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Harry Potter, John, Paul, George & Ringo

Here’s the thing:

From FutureBook, the Bookseller’s digital blog:  http://futurebook.net/content/digital-rights-and-harry-potter-e-books.

Yes, JKR held on to her digital rights back in the 20th century, when her relationships with Bloomsbury, Scholastic and Warner came together.  Now, e-editions are becoming an indispensible part of any author’s armoury.  Lawyers are haggling about the meaning of rights agreements originally framed when the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.  JK Rowling’s digital settlement will pave the way for many other valuable  properties to establish themselves on the digital landscape.  £100m is the figure being bandied about, a nice, round number.

There can be no doubt that JKR and her representatives (and in due course, no doubt, many good causes) will earn handsomely from the resolution of the Potter rights over the years to come.  The movies are coming to an end, and the books are settling into the golden tapestry of children’s literature. 

However, the Guardian is off the mark when it describes the series as “the most eagerly awaited ebooks of them all”.  Unless the price is giveaway-low (can’t see that happening), the books will join the eBook backlist.  Because, right now, everyone who wants to read the Harry Potter cannon has probably already done so (notwithstanding the annual cadre of nine year olds coming into the system).

Those of us who were on the retail front line will recall that, in Potter’s heyday (ie book 4 through to book 7), sales over the first 72 hours were unprecedentedly spectacular, but then fell quickly away.  By week 3 after release, the new Harry Potter had becomes just another book (except that the store probably had too many copies on-hand).

What was extraordinary about Harry Potter wasn’t just the scale of the series’ popularity –  Dan Brown or Michael Crichton saw all of  that – but the speed at which the books sold.  When the paperbacks were published – particularly late in the series – sales were still high by trade standards, but the arrival of the HP PB instore didn’t make a material change to total store sales in publication week.

Which brings us to the Beatles.  After years of wrangling, Apple Corps and Apple Computer finally parked their differences at the end of last year, and the Fabs’ catalogue  was at last available on iTunes.  Pundits the world over anticipated a re-run of their 4/4/1964 domination of the Billboard Top 5.  It didn’t happen.  There was no vast, untapped demand for Beatle music – making legitimate copies of  the CDs one already owned, or downloading illegal free tracks, had sufficed for most people.  Of course, millions of Beatle tracks were sold, but Hey Jude topped out at something like number 28 (someone can put me right on this), and the rest followed in the van.  Lady Gaga and Adele are creating the new tunes that customers want to buy in huge volumes, and it’s likely that, in 20 years time, the Beatles will be outselling any of today’s big hits.  

But the Beatles’ days of sweeping the board are over – like Harry Potter (and indeed like Beatrix Potter), they’re a cornerstone of backlist sales.   The resolution of  the HP digital rights will be a landmark, but I’d be surprised if it proved to be an instant goldmine as well.

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