Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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Here’s The Game JK Rowling Might Actually Change

JK Rowling’s Pottermore comes with a lot of understandable hoopla attached. It’s Harry Potter! It’s an interactive website! She will sell ebooks herself! And while the idea that she’s gamechanged things for authors who e-publish is floating around the interwebs in a big way, it’s missing the point - but hitting on another one.

The ebooks will, of course, be sold only through Pottermore, in some kind of open format, likely ePub but we’ll know for sure in October. Overdrive is powering the ebookstore (Sony, which is a sponsor of the actual site, appears to have been bamboozled, or at least missed the boat in a major way.) Rowling’s camp claims fans will be able to read the Potter ebooks on any e-reading device or platform they choose. But who benefits? Rowling, of course. Her print publishers, Bloomsbury, Scholastic et al., who get a cut of domestic or international royalties of ebook editions by territory. Readers new and old do.

What Rowling’s done is a big shot in in the arm for b-2-c publishing, where she goes direct to her readership, since they are her consumers. But publishing, at least in print and to a lesser extent digital, is all about b-2-b. There is no b-2-b component here, because Rowling’s cut out the retailers. (Hence the somewhat pissy response by UK retailers to the Pottermore ebook news.) Kindle doesn’t support ePub, but as Laura Hazard Owen said, “if any author could get Amazon to change its policy, it’s J. K. Rowling.” (That ebooks aren’t coming to Pottermore until October is no accident. Let’s just leave it at that.)

But Amazon getting the shaft here - even temporarily - is just another facet of the weird b-2-c ecosystem ebooks have wrought. Consider the blog post from the Seattle Mystery Bookstore, which explained to an author with a book out soon through Amazon’s mystery imprint Thomas & Mercer why the store won’t stock it: “They’re the enemy of independent bookshops and aiding them in any way - mainly ordering their books and selling them and promoting them - would be suicide.” But if, as many people I’ve talked to and have long thought myself, Amazon is the go-to place for the kind of midlist mystery titles big publishers won’t touch (and smaller presses couldn’t even really afford), where does that leave independents? Up a creek because the b-2-c model is failing them as readers get instant access, via ebooks, to their favorite authors?

What Rowling and Pottermore show is that authors with clout and readers win - and even publishers, bolstered by growing ebook sales and profits. Retailers? Well, that’s a story we’re seeing play out, as choices become tougher, almost Hobson-like, for stores and companies large and small.

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