Commentary

Harry Potter Mounts The Digital Broomstick

Talk about a Panglossian way to spin a shrewd business proposition: Publisher Weekly's Julia Eccleshare writes that author J.K. Rowling "has created Pottermore, a free-to-use Web site taking readers right into Hogwarts, as a way of thanking her fans and paying them back for their contributions to the book."

Right. Just like Steve Jobs lets us "experience the wide world of Apple at the Apple Store." 

Here's a video of Rowling making the announcement, which is all about "you." And, indeed, the site "will be a mix of social networking, gaming, and online literary content, which, apart from the downloading of e-books, is free to use," as Helen Warrell and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson report in Financial Times. Ah, but there's a lot of gold in them there e-books.

Pottermore, which launches July 31 (Harry's birthday) for a "lucky few," will give fans "access to roam in Harry's world, to uncover back stories and other additional material written by Rowling from notes of hers from the time of first writing the stories as well as those written subsequently," Eccleshare writes. In a press conference in London, Rowling revealed: "I go into ridiculous detail about wand woods." That's a good thing, I gather from viewing the reaction of even hard-bitten digital anchorpeople to the news (see video at top of story).

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Nick Clayton, writing in the WSJ's TechEurope blog, asks if Harry Potter digital sales will boost Amazon's sales in the same way the Beatles, after finally relenting to the digital Sirens, have blessed Apple's iTunes? The answer is no. Either because of her people's business acumen or because of her publishers' (Bloomsbury and Scholastic) boneheadedness, Rowling has retained all digital rights to her work. Rather than auction them off, she stands to make much more in the long run by exploiting the titles herself.

There will lots of opportunities for users to create their own content on the website, too. No charge to them.

"Pottermore has been designed as a place to share the stories with your friends as you journey through the site," Rowling said. "When the site goes live, one million of those who have signed up will have the opportunity to join in shaping the final details."

The Harry Potter e-books will be available from the online store at Pottermore.com in October. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.) will be the first title available; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is slated for early 2012.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Paul Sonne are all business. The hed on their story, in fact, says that "Web Store for Digital 'Potter' Editions Promises to Open New Chapter for Industry."

The question is whether Rowling holds a unique position in the literary world or if other authors might follow suit and attempt to go direct to consumers themselves. "The move could inspire other authors, large and small, to pronounce themselves independent agents in hopes of tapping more lucrative paydays," write Trachtenberg and Sonne, but they also point out that most published authors already have signed over digital rights to their print publishers.

"Every writer watches with great interest whenever somebody does something new," author Jennifer Weiner tells them. "We all pay attention. If this turns out to be a success for her, for an author who had unheard-of success by selling through traditional bookstores with books on paper, then some may decide that they, too, don't need bricks-and-mortar stores, or online booksellers, either."

But Rowling is "not completely turning her back on the hands that fed her -- her publishers around the world will get a cut of e-book sales and will no doubt benefit from the "halo effect" of an uplift in print sales," writes Wired's Olivia Solon. Scholastic and Bloomsbury, in fact, both issued statements revealing that they will be receiving a cut of the e-book profits -- apparently a beneficent gesture on Rowling's part.

On the technical side, Solon reveals that the Potter e-books will be DRM-free, allowing them to be played on many devices or platforms, such as Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and Apple's iPad. How then, to protect the franchise from rampant freeloading?

"She is instead opting for digital watermarking that links the identify of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book," Solon reveals. "This doesn't prevent copyright theft but does ensure that any copies will be traceable to a particular user."

Indeed, the e-books "could dampen the rampant piracy of the Harry Potter books, which are among the most downloaded on file-sharing sites, a situation that has frustrated Ms. Rowling and her publishers for years, writes Julie Bosman in a story that appears on in the Arts section of the New York Times

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