DBW Weekly Roundup: The Pottermore Special Edition

By Yvette M. Chin, Editor, Digital Book World

I’m sure you’ve noticed that J.K. Rowling released Pottermore this week, an online experience and ebookstore for her wildly successful Harry Potter books: How could you avoid the thousands and thousands of articles, from niche fan sites to mainstream media outlets, talking about the latest–and perhaps most controversial–addition to the Harry Potter universe.

As a thank you to her legions of fans, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling announced Pottermore, and the Internet exploded with speculation and reaction. With the first of three previews released today, we’ll all soon learn more details about the web-based extended experience (beta phase opens July 31), but the site includes an ebookstore that will open in October that will exclusively sell the digital audiobook versions and the long-awaited Harry Potter ebooks.

So, here is a quick rundown of Pottermore press coverage, to help you get up to speed on what happened last week, a special supplement to our regular weekly roundup, which continues some of the themes through to wider industry discourse.

It’s a Fan Thing–So What?

There’s no doubt that this is an extended experience tailored for fans, but is it “marketing genius” as described by Sam Jordison over at The Guardian?

Once again, JK Rowling and her marketing team have left the rest of the publishing world standing while she blazes a trail into the record books….

First, there’s the simplicity and brilliance of the marketing campaign…. Then, there is the clever way the Rowling machine has ensured fans new and old will want to visit the new, ebook-selling platform by offering them what sounds like a genuinely enjoyable and worthwhile experience. Is there a Harry Potter devotee anywhere who isn’t just a little curious about advertised nuggets such as the story of “Professor McGonagall’s love for a Muggle as a young woman” or how Mr and Mrs Dursley met?

It’s not just the promise of new material from the Harry Potter story world that is going to bring fans back to Hogwarts for more–it’s also the expectation of interactive and immersive elements, which some are claiming will “save Harry Potter fandom.” How this will play out, of course, remains to be seen, but even the puzzle trail leading to the website’s discovery was a quite elaborate way to create buzz around the site.

Examining whether Pottermore is purely a sales vehicle like Disney’s virtual world Club Penguin, Michael Wolf at GigaOm writes:

It may be too soon to tell, but a Harry Potter virtual world that allows fans to undergo similar experiences the characters in the books do — being sorted into a house, learning spells and competing for a “house cup,” to name a few — could be the start of a new shared social, transmedia world for books, a living, breathing online experience that goes significantly beyond an individual’s reading experience.

And it’s exactly this new world where many in publishing may have a problem. The publishing industry is full of people already bemoaning the arrival of enhanced e-books, those digital books that combine multimedia elements. And if some write off enhanced e-books as not being books, but something akin to CD-ROMs, how will those parties view something like Pottermore, which takes a book’s world, puts it online and makes it a fully interactive experience that may — or may not — require a whole lot of actual reading?

Others are already unimpressed, such as DigitalSpy who is quick to dub the website “Potterbore.” We’re sure to find out if the site “saves fandom” as it opens its beta phase in the coming weeks. Whatever you say about fans and fandom, they will make their views known.

It’s an Ebookstore–And a Real Slap in the Face?

Pottermore is certainly an interesting model, one that turns the publisher-author relationship on its head. (The traditional publishers of the Harry Potter series will receive royalties off the ebookstore sales.) But it’s not just publishers that are feeling a little threatened by Rowling’s move. Bookstores, especially independent brick-and-mortars, are feeling left out in the cold; having waited for so long for digital editions of the Harry Potter books, no doubt the announcement of the exclusive ebookstore at Pottermore was a let-down, even for chains. Shelf Awareness summarizes some retailer reactions here, while from TheBookseller.com,

A spokesperson for Waterstone’s said: “We always sought to add value for the fans when a new Harry Potter book was released and their launch days have become the stuff of legend at Waterstone’s and other booksellers. We’re therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited e-book editions of the series.”

At W H Smith, Rachel Russell, business unit director for books, said it was “disappointing” physical stores would not get the chance to sell the titles as e-books. She said W H Smith would hope the site “reinvigorates” sales of the physical books and that the chain could take advantage of that.

As reported by Hilel Italie at HuffPo,

Scholastic and other publishers have long sold books directly to customers, but through their own websites. And they traditionally have made those releases available to retailers, too.

Children’s booksellers have extra reasons to worry. Potter books remain a rite of passage among young readers, one that often includes a visit to the local store. That initiation may now happen online.

“It’s one thing if an individual sells book on her own, I can understand that,” says Ann Seaton, manager of Hicklebee’s Children’s Book Store in San Jose, Calif. “But it did sort of surprise me that the publisher would cut us out of the loop. That makes it hard for us.

“We have sold a huge amount of Potter books,” she said. “And we were one of those stores that had the midnight parties when a new Potter book came out. I don’t think we’ll be having a party for the e-books.”

It’s a Rights Thing–And It’s Going to Change Everything?

In addition to the exclusivity of Pottermore’s direct-to-consumer sales model, Rowling seems to be taking the road less traveled by adopting digital watermarking, rather than digital rights management (DRM), to combat ebook piracy. As reported over at Ars Technica,

In a further bold move, Rowling has opted to keep the e-books DRM-free, meaning that they are not locked into one device or platform. She is instead opting for digital watermarking that links the identity of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book. This doesn’t prevent copyright theft but does ensure that any copies will be traceable to a particular user. This is similar to how iTunes is DRM-free, but embeds user account information within each file purchased.

But, does this mean that Pottermore is a “Digital Rights Game-Changer“? More broadly, will Pottermore “revolutionize publishing” (in this way or this way)? Is this publishing’s “Radiohead moment“?

PW contributor Rachel Deahl doesn’t think so:

That Rowling was able to hold onto her e-book rights was either a fluke or very prescient thinking. (One agent said he assumed Rowling was able to keep the digital rights because the Potter books initially sold in the U.K. at a time when British publishers were not acquiring digital rights and, when Scholastic bought the books in the U.S., the deal mimicked the British one.) Either way, a number of agents told PW it’s hard to conceive of a situation where an author, doing a deal with a publisher now, could keep their digital rights. With e-books now accounting for up to 50% of sales on frontlist titles, publishing deals that do not include e-book rights are, sources say, nearly impossible to structure, even for authors with a tremendous amount of clout.

Fluke or not, everybody noticed.

That’s just the nuts and bolts of the reaction to Pottermore. For a more wide-ranging discussion of publishing industry news, including more discussion on rights, continue on to our regular weekly roundup. To stay on top of the most interesting news, commentary, and tweets related to publishing, keep in touch via our RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, join your publishing colleagues in our LinkedIn group, and connect with the broader DBW Network.

3 thoughts on “DBW Weekly Roundup: The Pottermore Special Edition

  1. Christopher Wills

    Fascinating but interesting that it appears to have taken the Harry Potter Books to get bookshops and publishers out into the open about ebooks. It appeared before that they were clinging on to their slightly snobbish opinion of ebooks but now the possibility of lots of profits have been lost to them they are whingeing. No sympathy from me I’m afraid.

  2. A. R. Arias

    It’s a capitalist’s society folks. Why should anyone, especially authors, give away their hard-earned profits? I’m sure J. K. Rowlings can put to good use the extra money she’ll make as a result of having full control of her intellectual property. Bravo for her.

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