Friday, June 24, 2011

What Pottermore Spells for Readers, Writers

J.K. Rowling's announcement yesterday that will be the clearinghouse for all things wizardly has been met with mixed response. The Washington Post yawned. Publisher's Weekly said it's "not a gamechanger." Pottermore will offer games along with more writing around Harry, wands, and other aspects of the best-selling books. So what?

Well, for readers, writers, and illustrators, this news is magical. And here's why:

It opens the ebook door for younger readers. Currently, the YA and adult markets have been swept up by ebook revolution. And the introduction of picture book apps has pulled in parents and preschoolers to the world of digital books. But what about the middle-grade market?

This is it. The Harry Potter craze that caught fire with preteens and tweens -- think midnight bookstore release parties with 11-year-olds in capes and round glasses -- and pulled them into stores to buy the latest copy will be happening again. Only this time it will be happening online. And once they've downloaded these ebooks, they'll be hungry for more. Pottermore's ebooks will send them and their parents looking for more middle-grade fare. Anywhere they can get it.

It sets up a new publishing model. And not just the idea of tossing a manuscript on Amazon and seeing what happens. For authors and artists with talent and tenacity, demonstrates a new route to readers. While the risks of bypassing the publishing houses are clear, there are plenty of benefits.

Say you have written a series of books (middle-grade fantasy with trolls, a killer skateboarding ninja, whatever niche you see for yourself), why not build your own clearinghouse like J.K.? Sell your books in e-format for all major e-readers for $2.99. Post bonus material and back stories sure to thrill your readers. Include a place for fan fiction and interaction with your adoring audience. Offer discussion questions for a curriculum connection with teachers. One-stop shopping for your work.

Sure, you're not J.K. Rowling. But at a $2.99 price point, you're certainly attractive. And in this model, your profit margin is crazy good compared with the traditional publishing formula.

For the risk averse, team up with your colleagues. Perhaps your killer skateboarding ninjas appeal to a similar set of readers who also like surfing samuri. You can work collaboratively to sell your books on your website. Kids learn that your site is the place to go for ninjas and samurais. They tell their friends and  return time and time again to see the new books and authors you've brought onboard. You've got an online community, your connecting directly with your readers, you're blowing wizards out of the water.

Who does not come out on top in this model? Clearly it's the publishing houses -- they seem to be caught flat-footed in this change. But of course, when Harry Potter first apparated on the scene 13 years ago, who could have imagined this whole world of ebook rights? But just as newspapers suddenly became unwieldy behemoths, unable to adapt to the fleet-of-foot news websites that emerged overnight, the same seems to be happening with the major publishing houses. Think namelos and a host of other nimble digital publishers.

Armed with a laptop, anyone can be a journalist. The notion that writers and illustrators can be publishing houses as well is not too far-fetched.

The others left behind in this model are the bookstores. Again, beaten up by the market. And this is a real shame. Those midnight book release parties helped stoke the flames of Harry Potter mania, helped ignite a passion for reading for many kids. With and this new formula, bookstores are nowhere in the picture.

Read this bookseller's lament in Time online:

"It's one thing if an individual sells book on her own, I can understand that," says Ann Seaton, manager of Hicklebee's Children's Book Store in San Jose, Calif. "But it did sort of surprise me that the publisher would cut us out of the loop. That makes it hard for us. We have sold a huge amount of Potter books. And we were one of those stores that had the midnight parties when a new Potter book came out. I don't think we'll be having a party for the e-books."


  1. "Armed with a laptop, anyone can be a journalist."

    Do you really think that, Kate?

    And can anybody be a J.K. Rowling? Would this move be possible absent the fame she acquired via the traditional publishing route?

  2. Great questions, Ellen.

    I think the blog world shows that anyone can be a journalist. Have blog, can interview, report, disseminate information. For good or ill, many popular blogs are written by folks with no formal journalism training.

    And right, J.K. Rowling is a rare bird who commands a whole lot of power because of her wildly successful books. But look at Amanda Hocking and what she's been able to do as an unknown author venturing into e-publishing. I think if you hit a niche, you can build a following. It is highly unlikely to reach the stratospheric proportions of Harry Potter, but I do believe authors can make a living at writing if the profit margins are good. And I think they can be good in e-publishing.

  3. It just doesn't seem efficient to ask people to shop on a dedicated web site for ebooks. Even Jo is risking losing an entire segment of potential buyers. I'm picturing an adult not already bitten by the HP bug, who thinks, "I should probably read those Potter books one of these days." He's not going to go searching for He's going to look on Amazon or whatever and then move on to some other book when he doesn't find it. It won't be a draw for that sort of purchaser that he can also "buy" a virtual wand at Ollivanders or get sorted by the sorting hat!

  4. A huge part of the success of the Potter series was the movies. The first movie, early on in the series, attracted a great deal more attention to the books than what would have been generated by the publishing world alone. There is nothing to prevent a similar stroke of good fortune from happening with a self-published e-book. I personally find most books I am interested in by wandering through the bookstore. It's a much more engaging experience than searching online (although I prefer online when I'm pressed for time). I would hate to see brick and mortar stores cut completely out of the pipeline.

    It will be very interesting to see how it evolves over the next few years.