Pottermore and Beyond: New Digital Opportunities for Authors and Publishers

Oct 31, 2011

Article ImageWhen the first Amazon Kindle was released in 2007, the publishing industry held its breath. Would a digital eReader be the print book's kryptonite just as the web had been for newspapers and magazines? Four years later, most of us still peruse the florescent-lit aisles of Barnes and Nobles on occasion; we even stop by the local library to check out the latest best seller, but with the many digital options currently available for readers to consume content, print media might soon become the last place we look to meet our needs.

Don't panic. This change isn't necessarily a bad thing. Social media, tablets, and eReaders have not only changed the publishing model, they have given authors and publishers a whole new avenue to engage readers beyond printed books. Now, with the launch of interactive websites that accompany these books, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter experience, Pottermore, and the continued growth and acceptance of mobile apps, the list of digital possibilities is getting longer.

Get Interactive

In late June 2011, J.K. Rowling thrilled Harry Potter fans worldwide when she revealed plans to launch a new type of digital reading experience called Pottermore. Described as an interactive illustrated companion to the Harry Potter books series, Pottermore would allow users to discover new material written by Rowling, participate in key moments in the Harry Potter storyline, and upload their own artwork, comments, and thoughts to the site. Rowling told readers that "just as the experience of reading requires the imaginations of the author and the reader work together to create the story, so Pottermore will be built, in part, by you the reader."

By the time the beta registration period began for Pottermore on July 31, 2011, fans were poised at their computers ready to solve a daily clue posted by Rowling, the answer to which would grant them early access to the site. After 7 days of overloaded servers and connection time-outs, 1 million happy users were admitted to Pottermore, while those who missed their chance were forced to wait until the public launch in October 2011. As adjustments to the site continue popping up, many are still left waiting to join in the fun, wondering exactly what this mysterious Pottermore experience will be like, and what kind of affect it will have on the digital publishing model.

AsBrett Cohen, VP of Quirk Books, a publisher best known for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series, says, Pottermore is changing the order of the traditional publishing checklist. "In many ways, the Pottermore site is a reversal in the business world. People create a blog, talk to the fans, interact with fans, and create this dialogue, and then you see that translating into a book that they are now going back to the website and selling. Pottermore is creating a much more interactive and immersive experience, but it's also opening up new products and new opportunities to the consumer and building a site around that fan base. I think that is where publishing is going. I think you're going to see that stepping outside the traditional publishing model and really creating a way to interact with fans."

Using interactive book sites to engage readers is not necessarily a novel idea. Fourth Story Media has been focused on "bringing traditional children's books in the form of original authors and illustrators and content together with digital technology" for the past 4 years says CEO Lisa Holton. In 2009, Fourth Story Media introduced its biggest venture, an interactive website and book series called The Amanda Project, which Holton explains is "a big collaborative interactive mystery for teen girls that takes place over numerous novels, but there's a way online to invite girls in."

Similar to how Pottermore users are integrated into the Harry Potter story once they join the site,  readers who wish to help solve the disappearance of Amanda Valentino,  the main plot line of The Amanda Project, can log on to The Amanda Project's website and create their own characters. Each one of these characters becomes an integral part in shaping how Amanda's story unfolds, as users can submit clues regarding her whereabouts, comment on weekly stories which are emailed to members, and interact with other characters. While Pottermore users are allowed to participate in key story moments, The Amanda Project users are creating the story, and some have even found their portion of Amanda's saga published in the print versions of the books.

Pottermore and The Amanda Project are breaking ground in terms of interacting with readers, but the verdict is still out on whether they will act as models for future digital publishing endeavors. Immediate profits such as boosting traditional book sales, something every publisher loves, could sway the decision. For example, one main feature of Pottermore is that it is the only place on the web where readers can purchase eBook versions of the Harry Potter series. Bill Trippe, VP and lead analyst at Outsell, Inc., notes that "what authors and publishers are trying to do with these interactive sites is again, build initial interest and then sustains interest in sales overtime." Despite the promise of a sales promotion, interactive sites aren't the only place authors and publishers can turn to reach audiences.

