After a suspenseful buildup, J. K. Rowling has announced that Pottermore.com will be an e-bookstore, exclusively selling Harry Potter e-books and digital audiobooks. Pottermore could shake up digital publishing as much as the Harry Potter books first shook up print publishing over a decade ago. Here’s how.
Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) will be cut out as the middleman and could be forced to open up the Kindle to new book-publishing formats. Pottermore.com does not officially launch until October, and right now many details are still unclear. But we know that the site will be the only place to buy Harry Potter e-books and that they will be compatible with a range of devices. Rowling stressed that selling the books directly “means we can guarantee people everywhere are getting the same experience and at the same time,” and Pottermore CEO Rod Henwood told The Bookseller, “We want to make sure anyone who buys it can read it on any device. We are talking to the Kindles, the Apples, the Googles, Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) to make sure they are compatible. We set the pricing, we maintain the policy of making them available to as many readers as possible.”
We don’t know if that means that Pottermore.com will be selling multiple editions of the Harry Potter books–in the Kindle format, say, alongside formats like EPUB–but it seems more likely that the site would sell e-books in just one format, probably EPUB. Right now, the Kindle doesn’t support the EPUB format. But if any author could get Amazon to change its policy, it’s J. K. Rowling. The Kindle has the largest market share of any e-reader in the U.S.–it’s believed to be between 60 and 65 percent–and it would be an incredibly dumb move for Amazon not to allow the Harry Potter e-books to be read on its device. The company would risk losing users to the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, and other devices that do support EPUB.
In fact, rumors that Amazon is going to start supporting EPUB have been floating around for awhile now, mainly in association with the news that the Kindle will support library lending this fall. Amazon should probably get on the EPUB train by July 31, when Pottermore.com is going to be opened up to a select million users.
Interesting experiments with pricing. Since Rowling is selling the e-books directly, she can do what she wants with pricing. Her UK publisher, Bloomsbury, and her U.S. publisher, Scholastic, are getting a cut, but these books are being published under the Pottermore Publishing imprint, not by Bloomsbury or Scholastic. So look out for bundling, limited-time sales, special editions, maybe even individual chapters for sale. Pottermore.com has a lot of freedom here to test various prices and respond quickly to what works or doesn’t. Other publishers can learn from what Pottermore.com does and may start to become more creative in their own pricing, although the big six publishers, which use the agency model for pricing, aren’t able to be nearly as nimble as an indie like Pottermore Publishing can.
Most importantly, this could be a major tipping point for e-books. The first book Harry Potter book was published in 1997–over a decade ago. Kids who were too young for the books when they were first published–who were, say, four or five in 2007 when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the series, was released–are just the right age for the e-book editions in 2011.
And, of course, the series has always exhibited massive crossover appeal between kids and adults. Adults who never read the books the first time around might try them as e-books, and audiences who’ve read them already may still want to own the digital versions, particularly since Rowling is writing new material for the e-books. A new generation of kids ready for Harry Potter, a group of adults who’ve never read the series before, and all the people who are fans already and want to read the books again in a new format–that is potentially a group of millions of buyers for the e-books on Pottermore.com. Combine that massive audience with falling e-reader prices and the release of the books near the holiday season and Pottermore.com could absolutely move the needle toward widespread e-reader adoption in a way that no other series possibly could.