Harry Potter and the future of eBooks

When I first tracked down some rumors that JK Rowling was pursuing options to offer eBook versions of Harry Potter, I was ecstatic. I love the books, as do my wife and daughter. I wanted my son to be able to enjoy them as well, but without an eBook option it wasn’t in the realm of possibility. We did eventually find a book library for the blind and visually impaired called Book Share, but the reading experience there is… lacking. So I waited, and hoped.

Then over the summer JK Rowling announced that eBooks were definitely coming, but would be sold only through a site she would create called “Pottermore.” There people would be able to purchase the books for use in various readers, and use the site to read them interactively with others. I was skeptical about the nature of the endeavor because I wasn’t sure how book purchases would be handled, or if I was going to be forced to jump through some painful hoops just to load the books on whatever device I wanted to use. I have a problem with DRM in general, but at least the ease of going through Amazon and Barnes and Noble is numbingly simple. Having to download a file and jump through hoops to use it wasn’t my idea of a good time.

As the rumored date for the opening of Pottermore (Halloween) came and went without so much as a peep from the site, I began to get worried. When I read an announcement in the site’s blog in January that the site was being re-done I thought I may never get my Nook app around these books. Then last week I stopped by and read a new blog post which detailed the problems their beta test had uncovered, their joy at having made the site better, and an announcement that the site would open in early April!

Today a friend of mine told me, “Go to Barnes and Noble’s web page” – and there I was greeted by the announcement that Harry Potter eBooks were now on sale! The entire series can be had for just under $59, a great price for seven books. I immediately followed the link to the Pottermore store, wondering how the downloads of the books would be handled, and what I found was the future of eBook sales.

One of the things which makes people leery of purchasing eBooks is the idea of “vendor lock-in.” If you purchase a book from Amazon, you can read it in Kindle branded ways. Yes, they have apps everywhere, and even an html5 web-reader, but you’re still stuck with Kindle. It’s similar for the Nook. Once you purchase a Nook book, it will always be a Nook book. We encountered a problem with vendor lock-in when Barnes and Noble first came out with a Nook-branded e-reader for the iPad. Their previous reader had fantastic font options which were perfect for my son, but the Nook app had a bug which make the large fonts tiny – a bug which went unresolved for months. When I asked fir a refund after going nowhere with tech support (who wouldnt even acknowledge the problem), I was told Nook book sales were final and non-returnable. We had Nook books which were unusable, but Nook books they would always remain. This is one problem vendor lock-in can lead to.

What JK Rowling has done with Pottermore is break vendor lock-in. When you purchase the books through the site you may link it to your Barnes and Noble or Amazon accounts and wireless receive your books as normal. You may also download the file and use Adobe digital editions to load the book on to any device compatible with that software. Finally, the file can be dropped into the books section of iTunes and synced with iBooks. You can download each book eight times (as far as I can tell, the Kindle and Nook links each count as one download). Additionally, the Pottermore store encourages parents to download the books and put them on any devices their children use for reading without purchasing another copy. They do state that they expect parents to get their children to purchase their own copies once they are 18 – but that’s it. They don’t use a draconian “age check” lock-down, they don’t tell you to choose your reading device wisely because you’ll always be tied to it, they don’t treat their customers like criminals waiting to pirate their books.

Pottermore will sell gobs of books. No question.

This is the future of book sales – where books aren’t tied to a vendor forever and ever and ever, and authors can use other technologies to change how their books are read. I’ve not used Pottermore yet, but the idea of being sorted into a house, and reading with others is sure to excite my daughter and son (and, honestly, I want to see what house I get in to). I don’t know how Amazon and Barnes and Noble get a portion of the sales of books which get linked to their respective accounts, but I’m sure they must (they wouldn’t advertise the books otherwise). JK Rowling, however, sets her price. She controls the content, and the publishing of it. In the world of Pottermore Amazon and Barnes and Noble return to being vendors in a world that isn’t permanently locked into one ecosystem. On the other hand, iBooks, tied as it it to the iTunes licensing scheme, won’t see anything from sales of Harry Potter eBooks – and it may be the first of many such books which Apple will never be able to sell unless they make some allowances (which they should, books are not apps).

Pottermore may also be the lifeline traditional publishers have been waiting for. For years the assumed narrative has been, “Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other eBook stores will eventually cut out the publishers from the book selling process.” JK Rowling has taken that narrative and shredded it to pieces. In it’s place is a world in which publishers can do their work, and once again add value to the works under their care by offering generous terms for reading and creating a space where conversations can form around each book. It’s a whole new world, again. Can we expect anything Iess in this age of rapid transition?

 

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5 responses to “Harry Potter and the future of eBooks

  1. Yes! And no.

    This is the future of books for those really well branded (re: marketed) items when that issue of DRM and fragmentation is a detriment. Unfortunately, most authors don’t have the kind of clout with their brands that Rowling, King, and few others have. Unless ebook creation tools play into this method of distribution, authors (re: publishers) are going to only play in the spaces where the “market” works. For smaller authors, it’s worse, because they have to make this decision, and spread themselves thin, without the backend ability to manage liscensing across reading platforms.

