Harry Potter and the publishers of fury

Steve Dinneen on how JK Rowling hopes to change the face of publishing by sidelining Amazon

JK Rowling has delivered a warning shot to the publishing industry that it must adapt to the rapidly-changing online world or
risk becoming marginalised.

The Harry Potter author revealed she will offer her record-breaking children’s books for download through her own website, circumventing the need to visit digital bookshops like those owned by the likes of Amazon and Apple.

The Scottish author, who launched the venture at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, had refused to allow her series to be released in a digital format, despite pressure from publishers and retailers keen to milk the  Pottermania cash-cow. Rowling has  always
maintained the digital rights to the books, although UK publisher Bloomsbury says it will receive a slice of digital revenues.

The website – called Pottermore – will give the series a massive online presence, with features allowing fans to play games and
interact with digital characters from the books. It will also coincide with a social networking push, including a twitter feed.

As well as the existing books, Rowling will publish around 18,000-words worth of new material on the boy-wizard.
In short, it will offer fans an experience, rather than just another place to buy a book.

The venture, which has been two years in the making by UK digital agency Think, is a major disappointment for ebook retailers, who will
miss out on millions worth of downloads fees.

Rowling joins authors including horror writer Stephen King in creating their own digital outlet for their work. If the trend continues,established authors could snatch back power from publishers. Further down the line, Amazon may be forced to allow non-proprietary formats – those not downloaded from its own store – onto its Kindle device.

The move has been likened  to Radiohead’s decision to self publish their album In Rainbows through their own website, forgoing
traditional record labels. They set up an innovative “honesty box” system after splitting from EMI, allowing fans to choose how much they paid for the record.

However, while the scheme may work for established brands like Rowling and Radiohead, it is unlikely to provide enough income to be
sustainable for smaller independent content owners.

“I’m phenomenally lucky that I had the resources to be able to do it myself,” Rowling admitted last week. “Ebooks are here, and they are here to stay. I still love a print and paper book, but I think you can enjoy both. There was really no other way to do that for the fans or for me than to just do it myself.” That the magic will work for Potter is all but certain. Whether it will alter the publishing industry is largely dependent on the big players adapting to the digital world – and fast.

Steve Dinneen

This article first appeared in City A.M. Steve Dinneen writes a weekly column called Geek Speak. Check it out here.

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