Pottermore gets its wand on

Having been briefed on how the Harry Potter e-books would come to market last week, even I have been surprised by the reaction—particularly among the digerati who have spent the past 24 hours unpicking the nuances.

It was never going to be easy to match expectations, particularly for a brand such as Harry Potter which has to worry about fans as young as six and seasoned publishing observers as wise as Mike Shatzkin. But I think they've pretty much pulled it off. The smart move, of course, was made last year by bringing in Charlie Redmayne, who had already run his own consumer-facing business (and sold it at the right time) and who had spent four years leading HarperCollins into the digital future.

When Pottermore was first announced I wasn't the only one to have serious doubts about their ability to deliver e-books to all platforms, while also launching a consumer play. Particularly with some of the detail that came out at that time. The over-subscribed beta-test did not help, and neither did the delays.

Redmayne joined in November last year, and when I spoke to him just before Christmas I got the impression that whatever would be delivered in time for the April launch would inevitably be a compromise. But I no longer think that is the case.

The e-book store is just one aspect of the full Pottermore experience, but it is a good starting point. As I wrote on the Guardian, the deal with Amazon (and in fact with Barnes & Noble), has had many seasoned observers agog. "This is major, radical, earthshaking news," was one comment. Shatzkin wrote that it was "by far, the biggest concession that has been wrested from Amazon since John Sargent faced them down over the buy buttons on Macmillan print books on that January weekend in 2010 following the Thursday when Sargent flew out to Seattle to tell them Macmillan was going to the agency model". He says that Redmayne presented Amazon with a “take it or leave it” proposition. "They decided to 'take it'. They were wise. The game was changing either way."

Redmayne put it less bluntly to me. He regards Amazon as "partner" in bringing these e-books to market -- a subtle shift, I think, to how it was originally conceived in the back-rooms of Gringotts Alley when third party retailers were all but effaced from the picture.

Of the deal, Redmayne told me: "Amazon are a tremendous retailer of books, as are B&N, Sony and the others, what they care about is making sure the people who buy their devices have the widest selection of content at the best possible price. If you want people to be able to buy Harry Potter e-books then you are going to have to come to Pottermore to do it. If you are Amazon, you have to ask yourself 'do I want kindle owners to be able to read the most successful books in the world?'"

While he may be deliberately downplaying it, others have not. Pottermore has created the first true agency model e-bookstore, and other publishers must be looking on enviously. As many will ask, now that Pottermore has established a precedent, what are the chances of those other publishers following suit: it still seems unlikely; but it is no longer impossible.

Some have grumbled at the clunky system that takes you from one platform to another, obliges new customers to register their details, and then asks where you want your book delivered to. But this seems a small inconvenience: rather like occasionally having to visit the high street to be measured for a suit. There has been much talk recently of the 'universal' e-book: Pottermore has delivered it. What other e-bookseller would not like to have a delivery page on their website that will send digital files to a range of e-book devices?  Both Anobii and Bilbary are working towards something similar, but without the power of the Potter brand, good luck to them.

The real sleight of hand, though, has been how Pottermore has applied Digital Rights Management. A customer has eight opportunities to download each Harry Potter e-book they buy, including if they choose a DRM-free (albeit watermarked) ePub file. As has been noted though, if that customer opts to download it on their Kindle or Nook, then DRM will be applied.

I spoke to Redmayne again to clarifiy this because it wasn't clear who was applyng that DRM, and on whose insistence. Redmayne explained that when a user chooses to download an e-book on their device, Pottermore sends that retailer a message to deliver the file to the chosen device (or in Google's case the cloud). The retailer then supplies the file through their own eco-system. DRM is applied because Pottermore never has access to the file to watermark it.

In Redmayne's words: "The file that goes onto the Kindle (or other device) is governed by the DRM of that device. But that is only because we have not been able to watermark it. The retailer applies whatever DRM system they operate. Going forward we'll look into this to see if we can do it differently."

Some bloggers have been hostile to this, as if Pottermore was somehow failing to honour its commitment to release DRM free versions (when in fact you can download the ePub file anyway). Laura at PaidContent has a useful round-up, coming I think to the right conclusion that "These Complaints Aren’t That Big A Deal".

Even the most hostile of bloggers has admitted that the e-books will be a big success whatever. I'm not sure that's wholly true. No one doubts the power of Potter, but it is now a backlist brand. J K Rowling has moved on. She's not tweeted about the e-book launch, nor provided additional comment. She has an adult fiction title coming out in the autumn. I'm sure she supports the launch, and will be on hand when the virtual world launches, but she now has a full time job delivering her new book for Hachette.

Besides, as the James Bond franchise has shown it is not terribly easy to keep a book brand growing without new content, or new films, neither can you simply expect these e-books to sell themselves. In fact, Redmayne tells me that sales so far have been "very good" and "higher than anticipated".

The big job now is to turn this into a digital business. Pottermore will be free to use, though it is "supported" by Sony. The print books generated sales of £4m in 2011 in the UK, and worldwide that figure would be much more, but Redmayne did not think sales of the e-books would overtake sales of the print titles. He may be being judicious in his choice of words, but either way, this is a business that will need to sell more things than just vanilla e-books if it is going to match its ambitions.

I get the sense that the good bits are still to come. Redmayne said he was "proud" of the Pottermore site and the work done since he joined the business, but would be even "prouder" once the new content started being released—this is, afterall, a content business not a technology one.

He was also visibly energised by the thought of delivering enhanced e-books. "Going forward the opportunity to build really ground breaking enhanced products for these wonderful new devices is huge. I wish they were there for launch, but we have not had the time to get everything done. I want them to come downstream really quickly, I'd love to have something ready for the autumn, but I've got a lot to get done."

One thing that needs to be done for then is to pull off a deal with Apple on the same terms as it has with Amazon. That really would be magical.

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