Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why the Harry Potter E-books Are and Aren't a Really Big Deal

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the last tome of a hardcover that I lugged around on vacation. It took up seemingly half my suitcase and weighed a ton, but because it wasn't available in e-book form and because I don't believe in piracy, I carried that thing across the country.

Now I'm thrilled to have the entire Harry Potter series resting weightlessly within my iPad.

As you have likely heard, Harry Potter is available in e-book form. And not just in e-book form, but available only through Pottermore, the digital extension of the Harry Potter brand. No other e-book vendor has it for sale, including the e-book behemoths like Amazon, B&N and iBooks. And the e-books are published by Rowling herself.

Yeah, wow.

Why This is a Big Deal

J.K. Rowling just did an entire end-around on the entire publishing world in many, many ways.

Most of the focus has been on how these are for sale only from the author, and rightly so. Even Amazon is playing ball, listing the books for sale but referring people to Pottermore to make the purchase.

And the manner in which these e-books are being distributed is revolutionary.  They're being sold without DRM but with digital watermarks to guard against piracy. Each purchaser has 8 digital copies they can download in various formats, and it's very easy to convert to the most popular devices. I had the e-books on my iPad within minutes.

The approach to DRM is, ironically enough, extremely similar to my earlier post on what good a good approach to DRM would look like - you can convert the files to any device and you have a sufficient number of copies for yourself and others... Only there's no DRM. Ha! 10 points for Gryffindor.

So let's talk about this. No publisher. The author as e-distributor. No DRM.

Should the e-book big boys be shaking in their boots? Could authors and publishers play on their own in a world where they don't actually have to sell through Amazon?

Rowling has certainly woken people up to this possibility. After all, in a Google world do you really have to have a central vendor? If people go looking for a book can't they get it just as easily from going to the author's site as they do from Amazon or iBooks?

Did the game just change for everyone?

Why This Isn't a Big Deal

My opinion? Yeah... not so much.

There is basically one author in the world who can pull this off. And she's the one who is doing it.

Okay, there may be a few more. But in order for this to work in 2012, an author has to build an entire  distribution platform themselves that is compatible with different e-book formats. They have to draw people to that site and handle financial transactions and customer service and all the other million things that go along with selling stuff. It takes massive scale.

If I were to try to pull this off as a self-publisher, even on a smaller scale, I'd still miss out on being discovered by people who hadn't heard of me but were recommended within the e-book stores, where the majority of people will be looking for their books for the foreseeable future. Would the extra 30% of selling the e-books myself and getting 100% of the revenue be worth the hassle and potential lost sales and the cost/pain of maintaining some sort of sales infrastructure? I'm not so sure. Even if a cheap and easy sales distribution platform emerges there are still headaches involved in being a vendor.

There is certainly a possibility of fragmentation in the e-book marketplace if, say, a major publisher or two or three decided they only wanted to sell e-books directly to consumers in Pottermore-esque fashion and withdrew from Amazon and B&N and iBooks. That could really shake up the book world.

But as revolutionary as Pottermore is, I still have a hard time seeing the utopia of an author doing everything themselves from writing to selling ever being the norm.

At least, not until I get my hands on a time-turner.


Bob said...

I agree. I sell my eBooks direct from my own web site in all formats, but most people click on the Amazon or B&N link to buy them from the known entity.

Jessica Bell said...

You're totally right. As wonderful as it sounds in theory, it's not for the average Joe. It's hard enough self-publishing as it is, but to put the extra pressure on yourself to draw customers to your own website would mean having to give up your day job. And we all know we can't afford to do that! JK is great though, for making this leap. I'm definitely cheering her on!

S. Kyle Davis said...

The thing is, publishers developed naturally in the marketplace for a reason. Booksellers developed naturally in the marketplace for a reason. "Power to the author" is a thrilling message to a certain extent, and there are certainly times and places that the publishing and distribution process could be improved, but do away with traditional publishers AND booksellers completely?

