New Delhi: Had this been fiction, the copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows you hold in your hand may have reached you after arriving in Old Delhi Railway station or Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus in a magic train that arrived on a platform that does not exist. Or it might have taken the aerial route, with volunteer wizards flying in bundles on their brooms. Why, it could have even apparated in your study or bedroom at 6.01am Saturday morning.
But, the book business isn’t fiction. And so, the tale behind the tale is neither magical nor fantastic. And most of the characters in it are muggles, though you might say there is one wizard running the show.
He is 35-year-old Vijay Vashisht and his powers are, well, logistical.
Consider his task: Manage 25 armed security guards. 70 cities. 300 locations. 340 trucks. 256,000 books. 1.05 million km.
The details behind coordinating Saturday morning’s India release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are downright dizzying: monsoons to landslides, standstill traffic to road blocks. But Vashisht shows little public signs of nerves, exhaustion, even excitement.
He is the general manager of customer relationship management for Safexpress Pvt. Ltd, the logistics company hired to ensure the final book in the series made its way onto shelves by this morning—intact. And unopened so that Harry’s fate—and the book’s ending—remain unrevealed.
Mint journalists spent the last week tracking the distribution of the final Harry Potter title. This exclusive behind-the-scenes access meant we too had to keep our mouths shut and our stories locked up until Saturday morning, the day millions of Potter fans worldwide—and tens of thousands in India—have been anticipating for months.
Even as security breaches occurred in other countries and Internet rumours began circulating about who lives and who dies in the latest book, Vashisht—he says he watches the Potter movies and doesn’t really read the books—wouldn’t open a box, wouldn’t tell the guards and truck drivers what they transported. That’s his job, of course, but he takes the secrecy very seriously.
“It wouldn’t be good for India,” he said.
People in publishing call it the “magic moment”—when a reader cracks open a book and enters another world. To protect this moment, along with a legal embargo signed with Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., India distributor Penguin Books India teamed up with other distributors and intellectual property lawyers to prevent piracy and reprints.
This seventh book has posed additional challenges as demand for, and popularity of, the Potter series surges in India. The last book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released in 100 locations—that has now tripled. Only 150,000 copies were ordered then; that also has gone up 73%.
Just 20 days prior to the arrival of the book in Mumbai, Vashisht got confirmation that his company would again be handling delivery logistics for this last title, just as it had done for books 4 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and 6 (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).
Fresh from printing in the UK, the books arrived in India on 9 July through a port in Mumbai. Safexpress moved them into its high-security warehouse.
The standard brown boxes gave nothing away, emblazoned just with publisher Bloomsbury’s name and logo, and a blue sticker simply saying, “The Title, Children’s.”
From 9-14 July, the entire stock for India remained in the climate-controlled warehouse equipped with closed-circuit televisions. Some 25 guards, several of them armed and prepared, provided 24-hour security.
Vashisht wouldn’t comment on the total value of the Potter contract, but said it is not flush in profit as much as prestige.
Because of Safexpress’ past Potter experience, media and shop owners hounded Vashisht in recent days though he kept a stiff upper lip.
Truck drivers, security guards and other employees handling storage and transport were not aware of the merchandise contained within the boxes, at least until 19 July.
In addition to Vashist, just three other company employees know all the details. And of course, Vashisht’s wife. But, being the rare non-Potter fan, the secret was safe with her.
On Saturday, 14 July, the company began moving Potter out of Mumbai. Stocks for one metropolitan area left in separate batches to ensure the entire quantity wouldn’t get stuck if problems arose.
Trucks were equipped with two drivers and one assistant, the vehicle fitted with global positioning system tracking devices. The exact position of each truck was known and monitored by Delhi to guarantee the trucks did not stray from their prescribed route or a predetermined alternate route. It wasn’t exactlyQuidditch, but was almost as complex.
Operations unfolded as planned—no major problems—except for trucks heading to Guwahati. Unable to reach their destinations by road due to monsoon rains, the trucks were re-routed back to Delhi, and the books transported by air. By last Sunday morning, nearly 20% of the 70,800 copies slated for Delhi had arrived at a company super-hub in Gurgaon with more shipments coming in through Thursday evening.
The entire operation revolves around ground transport by truck because thecompany has no control over the logistics of air transport. “I can control my drivers. I can control my vehicles,” says Vashisht.
An honours psychology gra-duate with an MBA in human resources and marketing, Vashisht’s tools of combat are two mobile phones, one Bluetooth headset and countless spreadsheets and truck routes. He uses one mobile to talk, the other to scroll through phone numbers.
But, by Thursday night, efforts to safely guard the destiny of the boy wizard were unraveling. The New York Times published a book review online after purchasing a copy of Deathly Hallows from a New York bookstore. The review, which was picked up Friday by several Indian newspapers, stopped short of revealing Potter’s fate, but a separate story in the Toronto Star does name those bumped off by British author J.K. Rowling’s pen. Copies of the book’s text, page-by-page, appear on the Internet, although the authenticity of the pictures wasn’t confirmed.
But in India, “we are not showing the books to anybody”, says Vashisht. “Not even Penguin receives copies before the 21st.”
As Mint news staff, accompanied by Vashisht, follow a company truck carrying the books into Gurgaon, there is high drama for a few minutes as the truck drivers, unaware of what was happening, try to rev up and shake off our car from which they could see someone (Mint photographer Ramesh Pathania) clicking away while hanging out of the window. Vashisht, who is busy solving other problems on his phone, soon intervenes and informs the driver to pull over and calmly assures them that no one’s after their cargo.
In other crises, company trucks run into a landslide in Shillong, and Vashisht arranges a special jeep to transport the books. Another truck gets stuck near Kochi because of construction and heavy rain. Eventually, the army arranges to escort the vehicle through the jungle to arrive in time.
At 6pm Friday evening, operations got under way to get the books moving to distributors here. A team of eight people monitored the first phase of the final delivery. At 6am Saturday, the books went on sale. As is custom, many children will get their copy and stay up all night to read the 608 pages. Tonight, however, Vashisht will get his own magical moment. Sleep.
Rajeshwari Sharma contributed to this story.