J.K. Rowling's Big Deal

Will Pottermore, an online distributor of Harry Potter e-books, spell the end of the traditional bookstore?rowling-ap-david cheskin-body.jpg
J.K. Rowling's decision to sell her Harry Potter e-books directly to consumers across every reading device (assuming she can conclude the necessary agreements which, given the stakes, seems inevitable) is a very big deal—in all the meanings of the term. Rowling has sold 450 million books worldwide to date in seventy languages—$7 billion in sales, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is only the beginning of what is certain to be a lasting demand for the series, as young readers reach the age when they launch into the spell that so enraptured the first generation to encounter the seven books as Rowling released them to mounting popularity and excitement.

What we didn't know about Rowling is that she is as brilliant (or shrewdly advised) a businesswoman as she is a storyteller. As other authors turned over their digital rights to publishers—including superstars such as James Patterson and John Grisham—Rowling held back, allowing the books to be sold only in printed and audio versions. Now, Rowling has made her move with the announcement last month that, after a test version this summer and the release of the last of the films—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2—she would begin selling the e-book versions of the Potter novels in multiple languages through a freely accessible site called Pottermore. She also plans to supplement the books with substantial new content and other enhancements bound to attract an enormous audience.

Rowling's decision to share some of the proceeds of the book sales with her print publishers—Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom and Scholastic in the United States—is another measure of her careful management of this breakthrough in marketing strategy. While the digital sales through the site are likely to be huge, the printed books have a very long way to go before they are no longer a major asset to Rowling, her publishers, and booksellers. Pottermore is a guaranteed success, once details are worked out with the major e-book retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Google, and Sony, which may well have been done by the time you read this piece. The big question is how significantly Pottermore will impact the rest of the book trade.

There are major rumblings across the spectrum of authors, agents, and digital booksellers—especially Amazon—about ways to sidestep the traditional retail channels, with the clear intent of pulling a substantially larger share of sales proceeds than they have in the past. Rowling's initiative is bound to encourage other major authors to press for a greater portion of revenues than they have received so far, with the implied "threat" of breaking away from their long-time partners and going direct to consumers.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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