I just don't see it happening. People LIKE having others take care of business for them, and will happy exchange part of their revenue for the overall increase in sales numbers that come with traditional publishers and distributors.

You'll notice that, while Rowling is distributing Potter independently, she's still going 100% traditional with her adult book. I'm just saying.

Mr. D said...

I remember when The Beatles started their own record label, and then other bands did it, too.

Anonymous said...

So am I the only one who's thinking that JK & Co did not set up a unique ecommerce architecture, blackjacking multiple billion-dollar companies into doing things they'd never done before, for the sole purpose of selling those seven books? That part of the MORE in PotterMORE is going to be creating an additional marketplace for everyone else's children's books as well?

Laurel said...

What Rowling has done is super cool, but it was lightening in a bottle. First, she still held digital rights. No one else had the right to publish Harry Potter eBooks. That was a function of timing because publishers weren't negotiating for those rights when she started out so she had the ability to refuse them later.

A debut author won't have that kind of clout in traditional publishing. And a self-pub is very unlikely to have the kind of success that the Harry Potter books generated.

I'm sure it will happen, somebody else will pull it off, but it will be a ton of work and require some luck, too.

Anonymous said...

Oh, a vendor that makes it easy and cheap will emerge. It may take a couple years, but there will be a platform.

Craig said...

" and it's very easy to convert to the most popular devices."

And that's why this venture will fail. Rowling is an anomaly with a built in fanbase who may go to the trouble of converting.

(Pretty much) any other author won't. Nor should customers have to jump through any hoops whatsoever to make a purchase. Converting from one format to another? And put up with the inevitable formatting errors just so you can enjoy your purchase? 99% of people won't.

If you want to sell to people make it cheap, make it good quality and make it EASY.

Harry Potter is a life of its own so isn't a great example. No-one else will be able to sell a book and say "convert it to work on device X"

Tiffany said...

JK should open up her pub house and help other YA authors with same plan.

Stephen King should take on the horror and mystery genre with a pub house of his own... And so on!

The authors with enough money and manpower to do create a world where authors get more percentage It would really change things.

Amazon's boots would be dust from so much shaking.

Claire M. Caterer said...

But actually, Craig, it isn't just "easy to convert" the Potter e-books; it's seamless. I didn't have to jump through any hoops. I just hit "download Kindle book" and I was good to go.

But JKR has the money and clout to hire people to handle this enterprise for her. That's what I see as the big difference between her and the rest of us. I barely have time to do the promotion that I should for my novel, and I'm signed with a traditional publisher (Simon & Schuster). The last thing I want is to branch into this end of the business--though I think it's fabulous that some writers can!

Beth said...

I think your post is spot on. The few people in the world who could sell their books completely on their own are Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowing. The list excludes even lots of people that have made the best seller list. I was at an indie store for the tour of Maggie Stiefvater's Linger which debuted on the bestsellers list. A guy at the store asked me why there were so many people here. I told him and he asked who Maggie was. So I told him. He hadn't heard of the book either. I recommended he check out another book she'd written. The point is if someone in the YA section of a bookstore hadn't heard of Maggie until this conversation, there is no way a mid-lister could survive without centralized vending.

Carolyn said...

10 points to Gryffindor? You know it was a Ravenclaw who came up with this! :D

Maya said...

Agree with Claire!

Wouldn't it be cool if JK decided to share her platform, and enter the publishing business as a more open competitor to Amazon? As an author herself, you'd think she would run her business differently, with a greater emphasis on helping authors and less on cornering the market.

Mira said...

Good, interesting post, fascinating topic, and I think you raise some really good points, Nathan.

I both agree and semi-disagree with you. I think in the near future, what you're saying makes sense. The infrastructure doesn't exist that would support authors striking out on their own unless they have a strong following and financial backing/support or personal funds.

But that doesn't mean such an infrastructure couldn't develop. Right now, sales are centralized, but that doesn't have to be the norm.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that authors selling from their own website could become the standard, with referral sites and other services to support it.

