01-pottermore2jpgIt’s no news that eBooks caught 99% of the population unawares.  (Check out the article link in the next paragraph – boy, have we come a long way.)  I’d say most authors got with the times, and most have now been e-publishing current books as well as backlists for a few years.

Except for one writer: Joanne Kathleen Rowling, aka the Woman Who Can Do Whatever the Hell She Wants.  Seven years ago, she officially refused to make the Harry Potter series available as eBooks, despite rampant piracy – until last year, when she announced the arrival of Pottermore, a “unique and free-to-use Web site which builds an exciting online experience” around Harry Potter, and produced in partnership with Sony (according to the press release).  Ten months later, Pottermore opened to the public, and hoo boy, the windmills start again.

What is Pottermore?  It’s two things.  First and foremost, it’s an online portal through which you can relive the Harry Potter books, see chapters and scenes gently animated, interact with the Harry Potter universe, discover characters’ backstories and behind-the-scenes tidbits, and engage with others in the Pottermore community.  You can go shopping on Diagon Alley, collect galleons, magical artefacts, and Chocolate Frog Cards, duel with other wizards – oh, and you answer two nifty quizzes to get a wand and be sorted into houses.  (My wand, by the way, is a 10-inch unyielding ash with unicorn core, and I am now officially in Gryffindor.)

The buzz around this aspect of Pottermore has been relatively low, and I can see why.  For anyone with even a passing interest in video games or acquaintance with an iPad, Pottermore doesn’t make the cut.  But I think it’s fun, and JKR is probably the first major author to create such an interactive compendium that doubles as massive fan forum.

But I did mention that Pottermore is two things, and this is what has pigeons a-fluttering.  For Pottermore is now the one-stop-shop for all Harry Potter eBooks, and when I say one-stop, I mean it.  You want Harry Potter for your Kindle Touch?  Amazon will bounce you to Pottermore.  You want to gift it to your niece, who has a NOOK Tablet?  B&N will bounce you to Pottermore.  Ditto Sony and Google Play.  Otherwise, you can download a DRM-free EPUB version and sideload it onto your Kobo/Opus/iPad/etc.

This has several implications, which has raised questions and eyebrows all over:

  1. You want to lend a book?  Now you can.  If you buy a book, Pottermore allows you to download it 8 times – in any format you want.  Which means you could buy it once, and download it onto your Kobo, your daughter’s iPad, your husband’s NOOK, and your dog’s Kindle.  And they’d have it forever.  (CNET dissects this in further detail, and also in the agency-pricing context here.)
  2. Digital Rights Management.  If you download an eBook for a device that requires DRM encryption (e.g. Kindle, NOOK), then your eBook will be encrypted with DRM.  Or, you could just download the open EPUB version (still free, remember?) and convert to your heart’s content.  To take care of security issues, the books will be digitally watermarked, which label the book in perpetuity as “Jean Wan bought this, and if you have this book it had better be a legal copy.”
  3. Yet another account.  JKR struck a deal with the big digital retailers, who realized it was better to have a miniscule slice of the pie than nothing at all.  So all transactions are processed through Pottermore.  This means setting up an account, which means Pottermore, and by default, Pottermore’s partner Sony, will collect all your super important customer information unless you opt out.  I scrutinized the privacy policy pretty closely, and while I’m no legal crack brain, it seems par for the course.
  4. Payment… Blythe AAR was more than a little peeved when she realized that she couldn’t pay for the eBooks using a B&N gift card.  In the FAQs, Pottermore addresses this question without equivocation (and more than a little snootiness, in my opinion): “No, you cannot use vouchers from other providers
    [e.g. Amazon] at the Pottermore Shop.”  And unlike the FAQ about American Express, it doesn’t sound like the option will be offered any time soon.
  5. And Security.  Pat AAR’s first reaction to Pottermore was, “Um, what about the hackers?”  I hadn’t even thought of that aspect, but I figure that in this way, JKR is like Amazon.  No matter what anyone wants to say against Amazon, its first priority, at least on the surface, is the customer.  Prices are low.  Credit card security is top notch.  Products are excellent.  And customer service is superb.  That’s how people remain loyal to Amazon – because it takes care of them.  Similarly, JKR has spent over a decade building an incredible fan base that is loyal to her because the books, and the movies, took care of the loyalty and vision entrusted to them by the fans.  She’s not about to jeopardize that trust by leaving Pottermore, an effort that nominally “gives back to readers”, open to hackers.
  6. If Anyone is Untouchable, J. K. Rowling Is. Think about it: This is the first time a major author has offered eBooks directly to the public without going through a retailer, albeit with the benefit of having been previously edited and a head honcho direct from HarperCollins.  Yes, it’s an interesting model that throws another curveball in the publishing game, and most of the press has concentrated on this “evening of the playing field” (e.g. here, here, here, and here).  But I think this is an anomaly, not a precedent.    J. K. Rowling is probably the only author on the planet who has the clout to even temporarily change the rules.

Speaking from a consumer point of view, it comes down to one question: Do I want to buy into Pottermore?  Do the multi-format possibilities make up for the inconveniences?  And I have to keep in mind that Pottermore is still in development; there are rumours that eventually you’ll be able to read the whole books with the interactive content directly linked (is this the Apple ace-in-the-hole?), and a whole host of other potential merchandise (a Hogsmeade store?).  If your answer is yes, then all the inconveniences – the pricing, the payment options, potential security risks, having to bow to the whim of one author – will be worth it.

For most consumers, the answer will be yes.  Because it comes down to trust.  For others, I suspect this might be the last straw.

Now it’s over to you.  Do you think JKR’s retail scheme changes the playing field, or is it a minor blip?  Is there enough in Pottermore that gives back to the consumer to sweeten the bitter?  If you’re on Pottermore, what’s your take?

– Jean AAR