Harry Potter And The Missing Middlemen: Where The Pottermore Store Goes Wrong

from the five-points-from-gryffindor dept

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.



Reader Comments (rss)

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  •  
    identicon
    Nigel Davies, Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:03pm

    ugh

    For the love of god, another website that wants to hold my credit card details. I want to buy the damn book for my Amazon Kindle, why can I not buy it from Amazon? Or at the very least use Amazon checkout?!?

    This whole exercise is making me question whether or not I want to read these books at all.

     

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    sehlat (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:05pm

    But ... but ... but ... piracy!

    The (new)(official) electronic editions are years late and slap-in-the-face-with-DRM encumbered.

    I came late to the Harry Potter series, and found the first three books already available on the net. When the fourth book came out on the net, it took a month after its hardcover had appeared. The fifth book took a week. The sixth book took one day. The final book was available after it was released in the UK and before the bookstores opened in New York to sell it.

    That last book will be celebrating its fifth birthday in four months and they're just getting around to offering it, grossly overpriced, in electronic form? To quote a better writer than Rowling: "What fools these mortals be!"

    If they didn't want the books pirated, why did they do so much to encourage it by refusing to release electronic copies?

     

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      Maltesh Notovny (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:16pm

      Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

      The ePubs are digitally watermarked, and downloadable only eight times, but if you pull off a successful download, you can put it on as many devices as you have access to, at least, that's how I read the PaidContent article.

      Admittedly, not as easily as buying it in the iBook store or the Kindle store. And there's the whole potential "If we find your copy out for share, we'll retaliate against you" angle.

       

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        sehlat (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:24pm

        Re: Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

        "digitally watermarked" and "not as easy"

        Two KILLER reasons to buy.

         

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          Doug D (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:45pm

          Re: Re: Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

          Eh? What's wrong with "digitally watermarked"? There's no DRM, at least on the direct-download EPUB version. DRM causes trouble and gets in your way. How is watermarking a problem?

           

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            PRMan, Mar 27th, 2012 @ 3:03pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

            I'll take watermarked over DRM any day of the week. Yes, you could get in trouble if a hacker managed to steal YOUR copy and release it widely on a torrent, but the chances of that are infinitesimally small and probably easily proven to be false.

             

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              techflaws.org (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 10:45pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

              Really? How? I mean, if you convert from one format to epub, you cerntainly won't keep the watermark, right?

               

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                Anonymous Coward, Mar 28th, 2012 @ 8:37am

                Watermarking

                "Really? How? I mean, if you convert from one format to epub, you cerntainly won't keep the watermark, right?"

                The watermarking doesn't have to be in the metadata. The watermarking could include spaces, line returns or other subtle changes in each copy of the text that would survive even conversion to plain text.

                 

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                  techflaws.org (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 10:16pm

                  Re: Watermarking

                  Except you write a Python script to sift through it (delete all double blanks, or even add more double blanks) at least messing it up enough so it can't be ID'd with enough accuracy.

                  This also falsely assumes that some busts will stop others from sharing stuff. As the **AA's failed suing strategy shows, that's just not the case.

                   

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                    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2012 @ 5:52am

                    Re: Re: Watermarking

                    What about misspelled words, or varying punctuation marks , like "?" instead "???" or optional commas...

                     

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                      techflaws.org (profile), Mar 29th, 2012 @ 10:00am

                      Re: Re: Re: Watermarking

                      Should easily be detected by Word, don't you think. Of course I'm sure the company selling their watermarks to the publishers jazz these up to sound like the bees knee but I just don't think anything you can do to an epub will hold up to scrutiny so that it can't be removed.

                       

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                Bill Rosenblatt, Mar 31st, 2012 @ 11:56am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: But ... but ... but ... piracy!

                Yes, you would. The watermarks are text strings and data embedded in images. They are format independent.

                They are also trivially easy to remove, from any format.

                 

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 27th, 2012 @ 1:26pm

    DRM free is a superior product for consumers

    "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."

    On the other hand, major middlemen in e-publishing generally **require** DRM, regardless of whether the author wants it or not. Likely Rowling *had* to skip the middlemen to skip DRM.

    But I also agree with Maltesh Notovny, that there is a potential liability to watermarked, non DRMd files. If those files ever get out of your control, for *any* reason including loss or theft of your device, you could be sued for "uploading" the content to the internet, even if you didn't. And the watermark lasts forever, so the liability timeframe is nearly unlimited given the nearly unlimited copyright terms.

     

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      That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 3:44pm

      Re: DRM free is a superior product for consumers

      They require DRM, they can't require you work with them.
      If enough authors stood their ground they would find someone willing to go DRM free, or a smart one would build their own DRM free system.

      The other middlemen are the ones who could have created what she promised. An online social experience that might have made people overlook having to sign up for yet another service. By skipping over the selection of different wheels out there, she is having to reinvent it again.

      Watermarks getting out there... if you can show you were hacked your not the source of the upload, your someone else "ripped off" by the hacker.

      Also dewatermarking a file... already been done.
      There is no lock that will not be picked, the more time you waste building a newer better stronger system that does more things to annoy your legit users, makes them stop bothering with being legit users.

      If all of the focus on DRM and other methods were instead focused on actually appealing to the consumer, what a wondrous online place she would have.

       

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    Robert (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:00pm

    Bought the collection this morning

    Yeah, its kind of a pain to deal with yet another web site. But on the other hand, it does give you the book any way you like. It'll link right up with your Nook, Amazon, Sony or Kobo accounts so that it's stored in each and every one of those accounts. And while the ePub version may be watermarked, its still DRM free.

