J.K. Rowling has created Pottermore, a free to use Web site taking readers right into Hogwarts, as a way of thanking her fans and paying them back for their contributions to the book. Rowling announced the news in a press conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Thursday. To be launched on July 31, Harry Potter’s birthday, the site gives users access to roam in Harry's world, to uncover back stories and other additional material written by Rowling from notes of hers from the time of first writing the stories as well as those written subsequently. “Find your house by answering random questions posed by the sorting hat” and “choose your own wand from Ollivander’s" are just two of the activities. Fans can join in by submitting comments, drawings and other content; “Pottermore has been designed as a place to share the stories with your friends as you journey through the site,” Rowling said. When the site goes live, one million of those who have signed up will have the opportunity to join in shaping the final details.

When the whole site goes live in October it will house a shop which will be the exclusive outlet for digital audiobooks and e-books, which can be accessed on any platform. This brings to an end the long standing speculation about the digital future of the original titles. “Ebooks are here to stay,” Rowling said. “I love books but downloading ebooks is miraculous especially for travel and especially if you have kids. I feel great about taking Harry into this new media.”

The site will launch in English, French, German, and Spanish with more to follow.

Rowling’s new work is at the heart of the site. She said she is thrilled with it, and it has given her a way of making so much of the extra material available. Rowling, who will have added about 18,000 new words by the time all the books are on the site, said, “It’s a great way to give something back to the fans. I still receive a huge amount of stories, drawings and ideas and the site is a great way to continue the conversation.” Pottermore users can post directly on the site and Rowling indicated that she is likely to be on the site too, although pseudonymously.

Rowling, who said she came up with the Pottermore name herself, has been working with Sony on the project for the past two years. She described it as “a wonderful way of introducing a digital version of the stories for the digital generation making use of possibilities which were not around when I wrote the books.”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.) will be the first title available; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will go live in early 2012.

Rowling's announcement to fans can be viewed here.

Although some are likely to see Rowling's decision to be her own publisher for her e-books as a significant one for the industry at large, Potter is a unique franchise. "Everything is different with Harry," one person involved with the Potter books observed.

In a statement, Sarah Odedina, publisher and international editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Children’s Books, which originated the books, said, “Bloomsbury is delighted to be partnering with Pottermore in this exciting new chapter for the Harry Potter books. It brings the books and the digital age together in an innovative and unique way. Pottermore will enchant existing fans as well as introduce the Harry Potter books to new generations of readers of both the print and digital editions.” The Bloomsbury statement also said, “Bloomsbury will participate in the sale of eBooks from Pottermore, receiving a share of the revenues.”

Scholastic, Rowling’s U.S. publisher, released a statement saying, “Scholastic is proud to be a key partner in the Pottermore project, including connecting teachers and parents from our school and online channels directly to ebook sales via Pottermore and providing marketing and promotion support. We’re excited about the new content from J.K. Rowling to go along with the books. This will surely inspire more interest in the series and bring a whole new generation of readers to Harry Potter.” In addition, Scholastic said that it will receive a royalty on sales of the U.S. editions of the e-books.

A company spokesperson declined to discuss how the royalty was negotiated. Scholastic is Rowling's U.S. publisher for the Potter print books, but Rowling has always controlled digital rights. The spokesperson also said Scholastic is not ready to announce any plans it has for releasing print editions of the backlist books to tie-in with the launch of the e-books or if Scholastic will publish the new material.