Referral sites are developing. Readers want to find good books, and places like Goodreads will continue to thrive in the digital enviornment, helping direct readers to books they want to read.

It's not that big of a step to then direct readers to the author's website to buy the book.

Whether it will happen or not is a very big question, and one I've wondered about. The internet is incredibly powerful. It gives authors much more autonomy than I think many people may be taking in, including those authors themselves.

If Amazon or others began treating authors in a shabby fashion, authors could choose to find other sales platforms, or even unite through the internet and create sales platforms of their own.

Someone above mentioned Amazon shaking in their boots. I not so sure. Amazon sells many items other than books. But also, Amazon appears to be smart enough to stop a trend like this by making their services too attractive to authors to pass up, if it happens.

But you never know! I could be wrong about all of the above. It truly is fascinating to watch this all unfold!

Rick Daley said...

I really could have used this a month-and-a-half ago when I finished The Order of the Phoenix and had to wait a whole day to go to a local indie bookstore and buy Half-Blood Prince.

Not that I mind supporting the indie store, who stocks my book THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS, but I didn't want to wait a whole 14 hours to keep reading....

Kerry Gans said...

You know, I have wondered many times why, if the Big 6 don't like the way Amazon prices their book, they don't simply stop selling books through Amazon? Yes, I know, the answer is "Because Amazon is the biggest book-mover in the world." But it's rather a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they wouldn't be the biggest if the publishers stopped sending them books to sell. If someone wants James Patterson, and Amazon doesn't have it, they will go to whoever does have it. As Nathan pointed out, with the internet it's easy to find the products you want, wherever they may be sold.

So I could easily envision a book world where the Big 6 and maybe even other indie presses, create their own distribution system, bypassing Amazon (and anyone else they choose), and Amazon becomes the bastion of the self-published and other indie press authors.

But I do agree that most authors will not have the time, money, or inclination to be creator, publisher, seller, and everything else that comes along with it. Most of us already are stretched thin juggling the writing and marketing we are supposed to do now--oh, yeah, and the demands of our non-writing life, too. I know it's not what I would want to do!

Bryan Russell said...

This may not be the answer, but I bet it started a few wheels and gears turning. I can see this pushing new ideas and new innovations. People will riff on this and find new forms and models, I'm guessing. A really big butterfly just flapped its wings.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I would love to hear your thoughts on the effect of this on MG e-books in particular. Of course, there are lots of MG kids reading ebooks already. Will this boost e-reader usage amongst MG readers? Will that have a salutary effect on the bottom line for traditional publishers of MG e-books? What about self-pub MG e-books? My feeling is that yes, it will boost e-reader ownership amongst the kidlets, but that was coming anyway. And I don't think it will have much impact on self-pub MG ebooks until the kidlets themselves start browsing and discovering e-books on Amazon (vs. through parents, teachers, librarians, and other gatekeepers).


Taylor Napolsky said...

In my opinion, we authors are overlooking the most important key to selling books independently on a massive scale. Like Nathan said, we need to find Time Turners.

S.M. Souza said...

I think we're overlooking two fundamentals. One, Laurel has mentioned: JKR holds the digital rights to all of her books. And, two, which is the more important thing, she wrote a story that has inspired and captivated the imagination of nearly half a billion readers; with new readers are on the way.

lynnfc said...

It will just be time before this series is pirated, unfortunately. I visited a relative this last weekend and he's an intelligent man who loves his iPad and couldn't wait to tell me his latest find, 5000 full text contemporary books of his favorite authors...he's a spy thriller guy.. on one CD to upload to his iPad, pirated! I expressed my displeasure in defense of all those authors whose royalties were also pirated and told him to keep the CD because I wasn't interested in defense of writers. And anyways, I still like paperback books to highlight, write in, dog ear, and share with someone else.

Anonymous said...

I think the big deal is when all the best selling authors walk away from their publishers and do this.

What will publishers think if James Patterson does this next? Stephen King has already played in this pool. Will he go back and try again?