    I linked all 7 books to Amazon and sent them to my Kindle (1 download) and then did a straight digital download (2 down) of the ePub version which I then backed up on dropbox, google docs and my spare hard drive. So now I have 6 "legal" downloads left, though I shouldn't ever need them again.

    As far as control-centric sales approaches go, I gotta say... it could be far far worse.

     

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      drkkgt (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 4:15pm

      Re: Bought the collection this morning

      actually - you violated the terms:
      12.3 You may not and may not permit others to do any of the following things in relation to any book or extract:

      print-on-demand or copy or burn the book or extract to a device whose principal function is to act as a storage device, for example, a CD/DVD or USB stick;

       

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    Rhiadon (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:02pm

    Inadvertent Middleman

    What she seems to have done is to ironically set her self up as her own middleman for those people who would like to purchase her book from Amazon.

     

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    Deirdre (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:05pm

    The faq is interesting. I liked the bit about being allowed (ney, encouraged) to share your copy of the books with your kids under the age of 18. When the kids turn 18 though they have to buy their own copy. Wha?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:07pm

    Screw that, cut out the middlemen. Apple's iTunes store, Amazon, etc.. interfere with the the Creator/Fan relationship. They are a barrier, not a bridge. You seem to have a soft spot in your heart for all internet based businesses even when better alternatives exist which put more money into the pockets of the content creators. You bitch and moan that publishers take a cut of the sales but you dont seem to have a problem with Amazon taking a cut of the sales. It's a hypocritical feedback loop. You gripe about the "gatekeepers" when they are actually facilitating content creation by fronting the funds to develop the content. Amazon only recently got into that business and I haven't seen a post from you. You seem to think that the only middlemen that are good are the ones that don't pay for the content. That makes them leaches, not enablers, they simply feed off of the creation of others instead of INVESTING in the creation. These leeches aren't in the entertainment business, they are in the delivery business. They don't create entertainment they simply facilitate the delivery. From this point forward I will refer to Amazon, Apple, Netflix, etc.. as delivery men, because thats all they are.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:20pm

      Re:

      You seem to be imagining arguments that nobody's making.

       

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      Josef Anvil (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:24pm

      Re:

      Someone had a big bowl of Bitch Flakes in the morning.

      I'm personally sick of this "They invest or pay for the content" argument. Yes gatekeepers pay for the content because the artist can't afford to do it. YES YES YES. But those investors want to reap most of the profit from content that they themselves cannot produce, which makes them the leeches.

      Gatekeepers are not in the business of "helping" artists, they are in the business of "pimping" artists.

      Better to have to work with a delivery boy than a pimp.

       

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 2:56pm

      Re:

      These leeches aren't in the entertainment business, they are in the delivery business. They don't create entertainment they simply facilitate the delivery. From this point forward I will refer to Amazon, Apple, Netflix, etc.. as delivery men, because thats all they are.

      Um, okay. And what's wrong with that, exactly? Does UPS leach off of every mail order company? Does the pizza delivery kid leach off of the pizza chef? Does the brick-and-mortar bookstore, and the distribution company that trucks books to it, leach off of the publisher/author?

      We need delivery people. Otherwise a lot of the stuff we own would still be sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

       

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      PaulT (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 12:48am

      Re:

      "Screw that, cut out the middlemen. Apple's iTunes store, Amazon, etc.. interfere with the the Creator/Fan relationship."

      Bullshit, but go on...

      "You bitch and moan that publishers take a cut of the sales but you dont seem to have a problem with Amazon taking a cut of the sales."

      We're in backward world again, where arguments nobody's made are attacked and retailers are evil. Those are windmills, Don Quixote, not giants...

      "These leeches aren't in the entertainment business, they are in the delivery business. They don't create entertainment they simply facilitate the delivery. From this point forward I will refer to Amazon, Apple, Netflix, etc.. as delivery men, because thats all they are."

      Yes, have they ever claimed to be anything else? iTunes is a record store. Amazon is a book shop. Netflix is a video store. Some stores are better than others and may cause people to buy more or find more value in the service (e.g. recommendation services, easy shopping experience), but how the hell is this different from previous incarnations?

      Why won't you people work with them instead of trying to restrict what they can sell (and then bitch about losing money from the products you block)?

       

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    Josh (profile), Mar 27th, 2012 @ 4:32pm

    I watched the movies first. Well, about half of them, because that's all that was out. Then after the last book was released, I downloaded and read all seven. And then I watched the rest of the movies when they came out. I was as rabid a fan as anyone when Pottermore was announced.

    Then I got into the beta. Quite simply, it sucks major ass. You couldn't choose your own username, just pick one from a list, the notification system is terrible, the mini-games are mediocre. You have to wait actual real hours to brew the simplest of potions. The ingredients and tools cost money which you can only find one coin at a time, and as far as I know there's no way to actually earn them. The list goes on. It was possibly the worst disconnect between hype and reality I've ever experienced.

    Maybe this doesn't have much to do with the article, but I felt like ranting.

     

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    TDR, Mar 27th, 2012 @ 6:01pm

    Perhaps instead of Pottermore it should be Potterless. It would be a more accurate name, methinks.

     

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    william (profile), Mar 28th, 2012 @ 10:20am

    My apologies Ms. Rowling, I seem to have found faster, easier, free version of Harry Potter books all around the Internet outside of this... Pottermore.

     

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