Last summer, we praised JK Rowling for finally embracing ebooks, and doing so in a way that made it seem like she really got it. That was when she announced Pottermore, her own website and store that would sell the Harry Potter ebooks directly to fans with no DRM. While the main Pottermore website is still in closed beta, several sources are reporting that the store is now open for business, selling both ebooks and audio books. Over at PaidContent, they have a thorough rundown of the details on how it works.
Unfortunately, when you look at those details, the first thing that leaps out at you is the many small limitations, many of which are caused by Rowling's desire to route around the middlemen. As we've said before, middlemen are not bad, as long as they serve as enablers rather than gatekeepers. Direct-to-fan business models are great, but that doesn't mean creators should ignore the tools that are available to them. Every author need not build their own ebook store, nor every band their own Bandcamp—and of course, for most creators this isn't even an option. But the Pottermore store serves as an example of why even creators like Rowling, who have the resources to build their own platforms for everything, shouldn't necessarily shun the enabler-middlemen at every turn.
For one thing, there was the timeframe. The store was originally supposed to launch last October, but was delayed until now, eight months after the announcement. Prior to this, there were no legal electronic copies of Harry Potter available anywhere—even though pirated copies of each book were available almost immediately. Had Rowling embraced existing ebook stores, she could have released electronic copies alongside physical ones, instead of making her fans wait (and often pirate) in the interval.
Then there are the unnecessary additional barriers to access the books. Downloading from Pottermore requires you to create yet another account with yet another website—a growing source of consumer fatigue online. Rowling has struck deals with major ebook stores to funnel people into her website, meaning if you pull up a Harry Potter title somewhere like the Kindle Store, you are asked to click through and set up a separate Pottermore account, then go through additional steps to link it to your Amazon account. Since many readers do all their ebook shopping this way, and since these stores have always focused on (and found success by) reducing the number of forms and clicks needed to buy a book, this is likely to put off a lot of customers. It also means the books won't be available in the iBook store, since Apple, with their trademark stubbornness, did not agree to a special deal alongside Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google. So Rowling is giving up the entire market for impulse buys on the most popular mobile devices in the world, and asking her iFans to go through the more tiresome process of downloading local versions and transferring them to their phones and tablets.
And what do the fans get out of all this? Not much, it seems. The main Pottermore website, which promises social features and additional content, still hasn't launched, so readers have no particular reason to want to visit the store—they are simply forced to, after having waited nearly a year for this supposedly innovative and exciting hub for all things Harry Potter. Dedicated users of existing ebook stores face pointless barriers, so rather than opening her market up to people (like me) who have still never read the books but might decide to do so if they crossed the path of their normal ebook-shopping activities, Rowling has limited herself primarily to existing fans who are willing to jump through hoops for an electronic version.
I have no doubt that the Pottermore store will nevertheless sell plenty of ebooks, at least in the beginning, thanks to the massive popularity of Harry Potter and the long-unmet demand for electronic versions. But what, ultimately, was the point of cutting out the middleman here? The only advantage is that Rowling makes a little bit more money from each sale—but not all the money, because despite being a direct-to-fan model, her publisher apparently still gets a cut, and the partner bookstores will be paid affiliate fees. But even if Rowling's portion of the revenues is significantly higher, it's hard to believe that will offset the lost sales from making the books so hard to obtain. Meanwhile, the fans suffer.
We've praised creators (especially Louis CK) for going the direct-to-fan route before, but that doesn't mean that creators should do everything themselves and ignore the tools that are available to them. Even with her immense resources, Rowling has created a platform that offers an inferior experience to that of the middlemen she worked to eliminate. When good middlemen are used properly by smart creators, everybody wins—when they are ignored merely for the sake of independence, without thought given to the actual benefits, everybody loses.