Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Pitter Patter of Tiny Potters

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsImage via WikipediaWe’ve seen a number of moves now symptomatic of a publishing industry struggling to work out quite what it should do about the considerable challenges posed by the Internet and e-books, including the recent well-publicised moves by literary agents to launch e-imprints and the launch of Amazon’s own publishing house.

The rise of self-publishing (and the inevitable references to Konraths and Hockings) has itself changed the dynamic of publishing forever - news broke yesterday that 12% of all US households now own an e-reader. That's a remarkable number and the growth in readers appears to be pretty near exponential - that 12% figure is a three-fold year on year increase.

The latest twist to the 'what are we going to do now?' tale is, of course, JK Rowling’s Pottermore. The website will sell e-book editions of the Harry Potter stories in an experiential multimedia environment. There are some interesting aspects to the move that have had publishing pundits speculating like crazy about what it means. Here are some of the bits that caught my passing eye:

Rowling’s publishers and agent come out of this smelling of roses
While agents are launching e-book imprints against publishers and publishers sign up authors' backlists on e-book format by cutting out agents, JK Rowling has made sure everyone’s getting a slice of Pottermore. Her agent has been a force behind the creation of the project and she will pay her publishers royalties on the sale of the e-books. Time was when publishers paid authors royalties, so this really is a symptom of this new age where men walk backwards, hens speak and snakes fly.

Rowling is potentially doing for Kindle what Apple did for Flash
There’s been a lot of talk that Amazon will open up the Kindle and support the forthcoming Epub3 format. Pottermore asserts it will support ‘all readers’  and yet takes a direct to market route, which would pre-suppose that either Amazon will go Epub3 or has done some sort of deal with Rowling to let her publish to Kindle via her own site rather than What could be an interesting alternative is Amazon opening up the Kindle format to writers going direct to market in return for a lower royalty. Can’t quite see that, though. But Amazon has to do one of the two – it can’t afford not to support Potter. Will Potter change the way Amazon works, or will Amazon make a single exception for a phenomenally popular author?

You need scale
The Harry Potter books have been massive, for sure, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows alone selling 44 million copies. (To put that in perspective, Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Name of the Rose has sold 50 million copies and The Lord of the Rings 150 million.) The whole Harry Potter series has netted sales to date in excess of 450 million copies.

That’s a lot of trees, no?

With that kind of scale behind you, you can afford (literally) to build your own website and market books directly from it. Not only have you got the cash to splash, but you can also negotiate with your publishers from a position of glorious strength. But that scale was built (as Waterstones pointed out rather sniffily as it noted Rowling wasn’t going to be selling e-books through them) on traditional publishing techniques and channels. Few authors could pay for the development costs of a multimedia rich, experiential website and even fewer could garner the massive global media coverage of the move, build the levels of expectation of a large and loyal fanbase or stir up the kind of excitement that Rowling has managed.

Rowling’s scale is interesting because it lets her build a lot more into Pottermore than just the e-books: there are all sorts of possibilities, most of which are attached to revenue-generating ideas, including games and other sell-ons. The advertising clicks alone, on these kinds of numbers, mean real money.

Could she have got here without traditional publishing and the scale it offers? I very much doubt it.

This couldn't have happened if she had signed a modern contract
Signing as a new author, you get to sign away your digital rights too, for 20-25% of the total. Agents are up in arms about this and think 50% is nearer fair, but publishers are holding steady. If JK had signed with Bloomsbury today, she wouldn't be able to control her own e-book sales in this way. 450 million books down the line with no contractual (I assume, forgive me) obligations regarding e-books, she had the freedom to do this. It's doubtful whether any new author signing up today will get to play this way. You'd have to do this from a self-published perspective.And brave is the self-published author who shuns Amazon to go it alone with a standalone website.

The Potter franchise gets a new and highly lucrative lease of life
Given JK has said she’s not going to write any more Potter boilers and the films have now covered all the existing books, our Harry is pretty much a spent force. Except Pottermore changes all that. For instance, we’re not looking at all seven books going on line this autumn. Our JK’s smarter than that. This autumn you get one. 2012 you’ll get another one. With all the attendant fuss and media attention. And don't forget, Pottermore cuts the trees out of the equation, so the cost base is reduced to web development and multimedia production. Peanuts, in terms of the scales we're looking at here. With some smart drip-feeding, Pottermore could keep going for evermore!
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1 comment:

Shirley said...

Very interesting article. I agree with all of it except for Amazon needing to "open up" - it already is. If you have a Kindle, you can read any book with a .mobi extension. I have a lot of friends who sell e-books, and all you have to do is put up two files, a .epub and a .mobi, then all the readers in the world can handle it.

All Amazon needs to do is tell people that. They may think people already know that ... but opening up to epub wouldn't be bad for them, since most writers are using InDesign already for their print books, and it saves e-books in the epub format.

I understand bookstores getting sniffy, but as someone with mobility issues, I love being able to shop for books myself online, and having e-books makes it MUCH easier to move!

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