Though I was most excited by the e-book announcement this morning, now I reflect on it, the real deal here is that J K Rowling is building a giant reading portal around her Harry Potter characters but with only minimal involvement from the publishers, who helped create this brand in the first place.
Pottermore is nothing less than the world's biggest enhanced e-book. It's got video (tick); audio (tick); new material (tick); the old material (tick); its developed in partnership with a dubious digital expert, in this case Sony (tick); there's no obvious pay-off (it's free, tick), except it might sell more books and some straight text e-books (tick).
As one of the many press releases circulating about this project noted "the storyline will be brought to life with sumptuous newly-commissioned illustrations and interactive ‘Moments’ through which you can navigate, starting with the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone". As you move through the chapters, you can read and share exclusive writing from Rowling. The reader can join Hogwarts, visit Diagon Alley, get sorted into a house, cast spells and mix potions.
While, I still don't entirely get it, it's clearly the most ambitious project behind an author and book brand for some time, if not ever.
What's worrying for the book trade is that the key parties involved with the project are clearly the author, her agent and Sony (with a nod to OverDrive, which is providing the e-books platform).
Even taking out the e-books from the equation this is disintermediating across the board, though Bloomsbury, which will now earn a nice revenue stream from the sale of the e-books for no great effort, and Amazon (whose decisions to allow ePub files to be read and partner with OverDrive for library lending start now to make more sense), might not feel overly troubled. If I was Waterstone's, or an independent bookshop, I would be feeling less chilled out however. We thought Rowling would cut out her publishers, but she has actually taken out booksellers, who will earn nothing from sales of the Potter books digitally, unless they happen to sell the devices they can be read on.
Publishers might feel, therefore, they have got off lightly. Contrary to what might have happened, Rowling has affirmed a commercial link between the print and digital rights.
It is not that Rowling has chosen to sell the e-books exclusively herself that is the main issue here (Potter is so unique, almost anything they did would work, and not be relevant to 99% other authors), but that in developing this "reading experience" around this character born in a book that a publisher took a punt on 16 years ago, the book trade has been relegated to "e-book partner".
The counter argument is that publishers are not generally involved in the movie versions of books, and Warner Bros has certainly had a controlling hand on the Potter tiller for a numbers of years. But we were reminded only recently that publishers see the digital space as an extension of their creative wings. Harper's Charlie Redmayne talked of editors having "content visions" beyond the book. I am not saying that Rowling's content vision places publishers in the Goblet of Fire, but it certainly casts a Deathly shadow over their pretensions.
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