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Harry Potter and the Secret of Keeping It All For Myself, by J.K. Rowling.

June 24, 2011

Jo-Row: Yes, I did in fact eat the canary.

J.K. Rowling’s new website, Pottermore, pitched as a “give back” to loyal readers, shows her once again to be a genius — although this time it’s an evil genius that stabs the booksellers who helped build her empire in the back.

Some fans are feeling mistreated, too.

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After more than a week’s anticipation, Rowling announced some details of Pottermore yesterday, though most people won’t be able to access the site’s treasures until October:

It’s to be a sort of social networking site, a role-playing site, a place for fan fiction, and a Harry Potter encyclopedia where Rowling will apparently dump the contents of years of notebooks and rough drafts.

Rowling revealed all this in a twinkly two-minute pre-recorded announcement that played the by-now classic digital media card: Flattering the viewer/reader/consumer/audience:

“I’m thrilled to say I am now in a position to give you something unique, an online reading experience unlike any other,” Rowing said.  “It’s the same story, with a few crucial additions. The most important one is you.”

Ah, yes: Me. I knew it all along!

And almost as an afterthought — a little bonus for those loyal fans, don’t you know — Rowling mentions that Pottermore will also be the only place where you can buy ebook versions of the seven Harry Potter novels.

I guess a billion dollars — the rough guestimate on Rowling’s fortune after selling more than 450 million print copies of the Potter novels — isn’t enough for our Jo.

Of course, with the spectacular rise of digital books — from 1 percent of book sales four years ago to 20 percent today, and climbing — someone was bound to try something like this sooner or later. Why go through publishers and bookstores, sharing revenue along the way, when you can sell directly to readers?

Well, in Rowling’s case, how about gratitude? The first U.K. printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 totaled 500 copies. Much of the book’s early success can be attributed to handselling by clerks in British bookstores.

As the Potter phenomenon grew, stores stoked the publicity machine with midnight parties that drew thousands of wee fans for the publication of each new book.  True, stores benefited mightily from the prodigious sale of Rowling’s novels, but she would not have been such a stupendous success without their enthusiastic support.

“We’re therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited e-book editions,” says Jon Howells, of Waterstone, Britain’s top bookstore chain.

Why does this matter, in light of the magic of being able to interact directly with the Harry Potter universe, and, it’s implied with Jo herself? It matters because how will the next J.K. Rowling find an audience if bookstores go under and those handselling clerks are in the unemployment line?

“Bricks and mortar stores are taking a lot of bullets and there’s a limit to how many bullets we can take,” says Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn, one of more than 200 independent sellers of e-books through Google. “If the sellers of the Rowling e-books are saying they don’t need bricks and mortar stores, then that’s the result you’ll get.”

Booksellers aren’t the only ones dissatisfied by Pottermore. As the Telegraph reports, after all that initial excitement, a lot of fans felt they’d been trifled with.

“Pottermore’s a bit of an anticlimax,” tweeted one fan. “Yet another way to experience the same story I finished reading four years ago.” And another: “I am so disappointed. Not available until october? Crazy. Should be available NOW dammit!”

Patricio Tarantino, a Potter blogger in Argentina, called Pottermore “a publicity stunt” intended mainly to introduce the ebook store to a mass audience. He hinted a cynical corporate takeover of the Potterverse: “Above all, the iconic Sony logo stands out at the top of the site, so that we don’t forget with whom we’re dealing.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Rowling. After all, an author does have the right to profit from her work, and, as much as I hate digital books and ereaders, she had no choice but to join the 21st century. Plus she’s given untold joy to countless millions, including a middle-aged book reviewer in Fort Lauderdale.

But she might have taken the trouble to find a way to bring booksellers along while not jerking the tender expectations of her most devoted fans quite so much.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 2:25 pm

    JK , can you spare a dime?

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 24, 2011 4:33 pm

    Say it ain’t so, Jo!

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