    Ironically, this would have been a resounding yes a long time ago if bible publishers led with doing just this. They didn’t, and people (their tech, wallet, and patience) perish.

    This is definitely going to be linked at MMM.

  2. “In the world of Pottermore Amazon and Barnes and Noble return to being vendors in a world that isn’t permanently locked into one ecosystem.”

    Another “yes…and no” here. When Amazon started selling their Kindle, they bought ebooks the same way they buy their more physically substantial offerings: wholesale. They would then sell many of the popular books for a deep discount, as a way of getting people to buy Kindles.

    The publishers didn’t like this, because they were afraid people would get accustomed to cheap ebooks.

    Then Apple came along with the iPad, and suggested a new agreement: the agency model. Apple would sell the ebooks at the price the publisher set, and get a 30% cut, with the stipulation that the publishers couldn’t let other retailers sell their books at a lower price. The publishers jumped on this deal with Apple, then went to Amazon and said, “You’re going to sign this same agreement, or we won’t give you books to sell.”

    This is why you’ll often see on an Amazon page, “The publisher set the price for this book.” This is also why you can often buy a paperback or even, sometimes, a hardback version of a book on Amazon for cheaper than the Kindle format.

    Also, the Justice Department is considering a antitrust lawsuit against Apple and the publishers involved over this. (source)

    In addition, I’m sure that the publishers are at least part of the reason ebooks have such stringent DRM on them (on Amazon, at least, the publishers actually get to decide on things like whether you can lend an ebook, or even whether your Kindle can read your book to you). Just like the stated reason why Netflix uses Silverlight rather than Flash: the studios required the DRM.

    So, no, Pottermore isn’t the lifeline traditional publishers have been looking for. They found that with Apple. Pottermore is more of a new way to publish books. I see Pottermore as being more a lifeline for authors to break free of the shackles of both Amazon/B&N/etc. and the traditional publishers who, let’s just be honest, are likely to start getting just as nasty as the RIAA and MPAA now that their realm has moved online.

    • I’ll both agree and disagree with your comment. Apple did offer publishers the agency model, but they were still dependent on Apple to do it. Amazon and Barnes and Noble quickly conceded their ground to the agency model, but I’d contend that it was only a stop-gap measure. Amazon, especially, realized soon into their Kindle endeavors that they could control the entire chain of supply by signing authors to exclusive contracts. It was a slow trickle of people who signed on, but it was coming. It was only a matter of time before the major eBook sellers began to compete for publishing rights directly with authors in order to cut others out, and then traditional publishers would have their entire model turned on it’s head.

      Now they have a way to control distribution, and continue to work with authors. Perhaps even doing an end-run around the new media backlash. Time will tell, but I think this is more the future than the vendor locked-in ebook stores we see today.

    • coffeezombie

      You may be right that the Pottermore pattern does provide a better option for publishers. On the other hand, I still stand by my sense that book publishers are not significantly different from the recording and movie studios, and, like those groups, they will be fighting a losing battle.

      And, really, that’s a good thing.

      Pottermore, to me, still represents more an empowering opportunity for authors to bypass both publishers and retailers, just as the Internet and the reduction in cost of production software and hardware has allowed musicians to bypass the RIAA to get their music directly to their fans, and has allowed others to create videos, movies, “web series” without the involvement of the MPAA.

      Maybe even more so: unlike music and video, the only thing you really need to create an ebook is a word processer (or even just a text editor), and some way to convert your text into the proper formats. Both of these are free and abundant. As far as distribution, various models for that have already been developed in the music and video worlds.

      Now, what Pottermore provides that might be more difficult for a no-name author to get, is that linking in with retailer libraries. That really is a big value: I love being able to have my ebooks stored in Amazon’s cloud where I can access them from any device and so on. I’m not sure how that works, but I hope Pottermore opens the door for more of that.

      Perhaps a sort of online independent book shop, where indie authors can cheaply distribute their ebooks on some model, and the shop would handle, for everyone, interactions with the big ebook libraries.

    • I’m not sure there’s been as much of a sense of abuse on the part of author’s and publishers – it seems to be more of a partnership then a chain. This is why I think the Pottermore model may be taken up by the publishers more and more, and the authors will accept it.

      I agree that the publishing industry is much like the RIAA and MPAA in that they are paranoid about lost sales due to piracy, and I can’t stand their reticence to allow decent lending (heck, I’ll accept drm at that point, when I lend a book I don’t get to still read it off my shelf). I think that’s what makes Pottermore interesting, though, an AUTHOR created this path forward. What remains to be seen is if the publishers have the brains to walk it – or if they’ll bank on being able to keep forcing the agency model on people who will, more and more, be their competiters.

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