The final Potter: Just a year away?
Fans hope that 7/7/07 will be the magical release date for the last Harry Potter book. And it can't come too soon for Scholastic.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- 7/7/07. A year from Friday is the day when many Harry Potter fans hope to get their hands on the next book in J.K. Rowling's popular series about the boy wizard.
After all, next July 7 will fall on a Saturday and the previous three Potter books have all come out on Saturdays. Plus, many numerologists see 7/7/07 as a fitting day for the seventh (and final) Potter book to be released.
Having millions of Potter books flying off the shelves like Firebolt brooms is just what the struggling publisher needs.
Shares of Scholastic have fallen more than 6 percent this year and are hovering near their 52-week low.
Last month, credit rating agency Moody's downgraded Scholastic's debt to a below investment grade level, or so-called "junk" bond status, which makes it more expensive for the company to borrow money.
Harry Potter and the rising stock price?
But anticipation is growing for the final book, which does not have an official title. (Well, at least not a title that Rowling wants to share with the world just yet.)
Liz Calder, the publishing director of Bloomsbury, the firm which has the rights to publish the Potter books outside of the U.S., said at a conference in India in May that the final book is likely to come out in 2007.
And last week, Rowling made comments on a British television station about how at least two characters (possibly even Harry...gasp!) will die in the book.
Drew Crum, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus who follows Scholastic, said that once an official publication date is announced, that should be good news for the stock, even though this will mark the end of an amazing run of huge book sales for Scholastic.
Overall, there are more than 120 million Potter books in print in the U.S., according to Scholastic. (The series has also generated four hit movies for Warner Bros., the studio owned by Time Warner (Charts), which is also the parent company of CNNMoney.com. A film based on the fifth Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" will be released next summer.)
"In the past, Potter has provided a catalyst to the stock ahead of the publication date," he said. "Yes, bears would say, 'Why pay up for non-recurring revenue?' But we don't think the stock is going to flat-line. There will be a lot of euphoria and speculation."
Analysts expect earnings for the current fiscal year, which will end in May 2007 and is therefore most likely not have the benefit of a new Potter book, to decline by about 3 percent and that sales will fall 6 percent.
But analysts expect a comeback in fiscal 2008, the year when the final Potter book will probably be out. Consensus estimates call for a 3 percent jump in sales and 38 percent surge in profits.
Life after Potter may not be so magical
Longer-term though, there are concerns about what will happen to Scholastic, which publishes the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" series, educational books and also runs book fairs, once it can no longer count on new tales about Hogwarts from Rowling.
In a report, Moody's cited "the absence of a visible replacement for the successful Harry Potter book franchise once the final installment in the series is published" as one reason for the credit downgrade.
Still, Crum said investors may be underestimating the possibility of Rowling creating a new series that could be a big boost for Scholastic.
"Post Potter, Rowling is on record saying she'll continue to publish books. Given Scholastic's relationship with her, they should be in good position to work with her," he said. "Of course, it will be nearly impossible to duplicate Potter but anything she writes will create some demand."
But Moody's also pointed out in another report from last month that Potter alone can't save Scholastic, since the children's book publishing business is a mature industry.
Moody's noted that operating margins in fiscal 2006 have deteriorated despite the fact that the sixth Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," was released during that fiscal year.
The book, released on July 15, 2005, sold 6.9 million copies in its first 24 hours and 11 million copies in its first nine weeks, according to Scholastic. The paperback version of "Half-Blood Prince" will be released July 25.
And Crum, who is the only Wall Street analyst recommending Scholastic, concedes the company is in a tough business and that management is also suffering from a bit of a credibility problem.
"The company has overpromised and underdelivered," he said, referring to the fact that Scholastic has missed analysts' earnings targets three of the past four quarters.
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Stifel Nicolaus' Crum does not own shares of Scholastic and his firm does not have banking ties to the company.