Harry Potter and the Interactive Digital Environment

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


When it comes to converting the Harry Potter series for e-books, J.K. Rowling is relatively late to the game. She is a long-established advocate for print and paper, but Ms. Rowling said in a recent BBC interview that her leisurely pace in releasing the books in electronic form was less a symptom of committed atavism than a result of being too busy.

“One of the reasons I resisted doing e-books for so long was I couldn’t cope with anything else,” she told the BBC, adding that she had bought a Kindle a year ago. “The decision as to when to do it, how to do it, just seemed like one thing I could defer. I was more interested in writing the books.” (Presumably, the wild success of the books in print form tempered the urgency, as well.)

Traditional bookstores would thank her for not having rushed in, but now, with her empire complete, the movies all made and the generation that first read Harry Potter old enough to have children of their own, the time had come to find a way to make Harry Potter new again for young readers. Thanks to the era in which she signed her early books deals (the first one sold here in 1998), Ms. Rowling also retained the digital rights to her properties, a feat that would be difficult to accomplish today. And while a less savvy businesswoman might have dusted her hands of the matter and simply turned over e-book publishing to Scholastic, Ms. Rowling did not reach the point of selling 15 million books on a single day, with hundreds of millions of books over all, driving a movie franchise that has grossed $7.3 billion dollars worldwide, by being anything less than meticulous. She has said in the past, however, that if she had retained control of the movie rights she would have tried to avoid merchandising, so her website will not necessarily be an online emporium for Halloween costumes, butterbeer and quidditch brooms.

Even more surprisingly, Ms. Rowling did not turn her back on her publishers: Bloomsbury (in England), Scholastic (in America) and her other publishers will get a cut of the regional editions of her e-books. When asked why Ms. Rowling would not claim all e-book profits for herself, the representative for her American publisher framed it as a sort of altruistic act. “The author decided to acknowledge us for all of our contributions,” said Ms. Good.

But others contend that it wasn’t just that. According to Mike Shatzkin, contracts that preceded consciousness about digital rights tend to be ambiguous, but on the publishing side they usually contained a noncompete clause.

“An e-book would pretty clearly constitute competition for a print book,” said Mr. Shatzkin. While a legal precedent has yet to be established on the matter, one argument for why Ms. Rowling gave her publishers a cut of royalties might be that the noncompete cause would constitute legal grounds for her publishers to sue her. “There would have been the possibility of a nasty dispute if she had not done something that cut them in,” he said. Furthermore, he added, Ms. Rowling might want to write another print book (despite some hints to the contrary) and she would likely want to link any future projects with past ones by maintaining her relationship with her publishers.

“I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t generous, but it also wasn’t totally spontaneous,” he said.

As for other interactive book sites, Pottermore may be unique, and potentially inimitable, but it isn’t alone in its effort to engage readers in the virtual space—and thereby to sell books. Scholastic has produced an interactive book site called The 39 Clues, which augments a series of books with online games and collectible cards. Since its launch in 2008, it has been a major success, with more than 1.6 million registered users, more than 10 million copies of the accompanying books in print, foreign rights sold to 25 countries and film rights optioned to Dreamworks. The site has also banked on the services of big-name writers—David Baldacci and the bestselling children’s writer Gordon Korman will both be writing books for the series.

HarperCollins, for its part, has had success with an interactive book site for teenage girls called the Amanda Project. Like Pottermore, the site is an interactive environment accompanied by a book series, billing itself as “the first collaborative, interactive fiction series for girls aged 13 and up.” Unlike Pottermore, users of the site insert themselves as characters in the mystery of Amanda Valentino, a mysterious new arrival at a school who then goes missing. Some of these user-generated characters are then picked up by the series’ writers and inserted into the actual books. Also unlike Pottermore, the Amanda Project is not an online bookstore—to actually buy the books, users click out through a long list of participating bookstores.

While users of Pottermore will be able to upload “their comments, thoughts and artwork,” the site will not be a forum for fan fiction, a place to chat with friends or social network or a crowd-sourced literary experiment.

“The best way to think of Pottermore is as an interactive, illustrated companion to the books,” read a post on the official Pottermore blog, making fans “able to experience Harry’s story in a new way and discover all the additional information that J.K. Rowling has written.” And while few book futurists think that J.K. Rowling is indicative of a trend, the Institute for the Future of the Book’s Bob Stein did have one concern:

“What I get scared about is that the only thing any major publisher will want to do is swing to the fences so they can make a Harry Potter-type franchise and generate the kind of profits that Harry Potter did that enabled them to create something like Pottermore,” he said.


Harry Potter and the Interactive Digital Environment