JK Rowling shocked and thrilled her fans and the publishing industry on Thursday by announcing details of Pottermore – an interactive website which will not only have new material, but will also be the only place selling the Harry Potter novels as digital downloads.
At a press conference in London, the author ruled out writing an eighth Potter novel but said she had written around 18,000 words for the website, with more to come, about the characters, places and objects. “I had more than half of the new material already written or in note form,” she said. “I dug some out of boxes.”
While the announcement of new stories excited her followers, it was Rowling’s long-awaited ebook announcement that may be even more of a moment for the publishing industry as digital books grow in popularity.
No other retailer will be able to sell the Potter ebooks – including Amazon, which has been at the forefront of ebook sales. The books will only be available direct from the Pottermore website, which has been in development for two years. The books will be compatible with all ebook devices, including Amazon’s Kindle.
The agent Jonny Geller, of Curtis Brown, said Rowling’s move may be something of a gamechanger in terms of how bestselling authors engage with their readers. “This does feel like a significant moment,” he said. “If I was a brand author I would be asking my publisher how to get to the online communities that JK Rowling is getting to. It might be a wakeup call to think of a new way of getting to readers.”
But Geller said other authors could follow suit. The bar had been set extremely high, he said.
“It is not by any means the end of traditional publishing but it may be a gamechanger in how global brands, the authors, can reach their readers.”
Books retailers including Waterstones and WH Smith expressed disappointment that the new Potter material would not be available in physical books.
Rowling admitted she was a late convert to ebooks. “Personally I love print and paper, [but] very recently for the first time I downloaded an ebook and it is miraculous, for travel and for children. I feel great about taking Harry Potter into this new medium.”
Rowling, with 450m Potter books sold globally, is in a powerful position to carry out what may be the most audacious act of self-publishing yet.
She said: “It means we can guarantee people everywhere are getting the same experience … [I am] lucky to have the resources to do it myself and … do it right. It’s a fantastic and unique experience.”
Some of the new material will include how a young Professor Minerva McGonagall fell in love with a Muggle; how the Dursleys met (Petunia was working in an office); and new information about Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff houses.
The website will open to a million users who register first on 31 July – Harry’s birthday. These users will help shape the site, with its full launch in October when the ebooks go on sale.
“We knew there was a big demand for ebooks but if it was going to be done we wanted it to be more than that … I wanted to pull it back to reading, to the literary experience, the story experience, and this is what emerged,” said Rowling.
Starting with the first novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Pottermore will allow its users to navigate their way through the story, with all-new illustrations and interactive “moments”.
Users start out by choosing a magical username, and as they move through the chapters of the book they will be sorted into houses – Rowling herself has written a “vast pool” of questions to direct users to their correct home – choose wands, shop on Diagon Alley and experience life at Hogwarts, just like Harry.
Points can be won for houses by casting spells and mixing potions, users will be able to comment and add their own drawings and content – and Rowling herself will be dropping in “as a normal punter”.
“If you are not sorted into Gryffindor, if you go into one of the other three houses, you will effectively get an extra quarter of a chapter. You will go off into your own common room, meet your own prefect and find the true nature of the house.
“In the main novel you only see the houses through the eyes of the heroes. So it’s not a terrible thing to be in Slytherin,” said Rowling, who admitted it was “a little frightening” how easily she slipped back into writing about Potter.
“It’s like an ex-boyfriend … I’ve never cried for a man as I cried for Harry Potter. Now we’re casually dating and we have been for two years.”
Rowling said that she still receives a “huge” amount of fanmail – “drawings, stories, ideas, suggestions I write prequels and sequels”, so she felt the site was “a really great way to give back to the Harry Potter readership, who have obviously made the books such a huge success”.
For the moment, Pottermore will be restricted to the world of the first book but all seven books will be added in due course, complete with new material from Rowling – including, she promised, a more detailed explanation of Quidditch.
“The number of geeky men who come up to me to argue about Quidditch – I’d be a lot richer if I got a quid for every one,” she said. “They think it’s illogical. I had a speech by Dumbledore in the first book explaining why it’s not illogical, but it never made it in. It will at some point.”
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