Ever since a certain young wizard-in-training took the publishing world by storm, the race has been on to find "the next Harry Potter."

Talk Miramax Books and Hyperion think they've found him.

Artemis Fowl, a fantasy that its Irish author Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer describes as "Die Hard with fairies," pits a 12-year-old criminal mastermind against some decidedly untraditional creatures of folklore—including a high-tech SWAT team of LEPrecons (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance). The book has grabbed the attention of everyone from Variety to Liz Smith ("Move over, Harry Potter," she trumpeted in a recent column) to bidders on eBay, where an advance readers' copy fetched $46 earlier this month.

Auctioned to Penguin Puffin U.K. last August by agent Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd., the book was subsequently sold to Miramax Films and Talk Miramax Books a week before October's Frankfurt Book Fair, igniting a foreign-rights bidding war.

"We heard about the book on the publishing grapevine," explained Jonathan Burnham, editor-in-chief of Talk Miramax Books. "Then I heard that our film side, Miramax, was extremely interested, so we moved together. We read the book overnight, and the next morning made a preemptive bid for U.S. rights, as well as a film offer."

When Hicks arrived in Frankfurt, "I was bombarded by foreign publishers," she said, and ended up juggling eight simultaneous auctions. "It was very exciting."

Burnham, who said he was "dazzled" by Colfer's imagination ("it's the old thing you go back to as a publisher—it absolutely kept me spellbound"), allowed only that Talk Miramax paid "a good six-figure sum for a three-book deal," but with the initial Puffin U.K. purchase, Miramax's multiple-film option (priced at $350,000 by the Irish Times ) and international rights (now sold to 18 countries, according to Hicks), some sources put the total package at over $1.5 million. Whatever the exact figure, it's clear that with Artemis Fowl Colfer has found the pot of gold at the end of his personal rainbow.

"It's just like a dream—a fellow from a small town gets a big break. You never think it's going to happen to you," said the soft-spoken middle-school teacher in the lilting tones of his native Wexford.

Though well-known in Ireland—he's written five previous novels for O'Brien Press, the most recent of which, Benny & Babe, was shortlisted for the Bisto Award, Ireland's equivalent to the Newbery—Colfer is a virtual unknown in the U.S. All that is about to change.

In an unusual, first-time-ever partnership geared to exploit Artemis Fowl's crossover appeal and reach as broad a readership as possible, acquiring publisher Talk Miramax Books has teamed up with fellow Disney subsidiary Hyperion Books for Children. "Hyperion knows exactly how to place the book in the children's market, while the kind of publicity and marketing we're doing opens it up to all ages," said Burnham.

A first printing of 100,000 copies is in the works, along with what Jeanne Mosure, U.S. children's book publisher at Hyperion, called a "full-blown marketing campaign" to support the May 1 release. In addition to a seven-city author tour that will coincide with BEA, the $250,000 campaign is funding everything from advance copy handouts at the Los Angeles premiere of Spy Kids and a "grassroots mailing" to bookstores and educators to newspaper and magazine advertising and a Web site.

"A huge component of the campaign revolves around our Internet strategy," said Mosure. "We have a dedicated Web site [www.artemisfowl.com] and are launching an online contest." First prize? A walk-on role in the forthcoming movie.

Advance Orders Strong

So is there substance behind all the hype? Booksellers respond with a unanimous yes. Though there's a controversy brewing in the U.K. over Penguin's decision to allow British bookseller W.H. Smith to offer an exclusive trade paperback edition, with some in the industry calling for a boycott, American booksellers remain enthusiastic for the book's release. "I expect Artemis Fowl to become a household name," said Chauni Haslett, owner of Seattle's All for Kids, who called Colfer "clever, creative and convincing."

"It's an incredible book," said Chris Avena, manager/buyer at BookHampton in East Hampton, N.Y., who made the tale "mandatory reading" for his staff. "We're all very excited about it."

So is Diane Mangan, divisional merchandising manager at Borders, who is taking a "strong stand" on the title. "We're doing everything we can to support the release," she said. "It's a great book that will do well in our stores."

Avena, who is planning a lavish window display, along with "as much signage as possible," has placed a "larger-than-normal" initial order and anticipates summerlong reorders. "It's a definite handsell—and not just for kids," Avena noted. "It's very cool to be able to create an audience for a book, and especially one that deserves it."

Kathleen Caldwell, events coordinator and children's buyer at Reader's Books in Sonoma, Calif., test-marketed the book on her 12-year-old nephew ("he's loving it, and he's a kid who doesn't read") and is also enthusiastic. "We're going out very strong," she said, though she plans to target readers 12 and up ("or your very mature 10-year-old"). "I think parents should be alerted that the blood and gore factor is pretty high, but boys particularly will love it."

