x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rowling's Radiohead moment

JK Rowling announces launch of Pottermore, a gateway to selling the existing Harry Potter novels as e-books, bypassing companies such as Amazon and Apple.

JK Rowling is shaking up the publishing industry with Pottermore.
JK Rowling is shaking up the publishing industry with Pottermore.

Interactive e-books with new Harry Potter material: that's the answer to the riddle that set blogs and newspapers ablaze with rumours last week.

Not a new Potter novel (although there were demands and campaigns for one) and not the often-hinted-at encyclopedia, but Pottermore: a gateway to selling digital copies of the existing novels that completely bypasses the big e-publishers Amazon and Apple.

Technology writers are already calling the decision J K Rowling's "Radiohead moment" - like the band, who sold their album In Rainbows directly to fans through their website at whatever price the buyer chose, Rowling has cut out the middleman. Although she's partnered with Sony for the launch, and has chosen to keep her publishers on board, she could, in theory, have kept 100 per cent of the profits from e-book sales, rather than the usual 20-40 per cent.

There's more: in a smart move to get fans - who have already parted with around US$16 billion (Dh 58.7bn) in total on the Harry Potter brand – excited about the release of digital versions of the series, Rowling and her team have made the e-books something special. Each reader will give themselves a magical name, be assigned a house at Hogwarts and choose a wand. The story will alter depending on the house assigned, with extra material added for those not in Harry's house, Gryffindor.

It's not just a token couple of sentences added: there will be around 18,000 words of extra material in total (to be revealed in October, when e-book sales will launch along with sales of digital audiobooks) including details on wand wood, how the Dursley parents met, and Professor McGonagall's love for a muggle as a young woman. Readers will also be able to contribute their own comments and drawings, and Rowling promises she will be dropping in as a regular punter from time to time.

Publishers, authors and literary publicists around the world must be taking note: this is how to make the most out of a book. Even before the news was announced there was a buzz around the project, due to a teaser advertisement and treasure hunt organised by Rowling's team, with clues scattered around Potter fan sites leading people to Pottermore's holding page. It didn't hurt that hype was already starting around the final instalment of the Harry Potter film series, out next month.

Then, at noon on Thursday, a video clip was released, with Rowling making an announcement. She thanked her fans for their ongoing support, and made a present of her new product: "I'm thrilled to say I am now in the position to give you something unique: an online reading experience unlike any other." The online response from the fans has overwhelmingly been one of glee, although the cynics have had their say too, pointing out that this is pitch-perfect marketing from a woman whose personal worth is already estimated at $1 billion.

And it's not just Rowling's PR strategy that is shaking things up in the industry: it's the technology behind Pottermore, too. While e-books sold for the Kindle or iPad can only be read on that type of device, digital books sold through Pottermore don't have this lock - just a watermarking system. This means that fans will be able to copy the files, but if they do, the copy is traceable to the original user.

It also means that, technically, people should be able to read The Order of the Phoenix and the rest of the books on iPads, Kindles, Sony Readers, Nooks and any other device – if retailers such as Apple and Amazon are willing to make an exception to the rule that they control sales of all iPad and Kindle-compatible books, and forgo their usual 30 per cent commission. If this happens, it will set a significant precedent: perhaps soon, all big authors will be able to haggle with Apple and Amazon about commission; perhaps they'll scrap their locks altogether and allow readers to buy books from wherever they want to read on the Kindle or iPad.

One thing that Radiohead demonstrated is that trusting people with digital files that are free of restrictions can pay off: the band said that they made more money from the pay-as-you-wish record In Rainbows than its traditionally released predecessor, Hail to the Thief. Rowling doesn't exactly have the appearance of a freedom fighter, but it could be that she's the person to loosen the big companies' stranglehold on e-books and their tight controls over what readers can do with them. Luckily for her, it looks like she'll make a lot of money while she's at it – and her readers aren't complaining either.