What "Pottermore" Really Means for the Book Business

In her introductory video for “Pottermore,” the recently unveiled web portal for all things Potter, J. K. Rowling promises an enhanced multimedia experience for “the digital generation.” She also announces that the site will offer the first-ever Harry Potter e-books. Previously a dogged print holdout, Rowling now portrays herself as bowing to the winds of change. “You can’t hold back progress,” she said in a recent press conference. “E-books are here and they are here to stay.”

That’s true enough, and it’s the angle that most media outlets have followed in reporting the announcement. But somehow I suspect that J. K. Rowling bows to no one and nothing, not even the wizardry of modern technology. I think she’s a tremendously savvy woman, and I think she and the franchise she’s created have timed this business move very precisely.

My guess is, she held out against e-books until she judged that selling them would maximally augment, and minimally undercut, her print book sales. Now that the last Potter movie is hitting theaters, there will be no more major tie-ins to spike hard copy sales, which will likely hit a comfortable plateau. Meanwhile, it’s the perfect opportunity to introduce a fresh, “enhanced” format to fans who bought the print editions the first time around, as well as potential new fans who didn’t—and who might never be persuaded to without the kind of promotional blitz that accompanies movie premieres. In other words, she’s netting a) everyone interested in either a print or electronic edition, and b) the maximum number of people willing to buy both—a willingness they might not have shown if she’d offered e-books much earlier, or later.

And so, while most coverage frames “Pottermore” as a story of digital media on the rise, I see it as an oblique testament to the continuing possibilities of print. For so many Rowling devotees, those hardcover Potter books became enchanted talismans. (It’s no accident that they’re beautifully designed objects.) Their tangible arrival in bookstores sparked real-world, communal gatherings that helped swell the Potter phenomenon to new heights. I gather that Rowling saw what was happening and had the good sense to sit back and wait, letting print sales take their course before offering electronic editions that could cannibalize them in the slightest.

Rowling's going independent with her e-book sales, but her broader strategy is one that shrewd publishers could adapt to other titles. In fact, it wouldn’t be too different from the film industry’s theater-release vs. DVD-release model. Many customers still see movies in the theaters rather than waiting for Netflix; the same marketing-fueled eagerness can still drive a portion of readers to bookstores to buy books, even though they know downloadable editions will ultimately be available. (True, e-piracy poses an ongoing threat to both of these models, but that’s a discussion for another time.) As with DVDs, e-books can bundle in fun extras for those willing to make a second purchase of the same entertainment experience.

In Barnes & Noble yesterday I saw a fat stack of Potter tomes displayed under a sign that read, “IT ALL STARTED WITH A BOOK.” The message was a little pointed, but the point was well taken. Add “print” to that sentence, and you have a potential lesson for anyone hoping to bottle Rowling’s entrepreneurial magic.

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