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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Pottering around…

I tweeted (@Publisher_Pete, please feel free to follow!) yesterday about JK Rowling and her new Pottermore venture. More specifically I tweeted about her split from long-time agent Christopher Little. She has now defected to work with Neil Blair, a former employee at the agency. Why? Well, no one is really giving anything away; but the split is acrimonious, with Little claiming that he knew nothing about it until it was announced in the press.

My tweet went as follows: ‘With JK Rowling splitting from Christopher Little, one has to question the price of loyalty – particularly when you’re worth £530 million.’
Looking back on that dazzling little insight (sorry, I'm still honing my Twitter skills), it is obvious that my comment was fairly opaque (and perhaps also inaccurate, as the Telegraph believes that she is actually a billionaire: )
The split was a surprise to read about. We have long been charmed by the story of how Rowling chose to submit her work to the agency – that she looked up a list of literary agents in an Edinburgh library and selected the Christopher Little Agency because his name sounded like a character from a children's book – and over the last 16 years they have shared both open admiration for one another and stratospheric success.
And this is where the whole thing starts to get to me a little. Yes, I'm disappointed that an author who I admire and who has long championed the merits, and indeed the power, of loyalty in her work, should seemingly just up sticks and leave her old confidante and collaborator high and dry (although perhaps high and dry is pushing it – he has made 15 per cent from the gross earnings of Harry Potter in the British market and 20 per cent for merchandising rights, for film, for the American market and for translation deals, so he is a very wealthy man). But in fairness to both parties I am not privy to the ins and outs of what has really happened, so should neither judge nor cast aspersions as to why the split has happened.
However, what has riled me somewhat is Pottermore and what it intends to do: the site plans to publish straight eBook versions of Rowling’s books this year, then publish updated versions with new notes and material that she cut from the original novels next year. I have tried to place myself in Rowling’s shoes. She wants complete control of her creation and direct access to her fan base. Absolutely fair enough. The phenomenal success of her creation has granted her a strong position with which to protect her intellectual copyright. She has spent years vehemently opposing the conversion of her books to digital formats. Now that she has accepted that there is room for further creativity within that sphere, she has set up Pottermore. A move that, by and large, I agree with. She has the right to exploit her material directly to her audience. But it is the next step with which I have issue. With the launch of Pottermore (and the implication of the site’s name), we learn that she has tens of thousands of words that she cut from the original books, which she will include in new eBook editions next year. So, she wants her loyal fans to buy the eBooks this year… and then buy them again next year. Does that not seem a little greedy? Perhaps an announcement will come that all proceeds are going to charity and I’ll have to eat my words. But I doubt it.
When you have made over £530 million (or a billion) from something you have created, you surely have no need to squeeze every last commercial drop out of that creation. Surely the most important things to her at this stage are the characters of Harry et al and the world she has created. Why drip the sales in this way? Yes, Pottermore has a few little interactive bits and pieces – the sorting hat assigning visitors to a Hogwarts house, the wand chooser and so on. But it is nothing groundbreaking (despite what some in the industry have heralded the site as being). If I were her agent, I would tell her that the digital world offers completely new ways for her unleash the power of her imagination. She can bring her books to life in so many different ways – pages and words could come to life; an interactive map of Diagon or Knockturn Alley could flutter from the margin whenever Harry visits the secret streets; the Marauder’s Map could do the same and there could be an interactive map for Hogsmeade too; reproductions of The Daily Prophet, moving images and all, could be accessed when mentioned; or illustrations of the Burrow, Grimmauld Place, the Shrieking Shack, the Ministry of Magic, Hagrid’s hut, the Quidditch stadium, or Hogwarts as a whole could spring from the pages and be explored at will if the reader wanted to, or could remain hidden should they not. The possibilities are almost endless… which is why I am so disappointed with the products that Pottermore are touting. After the ingenious launch (a treasure hunt around London that gradually revealed the letters ‘Pottermore’) it was such an anticlimax to learn what they have planned for the site. Maybe (hopefully) this is all part of the master plan and they will launch new editions with all these features. Surely they will; it would be such a disappointment if they don't...
Speak soon.

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