If the big publishers bread and butter authors walk out the door because they have name recognition, what will the big publishers do? Will they start appreciating their mid-list authors? Oh, wait, they have moved onto self-publishing.

The dominoes can topple pretty fast.

Of course, authors can also do print on demand to create print copies to go along with their eBook distribution channel.

Doug said...

To be picky, Rowling didn't "build an entire distribution platform ... that is compatible with different e-book formats." She wrote a check to OverDrive to have her e-bookstore hosted on their MIDAS system.

The point still stands, though. Few authors are in the position to do that, and they'd still need to pull readers in to their personal sites.

Heck, even the big publishing houses don't bother to have dedicated e-book stores. There are few titles that have enough pull to get readers to bounce around the Web to buy them. The e-book stores still provide a useful intermediary service.

ChiTrader said...

I'm new to the writing business, having yet to be published, but I was an active stock investor and trader back in the 1990s during the internet bubble. I see direct parallels between the internet stocks then and the publishing world now.

Back in the day, it seemed like a new technology and/or a new company was bursting onto the scene on a weekly basis. Some of those "great idea, can't miss" ideas and companies survived. Google,, Yahoo! and the like survived. But for every success story I estimate there were 100 great ideas that sizzled, then fizzled.

It became almost comical to watch investors scramble from one great idea to the next, to the next, to the next, convinced that each one was a sure thing.

The publishing business seems to be shaking out in the same way. One week it's Amanda Hocking going straight to self-publishing, the next it's authors giving away ebooks for free in order to generate sales of other books. The next week it's a race to zero with ebook prices to see if there is a reasonable minimum price that can be established. Etc., etc.

Now JK Rowling is doing an end run around Will she prevail? Will other authors follow her lead? Will book buyers stay with Or will something else come along even better?

Maybe ebooks and ereaders aren't even the end of the continuum. Who knows, some tech genius might invent reading glasses that actually project text onto special lenses so one won't even need a Nook or Kindle. You might turn pages by voice command or looking from far right to far left.

All the new developments are interesting and exciting to consider, but I for one won't be in a rush to decide which technology, sales method, platforms, or marketing schemes will still be around in 10 years. After all, didn't everyone use to think that MySpace would revolutionize social media? Where are they now?


John Stanton said...

For decades time stood still in publishing, nothing changing. Then the quantum shift in the industry opened the exciting potential for writers to become publishers. I was so excited to be involved in a fledgling indie press but found out quickly how much it sucks to be a publisher. Now, after doing it for a few years, I realized that it really, really, really sucks. Managing websites, email mailing lists, formatting, editing, it all sucks. I would love to be just a writer again with a pen and a yellow legal pad. Unfortunately, this is what it takes to be a writer now.

I often wondered why we hadn't seen more big name authors bail on publishers and do it all themselves. Even in the old school printing press technology, someone with the resources of Stephen King could easily be their own publisher. I think it comes back to the universal truth, being a publisher sucks more than being a writer. Even indy star, Amanda Hocking, went the big pub route citing the luxury of having people to do all the publishing BS for her.

There is a great reward to finding a manuscript, making it into a book and bringing to the people. I know there are publishers who enjoy the work. I don't.
I just want to write.

I know a commercially publisher writer who is leaving her publisher to self publish. It was not just a money issue but a service issue. Royalty payments were chronically late, the pub had more books than they could effectively promote and support. The author had built up some name recognition so she was already on the shelves of the stores. Despite the extra work, she made the decision to strike out on her own. Like so many choices in life, it comes down to what sucks less.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree with you. Personally, I find all the changes and brand new choices in publishing quite exciting. And I'm delighted that there are now HARRY POTTER eBooks!

Mira said...

Hey, so I just went to Pottermore and bought the first three books. I wanted to share my reaction.

I noticed that I loved buying the books from J.K herself. It made me feel close to her. I was totally willing to give her my money. And I usually worry alittle about my credit card, but I found myself thinking, J.K. would NEVER mess me over and steal my card.


That's not usually how I feel when I buy on Amazon. Just thought I'd share that.

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