Harry Potter and the Interactive Digital Environment

The newest installment in J.K. Rowling’s ever-expanding empire

A scene from the Hogwarts Express on Pottermore.

The problem with looking to J.K. Rowling for inspiration about how to transition a book franchise into the digital era is that no author can really be compared to J.K. Rowling.

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“She’s kind of like the Oprah of children’s books,” said Lorraine Shanley, co-founder of Market Partners International, which consults on digital books.

“I mean, she’s the Beatles,” said Mike Shatzkin, CEO of the Idea Logical Company, another book futurist.

“Everything about J.K. Rowling is unique to J.K. Rowling,” affirmed Kyle Good, a publicist for Scholastic, which publishes the Harry Potter series in America.

So when J.K. Rowling announced that she would bypass retailers and exclusively sell the digital editions of the books herself, luring customers into her online bookshop by creating an elaborate online fantasmagoria called Pottermore, the prevailing sentiment in publishing—in sharp contrast to that of the reading public—was indifference.

“I think the important point about Pottermore is that this is not something we need to worry about lots and lots of people doing,” said Mr. Shatzkin.

“Think about all the money they must be spending to do this!” said Bob Stein, who founded the Institute for the Future of the Book. “It’s the franchise that permits it.”

Pottermore, for those who didn’t receive the owl, will be launched by J.K. Rowling in October, with a beta version for a select million die-hards being tested over the next few weeks. The site will be the sole retail outlet from which readers can purchase digital versions of the Harry Potter books, which have previously been available in digital format only as illegal bootlegs. To encourage her readers/customers to forego the book store in favor of a specific shopping trip to Pottermore, Ms. Rowling and her business partner, Sony, have recreated key scenes of the first book as a digital “interactive environment” and initially included some 18,000 words of new writing that will provide greater detail and background about the world of Harry Potter (which, we might point out, is only about the length of three New Yorker stories). They also orchestrated an elaborate build-up that has whipped Harry Potter nerds into an anticipatory frenzy.

The first clues appeared on Harry Potter fan sites on June 15. They came in the form of geographical coordinates, posted at sites called Mugglenet, the Leaky Cauldron, Snitch Seeker and others. The coordinates, when entered into a site called Secret Street View, corresponded with 10 locations, including Salem, Mass., King’s Cross Station in London and New Orleans. Each street view page was superimposed with a letter, which, as the fans decoded, eventually spelled out “more Potter”—or, as it turned out, “Pottermore.” The fans freaked out—a new book!—but they were wrong: no new book, at least not now, just a web site called Pottermore, and what that was, nobody knew. An ad campaign posted online and broadcast in Times Square announced only that “the owls are gathering.” The animated owls—great horned, snowy, barn (screech? burrowing? spotted?)—turned out to be congregating on the branches of a special Pottermore channel on YouTube that had a countdown to an announcement scheduled for June 23.

On that day, Ms. Rowling appeared on the channel in a video to describe “an online reading experience unlike any other.” Seated on a leather couch in a softly lit room and speaking over tinkling piano music, Ms. Rowling thanked her fans for their undying love and then, as an exquisitely animated paper owl took flight from the pages of a Harry Potter book, she described the new site.

“Just as the experience of reading requires that the imaginations of author and reader work together to create the story, so Pottermore will be built in part by you, the reader,” said Ms. Rowling, in lulling tones. She announced that the site will include material that she’s “been hoarding for years” about the details of the wizarding world and be a place for users to post their own interpretations of Harry and his friends. Users will also interact with what the digital marketers are calling “key story moments.” In the storyline for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone they will be assigned a house by the sorting hat, be able to mix potions and go shopping for their own wand and compete with their friends for a house cup by playing games (one of which appears from the previews to be plain old chess). Environments from the other books will follow, with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets launching on the site in 2012. Visitors will also, of course and most importantly, be able to shop.

Harry Potter and the Interactive Digital Environment