More Potter at Pottermore

Harry Potter is back.  Just as the final movie is being readied for release, the next chapter in the saga will shortly be unveiled.  Not just a new chapter in the most successful children’s series ever written (in fact, Pottermore revisits the old stories), but rather a new stage in the most effective character management programme of our times.

Pottermore – launched online yesterday by JK Rowling – is attracting attention for all sorts of reasons:

This will be the first new Potter material from JKR since the final book was published, four long years ago.  In classic Harry Potter style, details are being slowly and carefully leaked prior to a release date which is being staged from July (when followers start to gather for what should be a textbook piece of online CRM), to eBook release in October.  Essentially, it’s a two-pronged strategy – eBook publication, and the availability online of extra material which will provide readers with more background to the stories.

The seven Potter books will be released in eBook-compatible formats one at a time, controlling the arrival of new content on to the market and maximising the sales and circulation of each element.  This is reminiscent of the control applied to other hyper-valuable media properties, like Star Wars or the Beatles.

The content will formatted to an exceptionally high quality, with Rowling personally controlling all output.  The eBook releases are coming direct from the author, with publishers Bloomsbury enjoying a small cut, but retailers like Amazon or Waterstone’s excluded.  Content will be compatible with all key eReader formats.  Pottermore CEO Rod Henwood told The Bookseller“We want to make sure anyone who buys [the eBook] can read it on any device. We are talking to the Kindles, the Apples, the Googles, Barnes & Noble, to make sure they are compatible.  We set the pricing, we maintain the policy of making them available to as many readers as possible.  We can guarantee people everywhere are getting the same experience and at the same time.”  The Pottermore site will also direct readers looking for physical books to the territory-specific publisher.

All of this drops a large and elegant bomb into the endless cycle of digital publishing conferences, but it underlines the difference between what can be achieved with globally successful properties like Harry Potter, and what a typical author or publisher might be able to deliver.  The Pottermore content will be expensive to create, but there is a guaranteed fanbase of many millions and an author who can afford to ensure she only permits products or new channels that are worthy of her creation.

Other marquee names could make a high-concept work – the conspiracy theories of Dan Brown, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, have the fantastical content and fanatical fanbase to support such ventures.  Critically too, these are series authors – there is a lot of existing content, and compelling recurring characters, around which an online world and comprehensive eBook offer could be built.

But this is not a new dawn in publishing; it’s a signpost for one of the many disparate directions that “book publishing” will take.  Philip Jones writes entertainingly here about the “smash hit” Nursery Rhymes app that was developed at a cost of £60,000, and has so far sold 37,339 copies for a total of £24,048.

Pottermore is exciting, because it will show us what can be done where money is no object, imagination can run free, and millions of followers are waiting to sign up.  It’s a future, for those at the top of the heap, but it reminds us that the future will be more diffuse than anyone – perhaps even at Amazon – can yet imagine.

More Pottermore opinions can be read here: