Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pottermore: A Whole New Ballgame

In sports, it’s called a game-changer. It’s that play, that moment, that person who shakes everything up and changes forever the course of a game. Recently, J.K. Rowling has decided to be a game-changer in the publishing industry and where this may lead, no one knows. Ms. Rowling has announced the launch of Pottermore, a website from which she will exclusively sell her famous Harry Potter book series in digital format.

Until now, if you wanted to read any of the Potter books you’ve had to do it the old fashioned way and actually buy or borrow an honest-to-goodness, book of printed word on bound paper. But starting with the release of the Pottermore site on Harry’s birthday, July 31st, you’ll be able to pay for and download the e-book version of each of the seven bestsellers over a wide number of platforms.

Yesterday, publishing companies were cutting book stores out of the loop by shifting sales to e-book and online-related merchandise and today, just like that, in one fell swoop, Rowling has eliminated the need for publishers by skipping them in the process. The question is what does this mean for the future?

Initially, it means very little. J.K. Rowling has power that very few other authors do and that is the power to make the buyer come to her. The Potter books are a proven commodity, they are books that draw people in not just to read once, but to re-read multiple times, like visiting old friends. They are also collectible in that parents want to have them for their own kids to read someday (and to help explain why they might have a tattoo of a Hippogriff on their chest). To tech savvy young parents that means collecting them digitally, not on some dusty old shelf. In other words, Rowling can confidently set up her Pottermore website, announce it to the world and fully expect the buyers to come to her.

She doesn’t need the book resellers. She doesn’t need a publishing house. She doesn’t need Amazon or anyone else. All she has to do is ring the dinner bell and wait for the crowds to come running. In doing so, she deprives resellers and the publishing industry of millions, if not billions of dollars—all of which they would have gladly taken for doing what actually amounts to very little. If Rowling had announced that she was simply releasing the books in an e-reader compliant version and gone through traditional channels, it would have been seen as a boon to the entire industry. Instead what they receive is a harsh wake up call.

Fortunately for publishers, it doesn’t mean much more than the loss of some free revenue in the short term--the U.S. & U.K. Publishers are only receiving a small percentage of the earnings with Pottermore Publishing receiving the lion's share. J.K. Rowling may have the power, influence and product to be able to step out on her own and cut out all the greedy little hands grabbing at percentages of her work, but few other writers do. Even writers as prolific as Stephen King would have trouble, drawing customers to a site, which sold only his works. Cult favorites like Stephanie Meyer may be taking notice though.

Looking ahead, you can almost map out the strategies for the publishing giants. They will insist on total control from new writers. They will squeeze even more than they already do from writers who are desperate to make their way into the business. That strategy is as flawed as is it is obvious the direction they will take. It reminds me of a line from Star Wars when Princess Leia says: “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Substitute dollars for star systems and you can see the murky future of book publishers and retailers.

What writers are going to start to do is to take a good look at what exactly they get from their publishers. Do they offer marketing support in line with the percentage of revenue and rights they demand? The answer for most writers will be, simply, “no.” By pushing the publishing industry toward the e-reader and sales through online platforms, they have essentially made themselves obsolete.

Do you think the people at Amazon aren’t taking notice of this event? What they have to be asking themselves is what is it exactly that the publishing houses offer them? Amazon is the unquestioned king of online retail and marketing. As we steer closer to a paper-free world, why wouldn’t a company like that approach recognizable authors and tempt them to sell directly and only through their company? The publishing giants have made themselves irrelevant middlemen in the process.

Authors have to ask what a publisher truly does for them now? They demand much, that’s for certain. But what do they provide? Do you think the online outlets will stop selling the works of best-selling authors simply because they are no longer attached to publishers? Of course not. Do the publishers manage the distribution of the product to stores around the world? Not anymore they don’t. Do the publishers market books to the world in a way that creates excitement and generates sales? No. The marketing arm of the publishing industry is as impotent as old men before Viagra and as creative as a 4th grade math teacher.

The answer, plain and simple is that the publishing industry, which is going to demand more and more, is capable of providing less and less. The tighter they squeeze, the more writers and dollars will slip through their fingers. Self-published books have been something of a joke until now, but in the blink of an eye they have become so much more. Every author in the world is questioning his or her relationship with their publisher today. Every one of them is asking themselves, besides stifle creativity, sap financially and control draconically—what does my publishing house do for me?

The next question they’ll ask is who can do it better? Who can do it for less, allowing me to earn more for the work that I have done? The weeks of touring cities and doing book signings will become a single sit down for a live webinar marketed to millions. It will be twice as effective, take a fraction of the time and allow the writers to more quickly get back to what they do best—write.

The launch of Pottermore is historic one. It won’t be overnight, but this is the beginning of the end for book publishers. They worked to usher in the next age, forsaking trusted, long-term partners and now they will pay the price for their lack of vision. They have made themselves obsolete. J.K. Rowling is just the first in what is sure to be a long line of defectors. The game has changed and nothing will ever be the same again. The switch to e-reading platforms is now solidified and the need for publisher is gone. The online giants will take over now. Here’s hoping they take better care of literature than their forbearers have.