What book publishers should learn from Harry Potter

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After months of anticipation, the e-book versions of author J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter series are now available through Rowling’s Pottermore online unit, and as my PaidContent colleague Laura Owen has noted in her post on the launch, Rowling has chosen to do a number of interesting things with her e-books, including releasing them without digital-rights management restrictions. Obviously, the success of the Potter series has given Rowling the ability to effectively dictate terms to just about anyone, even a powerhouse like Amazon, but there are still lessons that other book publishers should take from what she is doing.

One of the encouraging things about the Pottermore launch is that the books will be available on virtually every platform simultaneously, including the Sony Reader, the Nook from Barnes & Noble, the Kindle and Google’s e-book service (which is part of Google Play). And in keeping with Pottermore’s status as a standalone digital bookstore in its own right, users will be able to buy the books from the Rowling site and then send them to whichever platform they wish. As Laura points out, even Amazon has bowed to the power of the series and done what would previously have seemed unthinkable: it sends users who come to the titles on Amazon to Pottermore to finish the transaction.

As we’ve pointed out before at GigaOM, one of the problems for users when it comes to the e-book landscape is the clash between competing platforms — with Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble all trying to create their own walled gardens, where users can only access titles from publishers that have deals with the platform they happen to be using. Amazon and Apple in particular both seem to see books and other media content primarily as loss leaders that can help them lock users into their proprietary platforms, and recent skirmishes have seen Apple reject books that have links to Amazon’s store, and Barnes & Noble block Amazon titles from its store.

Among the other innovations Rowling offers is the ability to download up to eight digital copies of each book, either for use on another device or for lending. Again, this seems like an obvious feature that e-book publishers could provide — since digital copies effectively have no cost — but very few do. And at a time when publishers either don’t allow their books to be loaned through libraries at all (as most of the Big Six do not) or have jacked up the prices they charge libraries (as Random House recently did), the Potter books can be loaned an unlimited number of times, and the lending license lasts for five years.

Memo to publishers: DRM is not your friend

But by far the biggest break with tradition for Pottermore is that all the books will be sold without DRM restrictions (until they are imported into a platform like the Kindle or the Nook, at which point they will be converted into whatever format those devices require). Instead of having the usual digital-rights management locks — another thing that has helped turn the e-book landscape into a series of walled gardens, and at the same time has also given Amazon and Apple a stick with which to beat publishers — the Potter books will be personalized or “watermarked.” This allows them to be tracked if there is piracy, but is much more user-friendly than DRM locks.

Charlie Redmayne, who left HarperCollins to become the chief executive officer of Pottermore, said that all of these developments and enhancements for users stem from a single principle:

My view is that the one thing we should learn from the music industry, is that one of the best ways of fighting back against piracy is making content available to consumers at a platform they want to purchase it on, and at a price they are willing to pay, and if you do that most people will instinctively want to buy it.

Redmayne is right, and if book publishers could only learn one thing from the Pottermore launch, it should be this: that one of the biggest drivers of piracy is the inability to find or consume the content that a user wants in the format or on the platform or at a time they wish to consume it — as we have seen in other media such as broadcast, where even law-abiding users such as venture capitalist Fred Wilson have been driven to piracy despite their desire to pay for legally-accessed content. (A recent comic at the humor site The Oatmeal described a similar situation.) And examples like the recent success of comedian Louis CK’s self-financed (and DRM-free) download show that large numbers of users will pay if given the right opportunity.

Again, not every book publisher or author has the heft that J.K. Rowling has in the industry, and it is easy to push for change when you have a blockbuster success that everyone wants a piece of. But hopefully more publishers will take some cues from Pottermore, and try to serve users instead of putting them behind DRM bars or locking them into a platform.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Marya and Jonatas Cunha

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