that there is a cool enough or interesting enough hardware to get the kids engaged," says Barbara Marcus, president of the children's books division of Rowling's U.S. publisher, Scholastic Inc.
"One of the fantasies I had was of kids walking around, without backpacks, and somebody would say, 'You have to read "Of Mice and Men" and "The Red Badge of Courage." Here are the e-books.' That fantasy hasn't happened."
Kate Tentler, vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Online, says she has had some success with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other works affiliated with TV shows or other media. But there have been no major breakthroughs, even when free downloads were offered for the popular "Samurai Girl" books.
"It didn't take off quite as much as I'd like to," she says. "The key is getting those books in front of them, and that's what we're trying to figure out."
The e-book market does continue to grow, although it remains a tiny part of the multibillion-dollar publishing industry. According to the Open eBook Forum, a trade organization, net revenues reached $9.6 million in 2004, nearly $4 million higher than in 2002. The number of e-books sold annually has more than doubled in that time, to nearly 1.7 million copies, even as the number of e-books published has declined.
No separate statistics are available for children's e-books, but many believe Potter would be a huge hit in the digital format, where even a few thousand copies is considered a bestseller.
"I'm sure it would be a very big book very quickly and would probably serve as a terrific marketing vehicle to get people to buy the print book," says Nicholas Bogaty, executive director of the Open eBook Forum.
Industry officials agree that Potter e-books would have great advantages: an enormous fan base; appeal to readers of fantasy novels, which sell relatively well in electronic form; and appeal to adult readers, an asset that helped persuade Random House to release e-books for Christopher Paolini's popular "Eragon" novels.
"There's just not a market for books that don't have appeal to adults, because they're the ones with the devices at this time," says Linda Leonard, associate director of new media marketing for Random House Children's Books. "It is kind of frustrating. Kids are tech-savvy, but we can't reach them."