Now that the dust has settled a little, I would like to take some time today to examine aspects of JK Rowling’s move into self-publishing.
As soon as the announcement was made, various people were tying themselves into knots to describe this as anything other than self-publishing.
“Although some are likely to see Rowling’s decision to be her own publisher for her e-books as a significant one for the industry at large, Potter is a unique franchise.”
That was from Publisher’s Weekly. Aside from the ludicrous suggestion that any writer couldn’t set up a website and sell their own work direct to the public, note they use “decision to be her own publisher” instead of the dreaded words “self-publishing”.
Some indies have claimed it’s not self-publishing because there are so many large corporations involved. Well, I’m self-publishing, and the last time I checked, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, Sony, Smashwords & Diesel were all involved (and getting a cut of my sales).
Aside from that, JK Rowling is worth $1bn. She has sold 450m books. I can’t really see her sitting down with the Smashwords Style Guide trying to figure out why her book keeps getting rejected.
Obviously, she has the resources to outsource everything. When she wants to build a website, she doesn’t call her friend that did Graphic Design in college a few years back, she calls Sony.
When she wants to sell her e-books through her website, she doesn’t see what free shopping carts are available out there, she calls OverDrive.
Some people point to her publishers’ involvement in the deal and claim that means it’s not self-publishing. Let’s take a closer look.
Rowling’s publishers around the world have claimed they are “publishing in partnership” with her. But what they are actually getting, and what they are giving in exchange?
JK Rowling owns the digital rights to the Harry Potter Books.
They were never purchased by her original publisher – Bloomsbury in the UK – and they were never sold to any of her subsequent international publishers (including Scholastic in the US).
If you look at the statement that her US publisher – Scholastic – released on Thursday, the language was very interesting. Instead of her publisher announcing the deal and saying that the author would be paid X amount of royalties, the power relationship was reversed.
Scholastic said that they would be paid a percentage by Rowling in exchange for “marketing and promotion” support. Not for being her publisher, because she is publishing the e-books.
If Scholastic are publishing the e-books, here is one simple question: where is the advance? She should be getting a check with a long string of zeroes if that’s the case. But it’s not.
She controls the rights. She is publishing. Ergo, she is self-publishing.
I could even make the argument that what she is doing is more “pure” self-publishing because she is cutting out the retailers and exclusively selling direct to the public through her own website.
Before you get too excited, that’s not my real position, I’m just playing Devil’s advocate. But if you think that’s a stretch, take that free ISBN that Smashwords gave you and look it up on Bowker. They are listed as your publisher, not you.
So why is she cutting her publishers in at all if she is self-publishing? A number of reasons.
Rowling said that it was important to her that everyone around the world could have the exact same reading experience and could access her work at the same price.
Her existing publishers own the rights to the edited manuscripts, the covers, and the translations. For Rowling to use those, she would have to purchase them or licence them.
Her existing publishers are also still in the business of selling print versions of her books. It makes sense to maintain a relationship with them, and not cutting them out completely means that everyone will play nice, and affords multiple opportunities for cross-promotion.
The publishers’ websites will have links to Pottermore.com and her site will have links to where people can buy print versions of the books (direct from the publishers) in their own countries.
So she throws Scholastic a percentage, meaning she can use the US “translation” of the original UK manuscript (and the cover if she wishes). They will help promote the e-books. She will link to the print versions in return.
Robin Sullivan argues that there may have been a “non-compete” clause in her publishing contracts that could have left her open to action if she self-published the e-books without coming to an agreement with her publishers.
That’s possible, but without sight of the contracts we can only speculate. In any event, I think the above reasons were enough to cut her original publishers in on the deal.
She will pay Sony & OverDrive a percentage. Sony will build the “interactive reading experience” and manage the website. A percentage is their fee. Same for OverDrive who will build and manage the e-shop.
Why Warner are getting a percentage is less obvious. My guess is that it’s because they own the rights to any game set in the Harry Potter world. Rowling has been careful to describe the “interactive reading experience” as anything other than a game.
However, the descriptions of how that will work, and the screenshots, leave little doubt that she could have been open to a legal challenge without coming to some agreement with Warner first. In addition, they owned the trademark to the word “Pottermore”.
None of this changes the fact that it is self-publishing. If I engage a top New York publicist, and pay her 5% of all future royalties from my book, she is not “co-publishing” the book. She is getting paid a percentage instead of a flat fee.
I hope this settles the argument about whether this is self-publishing or not, or something different altogether. But you don’t need to take it from me, Passive Guy, Joe Konrath, and Robin Sullivan say the same thing. Dean Wesley Smith agrees.
This is what Barry Eisler said on Joe Konrath’s blog:
“Look at the Scholastic press release…it says, ‘Scholastic will receive a royalty on sales of the U.S. editions of the ebooks.’ One entity is controlling the rights and paying the other entity a royalty. Does that model sound familiar? It ought to, because it typically describes a publisher and an author. But here, the roles are reversed: Rowling retains the rights and pays a company a royalty for assisting her in her publishing endeavor. The fact that the company she has hired and is paying calls itself a ‘publisher’ might obscure, but does nothing to change, the real nature of the relationship.”
I hope that settles the matter, but if you disagree in any way, please leave your thoughts in the comments. I’m happy to debate this further.
Now, on to the other aspects of the deal.
Why did she cut out the major retailers? Why not sell through them and through her website? Wouldn’t that maximize her income? Again, Rowling said that it was important to her that everyone around the world could have the exact same reading experience and could access her work at the same price.
That cuts out Amazon straight away. If you live in any country outside of the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, or the Amazon Germany countries, they levy a $2 surcharge on all e-books. If you live in the Asia/Pacific region, you can’t buy e-books from Amazon at all. She has huge numbers of fans there alone.
It also cuts out Barnes & Noble, who only sell to customers with a US credit card. That’s 80% of the US e-book market. Once you have cut that much out, it makes sense to go it alone.
But I don’t think that’s the main reason (or a significant factor at all really). It’s about permanently capturing Harry Potter fans and being able to market products to them forever.
The e-books will be available from October. She is going to give a sneak preview to 1 million lucky readers who will be able to “shape the interactive reading experience”.
If you are a Harry Potter fan you will be bouncing off the walls just imagining what that could be. From now until the end of July, you can enter your email address to be in with a chance to be one of those lucky 1 million.
She will hoover up the email address of every single Harry Potter superfan in the world. Then she is going to sell directly to them.
October will see the launch of the interactive reading experience of the first book only. The second book will come in 2012. Do you see what is happening here?
The movies are at the end of their run, with the final one being released shortly. There are no more moves in the pipeline. There will also be no more Harry Potter books. There may be related stuff, such as an encyclopedia, but no new books in the series.
Now she will have a “new Harry Potter release” for her fans every year – a new interactive version for them to experience – only on her website. She is tying them in. It’s genius.
She’s going to make another billion.