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When a mysterious “Pottermore” website appeared online with a countdown clock, Harry Potter fans were soon abuzz with excitement over what J.K. Rowling might have in store. After days of speculation surrounding the purpose of the site, with guesses ranging from additional books in the series to an online role-playing game, J.K Rowling announced on June 24 that the site would host an interactive online universe with new, unreleased details about the characters, places, and events from the Harry Potter series. Timed to appear shortly after the release of the final Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film this summer, Pottermore will launch in October 2011. However, the bigger news may be Ms. Rowling’s announcement that Pottermore will also make the Harry Potter novels available in digital audiobook and e-book format for the first time. J.K. Rowling retained all digital rights to her novels when she first began publishing the books in the late 1990s. Until now, she has refused to offer the series in an e-book format, which has contributed to the rampant piracy of the Harry Potter books online. Although Ms. Rowling has said the e-books will be compatible with all major e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook, they will only be available for purchase from the Pottermore site itself.
While fans are thrilled, publishing companies and online retailers might be less than elated by Ms. Rowling’s decision to self-publish. By offering the e-books through her own site, Ms. Rowling is able to completely control how digital copies of her works are offered and distributed. In addition, Ms. Rowling will receive all the profits from the e-books, without having to share a percentage with an online distributor like Amazon. This decision has been noted as “another mark of legitimacy for self-publishing . . . [and] yet another blow to the traditional publishing industry.” Ms. Rowling is also making another atypical digital content decision with her e-books. Part of what locks a digital book into a particular e-book format and prevents sharing is Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. In order to make the Harry Potter series available in a variety of e-book formats, reports say that the books will be DRM-free, although there will be a digital watermark system applied to the e-books. This decision has been viewed as an indication that Ms. Rowling is “trusting [that fans will] do the right thing” and not pirate her works. Other sources have compared Rowling’s decision to self-publish her e-books with rock band Radiohead’s decision in 2007 to self-release “their album In Rainbows after the end of their contract with EMI with an honesty-box pricing strategy” that allowed buyers to choose what price they paid.
With such a major author choosing to digitally self-publish in this way, many wonder if J.K. Rowling’s approach will catch on with other authors. Depending on the success of Pottermore, authors may begin to look seriously at self-publishing e-books rather than signing over digital rights to publishers. For now, it remains to be seen what long-term effect the Pottermore site will have on the world of publishing or digital rights.
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