The publishers couldn't be more pleased with advance sales. "People read the book, and immediately we're front-of-store everywhere, which is not an easy thing to do with a children's book," said Mosure. "We're getting very strong advance orders, and most accounts have picked up the floor display."

Barnes & Noble will not only be using the floor display, but, according to corporate communications director Debra Williams, "We are also cross-promoting it with the adult hardcover new releases at the front of the store. It's a smart book, and we were happy to take a very strong position on it."

Jill Brooks, children's book buyer for the retail division of Anderson's Bookshops in suburban Chicago, received her initial modest shipment of two dozen copies at the Naperville store (which Colfer will visit May 30) on Thursday evening before Easter. By this time, she'd finally gotten her hands on an advance reading copy and, sensing a runaway, hastily "borrowed" another couple dozen from the wholesaler. She and her staff hand-sold the entire lot in a single day. "We had none left for the holiday weekend," she lamented.

Busily planning a display window filled with gold bricks and motorized fairy wings, Brooks said she is taking advance orders and "holding her breath" until her next shipment arrives. The re-order total? "A thousand copies. Kids are going to eat it up with a spoon."

Not Just a Harry Wannabe

If comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, booksellers are also quick to point out the differences. "The similarities are very few," Brooks said. "It's the audience that the books have in common." Caldwell added, "I'm sorry that this is going to be compared to Harry Potter, because this book definitely can stand alone."

"The humor in the Potter books is more straightforward, while this is more dark and sarcastic," said Avena, noting that Artemis himself "is not that easy to like. He's an antihero."

Haslett agreed. "Artemis is calculating, conniving and corrupt," she said with obvious glee. "I can't wait to read more episodes."

She continued, "I don't want everything in the world to be compared to Harry Potter, but if there's a similarity, it's the uniqueness of the writing and the perception of the author in taking us to realms we've never known—and this is what will make it a lasting story."

In fact, this fantasy/action-adventure hybrid owes its tone as much to American action movies as it does to Ireland's rich treasure trove of lore. Sheepishly 'fessing up to the "Die Hard with fairies" pitch ("this was back when I didn't know to be careful what I was saying—I just hope Bruce Willis isn't upset if he ever reads it"), Colfer traces the story's evolution. "I really liked the Die Hard movies, particularly their self-deprecating humor. They were big-budget action movies, but very much tongue-in-cheek, and I wanted to create an adventure with one foot in the comedy zone."

He'd grown up listening to the fairy and leprechaun legends in Ireland—"everyone does, it's a strong part of our culture"—and knew that he eventually wanted to do a book in the fantasy genre. But he also wanted to come up with a character "original and different enough to make his mark and not just be the latest in line of clean-cut heroes."

So he combined all three influences, made Artemis "a bit of a villain" and had him kidnap a leprechaun and ransom her for gold. "The twist being that these weren't the fairies you were used to reading about, but were actually quite futuristic. It all fell into place after that."

The book's crossover appeal was unexpected, said Colfer—whose own favorite writers at 12 and 13 were Stephen King and Robert Ludlum. "I didn't make a conscious effort to engage adults, but I did make a conscious effort to engage clever kids," he said. "The book doesn't talk down to them."

But in fact, it was the story's crossover potential that clinched the deal for Talk Miramax. "If it had been strictly a children's book, I don't think I would have done it," Burnham said. "But the book has the kind of danger and excitement of a grown-up read, and because it has this crossover power, we felt we could do it and get the right kind of attention outside the children's world."

Colfer, who is just finishing up the second installment (slated for a spring 2002 release) in his projected trilogy, has temporarily given up his teaching job in order to embark on an extensive publicity tour—quite a change from his normal routine, juggling work, writing and a three-year-old. Until now, writing involved "a lot of cooperation from my wife, Jackie," said the 35-year-old Colfer. "I would work every day after school from three to four, then my son Finn comes home and I mind him until seven, when Jackie arrives home." He would continue writing until 10 p.m. ( "any later than that and I'm just wasting my time"), and took advantage of Sundays and the summer holidays.

Though the financial windfall from Artemis Fowl has allowed him to focus his attention on writing, Colfer said he misses teaching. "I hope to get back to it, actually," he said. "It's invaluable in letting me stay on the kids' wavelength."

And how does he feel about all the hoopla? "With all the hype, you do feel a certain amount of pressure to live up to it, but so far everyone has been really supportive," he said. He paused, then laughed. "I just hope that continues when the book actually comes out."