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Originally published July 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 22, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Inside the Times | Mike Fancher

Harry Potter fans: Did we tell you too much too early?

Pssst! Want to know the ending to "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows"? Well, you won't find it in this column. "Inside The Times" is a...

Seattle Times editor-at-large

Pssst! Want to know the ending to "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows"?

Well, you won't find it in this column. "Inside The Times" is a spoiler-free zone, but stop here if you don't want to know anything about the book that was released Saturday. On Thursday, The Times published an early review written by Mary Carole McCauley of The Baltimore Sun. Some diehard Potter fans were horrified, especially by a front-page "teaser" to the review and a headline they felt gave away the ending.

"How dare you!! How dare you publish a book review to the most anticipated book of the summer two days before it hits the store shelves!" wrote an Everett reader who said she was canceling her subscription. "Millions of readers and Harry Potter lovers are anxiously waiting to read it for ourselves. Many have literally grown up waiting for this moment! We do not want to know that 'It all makes sense' (the quote on the front page!!) nor that it has a 'satisfying ending' (the Northwest Life cover headline)! We don't want to know until we turn that last page!"

A Seattleite wrote, "You ruined the last Harry Potter book for me. The main allure of the final book is finding out if Potter kills Voldemort and if Harry Potter survives. By saying the series ends on a satisfying note spells out the ending, Potter kills Voldemort and lives happily ever after.

"I wanted to be surprised by the ending, but by placing a spoiler in the headline you didn't give me a choice ... I've always respected the Seattle Times. I think you people write great stories and do good work, but today with that one headline you lost a reader."

Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn responded to the complaints. "We talked long and hard about it — the editors involved all have children who are eagerly looking forward to the final installment — in fact, we're looking forward to reading it ourselves. When we read the review we eventually chose, we were glad to see that it did not disclose any major plot points. Some readers have interpreted the headline as a spoiler; that was completely inadvertent, as it was meant only to capture the general tone of the review."

The New York Times had posted a review on its Web site late Wednesday afternoon, and it seemed likely that other newspapers would publish that review on Thursday. The Seattle Times doesn't have access to New York Times material during the week, but, for competitive reasons, our editors felt they had to offer readers a comparable review.

Readers could then choose to read it or not. "Still, we did so believing the story we chose would not ruin the experience for Potter fans, and we're sorry if that's what happened," Gwinn said. "We value each and every one of our readers."

Gwinn added, "I honestly understand people's concern over this issue. I am a big fan of J.K. Rowling; not just because of the books themselves (though they are wonderful) but what they have done to promote reading for pleasure among children and young adults. I hate to think that the paper has diminished that in any way, though I do think we made the necessary decision."

Apparently, a lot of readers appreciated that decision. The McCauley review was posted on seattletimes.com and got more than 10,000 hits within hours.

I'll confess my reaction when I picked up The Seattle Times on Thursday morning was that the newspaper had told me more than I wanted to know. I've since changed my mind.

The first factor in my reconsideration was hearing McCauley interviewed on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC on Thursday night. She said if anyone feels they know how the book ends based on the review, they are in for a surprise. I wish she had inserted a sentence to that effect in the review, but I suppose some people would have attributed specific meaning to that, too.

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As for The Times' headline and teaser, the editors who wrote those hadn't read the book, so they couldn't give anything away. I don't know any more about how the story ends than I did before I read Thursday's newspaper. So all the review did was make me that much more excited to get started.

McCauley wrote that when you have read the last sentence on the last page, you will say, "Of course."

"That's how inevitable the conclusion to the seven-book series seems. And it's a tribute to author J.K. Rowling's skill that, once you have finished 'Hallows,' no other ending seems possible."

I don't have a clue what that means, and I can't wait to find out.

Turning the page

Newspaper book reviews seem to be an endangered species, according to a report last week by National Public Radio reporter Martha Woodroof. She attended Book Expo in New York, the book-publishing industry's annual trade show.

A hot topic was the "declining number of newspaper pages discussing and reviewing books," Woodroof said. In the report, Barbara Hoffert, editor of book reviews at Library Journal, said librarians still rely on print reviews because they are backed by the newspapers' reputation.

Hoffert said, "There needs to be somebody speaking about the book who isn't just simply trying to spin it and sell it, but wants to communicate its value to library readers and the library market."

Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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