When J.K. Rowling revealed Thursday that her previously announced Pottermore Web site would be a portal to get additional stories and information about the Harry Potter universe, as well as the sole place to buy heretofore unavailable e-book editions of the Potter titles, the media started churning out stories not only about Rowling’s marketing prowess but how her move might have larger ramifications for the publishing business. But many people who work in publishing think that as interesting as Pottermore is, the endeavor says less about the future of book publishing than about the singular status of a very wealthy author who has the inclination and means tobuild her own brand.
While news reports about Rowling selling the e-books direct-to-consumer stated the titles will be available in multiple formats, it’s unclear how that will happen or what exactly that will mean. OverDrive, the company handling the digital fulfillment for Pottermore, would not speak to specifics about how fulfillment will be handled. Among a number of questions about the sales process is how, and if, device owners will be able to download the Potter e-books in a sale process that forces them to go through the Pottermore storefront. While Rowling representatives have said they expect Potter e-books to be available for all platforms, they are still talking to the major players, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple.
Putting aside the unique deals Pottermore may need to strike with e-tailers to ensure consumers can get the Potter e-books on multiple devices, most authors, publishing sources noted, do not have the following or the wherewithal to launch their own online storefront. Most significantly, sources told PW, very few authors control their own digital rights.
That Rowling was able to hold onto her e-book rights was either a fluke or very prescient thinking. (One agent said he assumed Rowling was able to keep the digital rights because the Potter books initially sold in the U.K. at a time when British publishers were not acquiring digital rights and, when Scholastic bought the books in the U.S., the deal mimicked the British one.) Either way, a number of agents told PW it’s hard to conceive of a situation where an author, doing a deal with a publisher now, could keep their digital rights. With e-books now accounting for up to 50% of sales on frontlist titles, publishing deals that do not include e-book rights are, sources say, nearly impossible to structure, even for authors with a tremendous amount of clout.
Other sources note that, even when you put aside the unlikelihood of having an author with a Rowling-like following who also controls her e-rights, running and launching a site like Pottermore is involved and difficult. It's also tricky to try and keep your product away from the retailers. “For the average author, cutting out retailers is a bad idea,” said one agent. That same agent noted that any author who wants to write more books should be wary of selling direct out of fear that the bricks and mortar accounts would not support future titles. Another agent said that retailing, even when the process does not involve physical product, is complicated. “I don’t think many agents want to take on that role,” this source noted, adding that "there are a lot of moving parts.”
And, while Rowling will certainly be getting a larger slice of every sale by selling her e-books on her own as opposed to having struck a deal with her publisher—both her U.K. publisher (Bloomsbury) and U.S. house (Scholastic) will be getting an undisclosed royalty on the Potter e-books—some sources wondered whether she might be losing sales in the long run. If the end goal of Pottermore is to sell other Harry Potter merchandise, than lost book sales are worth it. But, as many agents noted, if the goal is to sell books, the best option is to make those books available in as many places as possible. Is it better then to get a bigger slice of a smaller group of sales, or take a smaller slice of a bigger group of sales? “That is the $100 million question,” said another agent.