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Harry Potter book is e-commerce milestone

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SAN FRANCISCO - Harry Potter is set to arrive in 250,000 U.S. homes on Saturday morning in a feat of high-tech wizardry by Federal Express and Amazon.com that will mark the biggest single order in the history of e-commerce.

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", the fourth book in the wildly popular series, is expected to ring up the biggest first-day sale of any book in history.

That's all but assured by the 300,000-plus online sales already lined up by Amazon.com , although the success will depend on how well FedEx does at getting all of its orders to customers' doors.

Officials at both companies acknowledged that it hasn't been easy but they say their years of electronic order processing have helped.

Adding to the logistical challenge, the companies needed to make sure that none of the packages arrive before sales officially start on Saturday. In a carefully orchestrated global marketing effort, the publishers have maintained tight secrecy about the book's content.

U.S. publisher Scholastic has already caught flak from independent booksellers for allowing Amazon to begin shipping the books early, so they'd arrive by Saturday.

"There's been considerable news coverage on this, and they needed to make sure they had a reliable delivery service—it's as bad to get it there late as it is to get it there early," said Dottie Berry, executive vice president for integrated technology at FedEx.

That's meant staging something on the scale of a military operation, with temporary phone lines, technical advisers at all Amazon distribution centers around the country and remote support services from FedEx's Memphis, Tennessee, headquarters.

"Logistical plans for something this large are very difficult to execute," said Lyn Blake, who headed Amazon's effort.

"Precision is the key word here," said Berry.

Amazon and FedEx have worked for several months on an expanded home delivery service, and this "is a chance to show off our new product," Berry said. FedEx began receiving copies of the 752-page book Wednesday.

For Amazon, which has vowed to be the No. 1 seller of the book, it's a chance to get a piece of the incredible worldwide publicity the Potter books have generated.

But it may be hard to stand out in the hype.

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is being published simultaneously in the United States and Britain and already has set a record for U.S. first printings of 3.8 million copies. The first three books in the series of adventures of aspiring wizard Harry Potter have sold 30 million copies. Potter books have spent about 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and a Potter film is in the works.

The book's Scottish author, J.K. Rowling, has done little to feed the media frenzy, preferring to keep any details about the book a secret until its release.

While Amazon, which has been taking orders on the book at its site for weeks and already ranks it as the No. 1 best-seller, is trying to become the top merchant for the new novel, there are hosts of competitors.

The biggest, Barnes & Noble and its online partner Barnesandnoble.com , are also making a big push. It's "worked a little magic with the U.S. Postal Service" to get the books into readers hands Saturday, the company says on its Web site.

Amazon, though, is casting other spells: offering the deepest discount on the book's price, at $15.57, compared with Barnesandnoble.com's $18.16. In addition, it offers its expedited Saturday service at a lower-than-normal price.

But for all of the technological wizardry, traditional bookstores, some of which plan Harry Potter costume parties and readings, will have another advantage: Some will open their doors at 12:01 a.m., giving customers the earliest possible chance to buy the Potter book.