Entertainment

Can Harry Potter cast an online spell?

J.K. Rowling's Pottermore website could be the 'next wave' in publishing, but don't count the paper book out just yet.

J.K. Rowling's Pottermore website could be the 'next wave' in publishing

J.K. Rowling poses during the launch of new online website Pottermore in London on June 23, 2011. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

As wizards go, Harry Potter was a master. But in the 14 years since his tale started being told, the bespectacled boy's special skills extended far beyond the ability to hide under his invisibility cloak.

Wave a wand: sell more than 350 million books worldwide, 11 million in Canada alone. Cast a spell: sell movie tickets worth $6 billion around the globe and become the highest-grossing series ever. Master another dark art: get children who otherwise had no interest in reading to hide out under the covers with a flashlight to see what would happen next to Harry, Ron and Hermione.

While that magic in ways comes to an end with the release of the final Harry Potter movie, four years after the release of the last book in J.K. Rowling's series, her next bit of wizardry around her boy wonder is about to begin.

Pottermore, Rowling's new online world for all things Harry, including exclusive distribution of the e-version of the Harry books, goes live on July 31 to one million registered users and opens to everyone in October. The e-books will go on sale that month at a yet-to-be-announced price.

"It looks like a rich, game-ified, e-commerce, social community that's multi-layered," says Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Brandon LaCour, 9, from Holyrood, N.L., lined up for hours to get a copy of the new, and last, Harry Potter book at Chapters in St. John's on July 20, 2007. (Rhonda Hayward/Canadian Press)

Not every author — and perhaps hardly any — could hope to make a go of a venture such as Pottermore, some observers suggest. They don't have the resources or fan base that would seem necessary. Yet there is sense the arrival of Pottermore heralds the next generation for a publishing industry already adjusting to — some would argue struggling with — rising interest in e-books. (In May, Amazon.com said e-book sales surpassed those of printed books.)

Amid all the change, though, there is still a feeling that the traditional paperbound book is not yet ready to go the way of the dodo bird.

'So excited' by Pottermore

 

"For publishers, this is definitely … the next wave," says Matrix. Her students who grew up reading the Potter books are "so excited" about Pottermore, "it's ridiculous."

"It's also sort of the end of an era for them, but it's kind of a beginning for a new kind of interactivity and they're really excited about that."

Pottermore promises all sorts of online excitement for Harry fans, ranging from the ability to be sorted into Hogwarts schoolhouses, just as Harry and his friends were, to buying merchandise, playing games and having hearty debates with others through the site's social networking.

"If it socializes reading, it may mean more readers," says Matrix. "It really could create new reading communities that would make reading not only fun but really cool again, which I think Harry already did."

Toronto author Stephen Marche, who has had his own brush with online publishing creativity, doesn't expect to see many Pottermore-like sites popping up.

'Completely unique phenonenom'

"These massive Pottermore kind of activities I think are really restricted to a few writers," he says. "Harry Potter is a completely unique phenomenon in the sense that you have a child's series that has also hit the sweet spot of marketing becoming an art and a science. Those two things have fused together in an incredibly powerful way."

Marche readily serves up how he loves his e-reader, and how websites "matter a lot" as books are published. But his most recent title, How Shakespeare Changed Everything, doesn't have any extra electronic bells and whistles beyond an e-edition.

"It's a book. That's all it wants to be. I don't think wanting to be a book is somehow less."

But he did try his hand at some other online literary creativity last year, publishing through the website of The Walrus magazine an interactive novel that allowed readers to make plot choices.

"It was a book without having the apparatus of a book around it," says Marche, who found the experience "incredibly exciting."

Lucy Hardin's Missing Period was also charting new territory.

"It wasn't reviewed, which is interesting," says Marche. "It didn't fit into the typical reception of a book."

Self-publishing success

While there may not be many authors who can anticipate a Pottermore experience, there are one or two who have enjoyed massive success self-publishing their works as e-publications. They aren't necessarily producing titles that will find their way to the top of literary prize lists, but they have found loyal and lucrative followings that push their titles way up on bestseller lists.

John Locke, from Louisville, Ky., sold more than one million Kindle e-books himself, without a deal with a publisher. But he does have a website and a Twitter account promoting his crime and Western stories, and a theory about how to price his books: go low. While other e-titles might be on sale for around $10, he set his price at 99 cents.

"With the most famous authors in the world charging $9.95 for e-books, I saw an opportunity to compete, and so I put them in the position of having to prove their books were 10 times better than mine," he told the Daily Telegraph.

"Figuring that was a battle I could win, I decided right then and there to become the bestselling author in the world, a buck at a time."

Amanda Hocking, 26, sits in her home with her assistant and roomate Eric Goldman in Austin, Minn., on March 11, 2011. Hocking stumbled across a promising new business model for aspiring authors: self-publishing and marketing through e-booksellers. (Robb Long/Associated Press)

Amanda Hocking, a Minnesota author, has taken in about $2 million through her 10 self-published e-books, which include a four-book vampire series.

But in a reminder that bricks-and-mortar publishers still have a significant role in the literary world, Hocking recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal for a young adult paranormal romance series with a traditional publisher: St. Martin's Press. On her blog, she explained her decision.

"I'm a writer. I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation."

'Best in class'

Matrix predicts Pottermore will be "best in class" and set the mark for competitors.

"I think it's really expensive to do this right. It really helps to have a few billion dollars."

Still, Matrix doesn't figure traditional publishing houses need to be nervous in the face of Pottermore.

"I don't think it's about displacement. I think it's about an extension. It's value-added. This will drive even more people to the bookstores to buy the last Harry Potter or the middle one they missed or the first one."

Marche is also pumped on the potential of e-publishing — "I think it's very exciting" — and doesn't have the pessimism of other authors unsure about the future for books.

"I talk to a lot of writers and I think they're very frightened. I don't really think there's any reason to be frightened at all.

"I think quite the opposite. I think there's more means than ever to get your books into readers' hands. This is actually just a wonderful opportunity."