Blog Post

What book publishers should learn from Harry Potter

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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 (s amzn), 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 (s aapl) 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

16 Responses to “What book publishers should learn from Harry Potter”

  1. “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…”

    Too true. I work overseas on a regular basis, and one of my great frustrations is that movies and TV shows are nearly impossible to get legally. Want to watch on Netflix or Amazon? Sorry, we won’t stream to your country, even though you are already paying a monthly subscription. Want to buy a legal DVD in a local shop? Sorry, your laptop is the wrong region. Want to buy a local DVD player and watch local legal DVDs? Sure, but you won’t be able to watch them once you bring them home to your region. Ridiculous.

    So what do I do? Pirate Bay or the local market for black market DVDs. Would I prefer legal product? Yes… it’s usually better quality, and I just prefer to pay, anyway, but it’s either black market or nothing. So stupid. Sigh.

  2. ExecutorElassus

    Well, let’s be more honest about the DRM claim. First off, it’s released in ePub format, and second, only available on specific platforms in specific countries (for example, the only format not restricted to some subset of Commonwealth countries plus the US is the Kindle, and even that’s only “most countries”). The ePub format is also not entirely platform-independent: the number of functional Mac or Linux readers is very small, and often lacking in features. &c. &c.
    So, it’s great that Ms. Rowling is taking some incremental steps to break down the Big Six’s publishing stranglehold, but it is by no means complete.

    • ExecutorElassus: ePub is the “master” format these days – because you can convert a DRM-free ePub book to pretty much anything, for any platform, with tools like Calibre ( You don’t need an ePub reader for your preferred device/platform, only a converter.

      Trying to master the books for each different format and platform out there would be nuts. At best, they’d be able to offer pre-converted versions from a single master. Why bother, when you can DIY trivially?

      I kind of wish they’d link to Calibre from their FAQ, or at least explicitly mention that the ePub book can be converted to other formats with a variety of tools. Still, it’s DRM free, that’s what matters. Buying mine even though frankly I’m not that much of a fan, because this stuff needs encouragement.

  3. Hear, hear! However, libraries are still not part of the process, and need to be if eBooks are to have anything like optimum distribution and exposure. In fact, they are the ideal platform, from publishers’ and authors’ points of view, for maximizing profits. Institute a pay-per-use on loans and offer sales via nonprofit public library “Shopper’s Corners,” returning 90% of all receipts to content providers. Everybody wins.

    The End of Libraries

  4. Except… the official word from Amazon (and confirmed by many purchasers) is “All titles that are pushed wirelessly from Pottermore to Kindle, or to other retailer’s eBook services and readers, are DRM encrypted at Pottermore’s request.”

    • Thanks to all of the above — I did mention that as soon as the books move from the store to a device, they acquire whatever DRM is built into that format or platform. As far as I know, they are still available as non-DRM downloads as well.

      • Lovinglf Designs

        You’re correct. The website FAQs indicate that you can download the ebooks directly to your PC/MAC for subsequent transfer to other devices. That’s the route I’m taking because I want a DRM-free version. There are 8 downloads per purchase so DRM after the fact on Kindle or Nook should not affect your subsequent downloads.

      • No — that wasn’t my experience. Yesterday I bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and found that while it was fairly simple to send the book to both my Amazon and Barnes & accounts (and read it on my Kindle Fire, Nook 3G, and Nook app on my Android phone), when I downloaded the epub file to my PC I was unable to read it using the free Calibre ereader software (it informed me “This file is locked with DRM”) or the software that Pottermore Shop recommends: Adobe Digital Editions. So there are limits to what you can do with content from Pottermore Shop. (Aside: the site also informs you that it’s not permissible to burn any MP3 audiobook file you buy to CD.)

      • A correction to my post from Wednesday: not sure why, but Pottermore Shop gave me what appears to be a DRMed file for direct download. I returned the following day and the direct download proved to be a non-DRMed epub file. Either Pottermore Shop has a bug of some kind or the flub was due to a high-traffic gremlin. Whatever: I now have a DRM-free copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And call me a pedant, but the ebook is quite handsome inside and uses true open and closed quotation marks for dialog, which I find quite pleasing.