After a week of heavy speculation, JK Rowling has revealed that she is to self-publish the e-books to her mind-bogglingly successful Harry Potter series through her newly-announced proprietary platform, Pottermore.
While self-publishing in itself is not new -- Stephen King has been distributing self-published chapters since 2000 and others, including Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath and more recently John Locke have sold millions of copies through the Kindle store -- Rowling is without a doubt the single most significant author to have turned their back on established publishing houses at a time when the industry is in limbo and the tools are available to create meaningful and innovative digital publications untethered from a small stranglehold of publishers whose businesses are built upon the printed page.
The crucial parallel between Radiohead and Rowling is the fact that they both put their faith in the fans rather than any intermediary. For Radiohead, this meant self-releasing their album In Rainbows after the end of their contract with EMI with an honesty-box pricing strategy. For Rowling it means keeping the e-books DRM-free and trusting her fans not to pirate her works rather than assuming that they will. Rowling is instead opting for a digital watermarking system that links the identify of the purchaser to the copy of the ebook. This doesn't prevent people sharing copies on the web, but does try to ensure that any copies will be traceable to a buyer.
Because the books are said to be "available on any platform", there will need to be some sort of arrangement with the likes of Amazon and iBooks -- whether commercial or logistical -- to ensure that readers can enjoy Potter on their Kindles and iPads.
That aside, it is important to emphasise that just as Radiohead self-released their album, so Rowling is selling the Harry Potterseries of e-books without the need for her publishers Bloomsbury and Scholastic. Radiohead reportedly made more money with its pay-what-you-like model before the album was physically released than it had made in total on the previous album (released through EMI) Hail to the Thief.
Likewise, Rowling stands to make significantly more money by selling her e-books directly than if she sold them through her publisher. Authors generally get anywhere between a few and 10 percent of royalties from printed book sales and anywhere between 20 and 40 percent on e-books. If they self publish through the likes of Amazon, they can get as much as 70 percent of revenues (with the remainder going to the e-book store). Selling direct to fans also means that Rowling will benefit from demographic data and contact details traditionally safeguarded by the publisher or retailer. This information will be invaluable for promoting new projects and for building a mini merchandising empire. Might we even see sales to a "live" Harry Potterexperience?
Like Radiohead, Rowling is not only selling the book without the help of her publisher, she is also initially bypassing the major ecommerce sites at this stage -- exclusively selling the e-books through Pottermore.com -- so she technically stands to make 100 percent of the sales. So far her team have remained tight-lipped about the pricing of the e-books, but have insisted that they will be "competitive". So fingers crossed until they go on sale in October.
By publishing on her own website, Rowling told us at a press conference: "We can guarantee that people everywhere are getting the same experience at the same time. That was extremely appealing to me. I am lucky to have the resources to do it myself and I think this is a fantastic and unique experience that I could afford to take my time over to make this come alive. There was really no way to do it for the fans or me than just do it myself. Not every author could do this, but it's right for Harry Potter. It is so much fun to have direct content with my fans. It was an extension of the existing jkrowling.com."
Interestingly, Rowling is maintaining Scholastic and Bloomsbury as partners, suggesting that she isn't completely abandoning the institutions that built her career. Let's not forget that it's at least partially down to their marketing and distribution prowess that she managed to sell more than 400 million copies of her books as of 2008 -- likely to be significantly more by now.
It is not clear what the continued partnership entails, but what is clear is that Rowling had no obligation to give them anything. She owns the rights to the e-books and has the publishing stature to have easily gone it alone. Of course, it's important to note that the increased interest in the Harry Potterbrand will have a halo effect on sales of the printed books from which her former publishers will benefit. They're likely to piggyback on the hype by releasing special editions of the seven books.
The most exciting thing about the news is that this might be the kick up the arse that the publishing industry needs to stop it from dragging its feet into the digital world (with the exception of academic publishing which has fully embraced it to become an extremely valuable industry).
Publishers need to radically rethink their remuneration structures in order to ensure that their cash cows don't all follow Rowling's suit. To this day, publishing remains a B2B business -- publishers sell to retailers and not readers.
But the rise of consumer empowerment in a digital world means that this will have to change. The web is a powerful disintermediator and has democratised businesses within music, film, gaming and retail, time and time again. There's no reason to think that publishing could be exempt from this rule.
They can also learn from Rowling's understanding that the web is not just a place to replicate the printed page, but allows for a spell-binding level of interactivity which could reinvigorate people's (and especially children's) passion for reading.