Is Pottermore Going to Change the eBook Market?

As Michael told you the other day, the new Harry Potter official site Pottermore has been launched with much fanfare.  Your source for all things related to the Potter universe, including (finally!) electronic versions of all the books.  (And your faithful Gear Diary team has discussed that a bit in other posts as well.)

Now, this is a big deal, of course, because the Potter books are insanely popular and Rowling’s going to make a ton of money from the site.  But Matt Yglesias, a man who is almost always thoughtful when it comes to politics, decided to throw his hat into the eBook opinion ring, and opined that “J.K. Rowling just transformed the publishing industry”:

Via Joshua Gans, Harry Potter fans can now get their favorite books in digital format. But not from Amazon or the iTunes bookstore. Instead, the exclusive source of Potter ebooks is J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website where you’re able to get them in formats that run on all major e-readers and tablets.

This is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I said it was ridiculous to be worrying about book publisher collusion and price-fixing. It’s just way too easy to bypass traditional distribution channels in this space for anyone to have enduring pricing power.

To which I say: Bushwah.

That Rowling’s site will have some kind of impact on the eBook field is a given.  But “transforming” it?  Absurd.

Perhaps Yglesias simply doesn’t know, but setting up and maintaining a commercial web site is an extensive undertaking.  (Just ask Judie!).  A billing system, IT support, hard disk/server/cloud space, overall design . . . there are a huge number of details to get right, and unless you’re an expert with unlimited time, you have to hire people and pay them good money to work on it.  It took Rowling’s team–and rest assured it was an extensive team–about a year to get the site up and running.  Six months of development or so, then another six months of beta testing.  I don’t think Yglesias has any idea just how insanely expensive that can be.  (10 people at $50K each–and that is a very, very, very low estimate; tech professionals charge way more–would be $500,000.  How many struggling authors have half a million bucks lying around?)

So to imply that any ol’ author could do what Rowling did, and that everyone can just bypass publishers and the traditional eBook distribution channels, is absurd.  If you’re a multi-millionaire author with an insanely valuable back catalog who can afford the initial costs of the setup, yeah, you can do it.  But how many people does that cover?  Steven King, Rowling, John Grisham, maybe a few others.  But mid-list or low-selling authors just trying to break in?  Please.

But let’s say you do a DIY job; you cobble together something, use previously existing tools, packages, and templates to put a site together, maybe use PayPal for the money end, and offer it in eBook format so that folks can put it on the maximum number of platforms.  Unless you’re a hugely famous author like Rowling, who’s going to know?  And if you’re not Rowling, who’s going to go to the trouble of downloading your ePub file and trying to shoehorn it onto your Kindle or Nook?  A few people, maybe, but enough for you to make a living?  Unlikely.  And does Yglesias think that anyone with less clout than a Rowling will get Amazon and Barnes and Noble to agree to let them offer eBooks in their proprietary formats?  Doubtful, don’t you think?

This is often the problem when folks start offering opinions outside their field–God knows I’m guilty of it plenty myself!  Yglesias is a political writer, a topic on which he is sharp, cogent, thoughtful, and interesting.  But this?  This is an area where your Gear Diary folks have a lot of knowledge and experience, and this particular GD contributor says to Mr. Yglesias:  baloney.

But at least it started an interesting discussion!  Tell us what you think below.

Categories: Rants and Raves


6 replies

  1. I agree with you completely Doug. One thing I just realized when I re-read this: anyone can release a DRM free book for NOOK or Kindle. The thing is, no one except JK Rowling could convince B&N and Amazon to list content on their site but direct sales to an external site. That’s what Pottermore does, and it shows a shocking lack of knowledge of publishing and ebooks to think that anyone else could pull that off.

    There’s a difference between publishing gatekeepers and retail gatekeepers. You can cut out the publishing one, but cut out the retailer and you’re in for a world of pain trying to create a market from scratch.

  2. I’m not so sure Rowlings is the ONLY writer with enough clout and dollars available to do this, but I agree it’s not a huge game changer. Most writers still need Amazon, even very successful writers.

    • I think she is one of a very few. There’s two pieces to this: driving customers directly to the authors site, and getting retailers to agree to drive customers away from their site.
      Outside of the huge pent up demand for the Harry potter books, I can’t think of who could get everyone to agree to those kinds of conditions. Possibly college bookstores but that’s about it, and that’s a different kind of unique situation.
      Even at the height of the mania for “The Da Vinci Code” I don’t think a separate ebook site would have taken off…Pottermore and JK Rowling are really one of a kind.

  3. I do wonder whether Amazon and B&N have been given a small royalty percentage in exchange for directing the sales to the Pottermore site.


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