How to Think About the Significance of Pottermore

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Last week something momentous occurred in the world of book publishing.

J.K. Rowling finally released the seven Harry Potter books for sale as ebooks–not through Amazon, B&N, and iBooks, but through her own shop on her own Pottermore website.

As literary agent and author Nathan Bransford put it on his blog, Rowling just made an “end-run” around the entire publishing industry. For now Rowling serves not only as author, but also also as the publisher and distributor of the Potter ebooks. Wizard!

This event will undoubtedly have repercussions throughout the publishing industry. But what in particular is the significance of Rowling’s coup for independent publishers?

Nathan Bransford argues that the significance isn’t really that momentous. “There is basically one author in the world who can pull this off,” he writes. “And [Rowling is] the one who is doing it.”

Bransford goes to say that for an author to replicate Rowling’s achievement, an author would have to build an entire distribution platform on his or her own that would be compatible, as Rowling’s is, with different ebook formats. He or she would then “have to draw people to that site and handle financial transactions and customer service and all the other million things that go along with selling stuff. It takes massive scale.”

Why, however, does an independent author have to think about it on the scale of the Pottermore?

Bransford contends that even on a smaller scale, the undertaking of a totally independent project such as Pottermore would mean that the author would “miss out on being discovered by people who hadn’t heard of [him or her] but were recommended within the e-book stores, where the majority of people will be looking for their books for the foreseeable future.”

This is true enough. But I want to suggest that this is not the way for independent authors to think of the significance of Pottermore. There is indeed only one author, or at any rate very few, with sufficient clout to muscle Amazon and others around and capture the entire electronic market in the way Rowling has done. But that kind of scale is not what independent authors should be trying to imitate.

Rather, what they should be learning from Pottermore is that authors today are privileged with unprecedented control over the publication and distribution of their work. I have no doubt one of Rowling’s chief aims in retaining the electronic rights to her books and forming the Pottermore website was to gain the economic advantage over publishers and over distributors such as Amazon. But I also tend to think that she wanted more control–not least artistic control–over the entire Harry Potter book-buying experience. The Potter ebooks will now forever be integral to the immersive, interactive experience she creates on Pottermore.

It may be true that it is easier to pursue one’s creativity while one has several billion dollars burning a hole in one’s pocket. But again, Pottermore’s scale is not the issue. What most matters for independent authors is the spur Pottermore can give to their own creative efforts not only in writing their books, but also in publishing and distributing them, whether they use Amazon, B&N, and iBooks, or not.

I also think that if Pottermore proves to be successful–and despite its delayed start I believe it will–then it will help make digital publishing and reading more of the norm, and thus make the work of independent authors easier as they seek to find their own niche in the bustling electronic marketplace.

Further, if Pottermore can also inspire other big name authors to jump into the pool of independent publishing and distribution, then the impact that will have on the conventional publishing world may well help make independent publishing, not just an upstart activity, but the new normal.

Finally, as Pottermore helps independent publishing become more prevalent, I wouldn’t be surprised if before too long we see an independent author with a fantastic product achieve worldwide status in the way Rowling has done.

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