So publishing's 'Beatles moment' has finally arrived. All seven of J K Rowling's phenomenally successful Harry Potter books can finally be bought in e-book format, the first three priced at £4.99, the second four at £6.99. Chief technology officer Julian Thomas described it to me as "one of the biggest e-book retailing events in history".
The launch is slightly ahead of what was expected after the roll-out was originally delayed from last October. In March the Pottermore Insider blog suggested an "early April" release, but still most people I've been speaking to were expecting the e-books to come on stream by mid-April at the earliest, with the Pottermore site to launch at the end of the month. However, with the e-books now live, it looks like the virtual world will be launched in days, rather than weeks.
So what do we know:
First, the Harry Potter brand still carries a great deal of muscle, but not enough to get Apple to change its terms. According to Charlie Redmayne, chief executive, the company has done some "groundbreaking deals" with Sony, Google, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, whereby the e-books will be featured on their sites, but the customer will be sent to Pottermore to handle the transaction. "This is the first time Amazon and B&N have driven customers off their platform to another site, and then given the ability to push that content back to their device." Redmayne would not be drawn on what the retailers would earn from this deal, but said "clearly they should earn out of it in the same way we should".
Second, Pottermore is innovating. It has to really, and has the money and space to do some really interesting things. For example, the e-books will be DRM free: DRM will only be applied once they are pushed through to a Kindle, or Nook device, or loaned to library users via the OverDrive system - but customers will also be able to download a basic DRM-free ePub version. Readers will be able to securely "push" the digital books to up to eight devices concurrently. That's pretty flexible and shows that the Pottermore folk want to digital reading experience to be as seamless as the print example.
Pottermore is using a watermark system so each e-book is personalised. If pirate editions leak, then the company will be able to track the source. DRM was largely rubbished on The Naked Book last week, and I said then that it would take a big brand to test the waters to see if piracy can be mollified by issuing DRM free e-books and playing to a customer's sense of what is right. Pottermore has set itself up as the guinea pig.
Redmayne told me: "Harry Potter books are already pirated extensively: my view is that the one thing we sould learn from the music industry, is that one of the best ways of fighting back against piracy is making content available to consumers at a platform they want to purchase it on, and at a price they are willing to pay, and if you do that most people will instinctively want to buy it."
Third, similarly Pottermore is approaching its relationship with libraries slightly differently to the big publishers. For starters, it is making the e-book available to library users for free. But it is imposing a restriction of a five year licence on each e-book bought by a library; different for example to HarperCollins' 26 issue rule, whereby an e-book can only be loaned 26-times before a library must buy a new copy. Redmayne explained: "It is not capped, but limited to a five year period. It can't be perpetual, so to limit it for five years we think is fair."
Fourth, these e-books are not enhanced, but we can expect to see enhanced versions of the books, possibly even this year. Redmayne said: "The opportunity to build really ground breaking enhanced products for these wonderful new devices, such as Sony's tablet, is huge. I wish they were there for launch, but we have not had the time to get everything done. I want them to come downstream really quickly, I'd love to have something ready for the autumn, but I've got a lot get done." Aside from Pottermore itself, Redmayne seemed most excited by this challenge. And it is big one despite the large repositories of content available to the digital business.
Fifth, when it was originally launched Pottermore was criticised for cutting out retailers. Both indies and Waterstones felt that they had helped contribute to the success of the print books but were getting nothing back. My sense is that Pottermore and Rowling are keen to avoid these accusations resurfacing, and that there is a genuine understanding of the need to give something back, both to retailers and readers.
The deals Pottermore has already cut with Amazon, B&N etc, suggest that the company has seen the business sense of making these books available on third-party sites (even if the transaction is ultimately undertaken on Pottermore), and Redmayne confirmed that Pottermore would also launch an affiliates scheme for other booksellers.
Last, Pottermore is coming really soon. Redmayne said he was "proud" of the site and the work done since he joined the business, but would be even "prouder" once the new content started being released. He said of the 1m beta-users allowed to pre-access the site, 97% had visited every possible page. He said the site would grow rapidly and evolve once it launches.
Despite the delays, I always said it was way too soon to be writing off Pottermore, particularly since Redmayne did not join until well into the process of its development. In March the Pottermore Insider blog blamed the delay on switching the site to "an entirely different platform". Redmayne confirmed that he had to overhaul the infrastructure following the launch of the the beta site, and that he wanted to bring in his own development team—the company now employs 20 full-time staff, heading towards 30 by the end of this year. Redmayne also brought in the Javelin Group to develop its e-commerce platform, replacing OverDrive.
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