Trailers, Apps, and Beyond

"Most publishers recognize that their opportunities for interaction are quite widespread," says Trippe. Recently, using book trailers and apps for mobile devices has become a digital publishing staple. Quirk Books has seen the benefits of using book trailers first hand. "In 2009, we had a huge success with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and we were looking for ways to announce the next book in that series. We thought YouTube and videos would be the best way to do it. We tapped into this idea of a movie trailer. Let's make some high production value component that would really entertain people and utilize YouTube as an entertainment medium but also as a social medium," says Cohen.

The trailer for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters went on to become one of Amazon's best book trailers of the year, and also a YouTube top video in the entertainment category. "People were able to embed that on to their site and do a lot of the work for us. We did a great book trailer, and I think in many ways, it reestablished what that medium could do." A successful book trailer can make more than digital waves, says Cohen. "It opens the book up to consumers in a different way. It creates a digital medium for them to be introduced to the book and it creates a way for them to share this idea with other people."

Big publishers aren't the only ones seeing results from creating book trailers. Self-published authors can benefit from this digital trend as well. Leo Maloney, author of Termination Orders, and Code Name Cobra, found that when he first set out to get his self-published book picked up by a larger publisher, having a trailer helped get him noticed. "I had seen a couple of book trailers, and after watching them, I decided that by doing one, it would be a good way to get the book exposed. When I did self-publishing, the hardest thing about it was getting the exposure. I did get exposure from that, there's no two ways about it."

In addition to book trailers, apps have infiltrated the traditional publishing model. The Atavist, a boutique publishing house, produces original nonfiction stories that are longer than a magazine article but shorter than a book for digital mobile devices. It "started from the dual impetus of trying to find a new place to do stories that were as long or longer than magazine stories, and try to figure out a new way for writers to get paid," says Evan Ratliff, co-founder and editor of The Atavist. "There was definitely a hole in the market in terms of the length of stories, and it was all driven by print constraints. Once you have these mobile devices, and people are reading books on these devices, there's no reason why you can't give them something that is shorter than a book but is longer than a magazine. That was a hole in the market." Readers who use devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Nook, now have the option of downloading individual stories through The Atavist app ranging from $1.99-$2.99.

Publishing content through apps could mean a change in the way authors and publishers interact with one another, not just with readers. "One really interesting thing is that even the big publishers can also take advantage of this, and some of them are. Our idea is that you can have this different kind of publishing model where you can go into business with the writer and produce something and split the royalties and you can sell these long stories individually." Lisa Holton agrees, saying, "I do think it is still about publishing writers and illustrators well. It usually is a collaborative process. They are not just a distribution arm, they are a creative partner. So I kind of feel that is a huge center part to where publishing can add value."

Apps are still new, though, and how they will function in the world of digital publishing in the years to come depends first on how publishers embrace them, and second, on whether readers find them valuable. "I think what publishers are trying to learn is what are the readers finding value in. Apps in particular are still nascent. Publishers are still learning from it. The spirit of this for a lot of publishers is to produce something, measure it, and try to learn and improve from that," says Trippe. "For years we've been talking about multichannel publishing. The app, for all kinds of publishers, raises the bar. It's a difference in degree of complexity." 

Content Matters Most

Many in the publishing industry recognize that if the content being published isn't engaging, it doesn't matter if readers turn to interactive websites, apps, or the good old fashioned printed page. Content should not cater to the device being used to consume it; instead, the device should cater to the content.

"No matter what the audience, it is incredibly important that you think about the story first. If we focus solely on the technology, or on talking about one model versus the other, then we're kind of missing the point," says Holton. Cohen agrees, noting that with all the different technologies available, authors and publishers are forgetting that the real goal in publishing is producing good content. "A lot of publishers are struggling with what it means, and what all the technology implications are, and really at the end of the day instead of asking yourself how am I going to adjust to technology, you really should be asking how am I going to create great content on this new technology," says Cohen.

Still, according to Trippe, there's no ignoring the immense publishing possibility that accompanies these new technologies. "I think what they recognize is that while this change is significant, and in some cases wrenching for some publishers, the overall trend is very positive. There is more reading going on than ever before, but it's happening in different ways."

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