JK Rowling Really Is Self-Publishing: A Closer Look Publishing

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.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

40 Replies to “JK Rowling Really Is Self-Publishing: A Closer Look”

  1. Briefly to add Amazon do not sell to Africa either. I can only access Amazon through my UK account.

    Seems to me the self-publishing thing is a given. We mere mortals do not actually self-publish, of course. We just self-upload to the distributor and incur the insults of the legacy mob for being able to do so without giving them a share.

    As yet I remain unconvinced of any philanthropic element to Rowling’s desire that “everyone around the world could have the exact same reading experience and could access her work at the same price.”

    Most of the world do not have access to computers, let alone e-readers (most e-readers are geared to the English language anyway) and most of the world could not afford to buy Harry Potter at any price.

    As a business woman and an unparalleled writing success story one can only admire what she’s doing. But let’s not pretend this is anything other than a money-machine.

    Jk, I’d love you to prove me wrong on that one.

    1. That’s interesting re. Africa.

      I know South Africans can download books from the Amazon.com store. Weird that they have broken them out from the rest of Africa. And it’s just plan weird to me that Amazon would prevent anyone from downloading e-books. How many potential customers are we losing in, for example, Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea? Why can Indians buy e-books and not Singaporeans? It’s bizarre, and must be costing Amazon (and us) a huge amount of sales.

      1. Amazon don’t define “Africa” (their term), but I’m guessing South African ISPs have in some way been opted in and all else are excluded. I have to use a proxy server to access my existing UK account and fellow Brits here without a pre-existing account are blocked from both .co,uk and.com. despite having UK credit cards, UK address, etc.

        Holiday makers coming here with their Kindle and wanting to download are going to be sorely disappointed… I wonder if the same will apply in other African tourist destinations like Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia, etc.

        It will be interesting to see how long paper remains as the primary method of book distribution outside the English-speaking world. I’m told that the Kindle does not even come with German language instructions for the am.de market.

        1. You’re right. It doesn’t. It’s all in English.

          Plus, if you want to order a Kindle in Europe (outside DE and UK) it gets shipped from the US with a US plug attached! Such a simple thing to fix. This is why you don’t see Kindles in mainland Europe. Anywhere. I see iPhones and iPads, but no Kindles. My friends all across Europe say the same. Kobo are making inroads into Asia, Australia, and now have their sights set on Europe. Amazon need to wake up.

      2. India can buy ebooks? That’s a nice market. 😉

        But why limit? I’d love to know the real reason.

        I apologize. I didn’t realize Google was making me approve your posts and it was only obvious when I logged in a different way to my blog than normal. Interesting stuff! That and I have been spending more time with my girls. 😉


        1. Yes, they can, and there is a huge and growing middle class that speaks perfect English and is interested in Western culture. But then Amazon sticks a $2 surcharge on all e-books sold there. Stupid.


  2. “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”.
    Another signs of traditional publishing’s ultimate failure when facts are already covered by lies. First of all what rule prohibit anyone to set up a website and sell our own work directly to public? I also set up a website (In this case I already violated this never existed rule, right?). And if I want I can setup a section to sell all my works directly from that site (And as there is an inactive $ icon at the bottom of each of the volume pages, I already have the place for that. Never existed rule violation #2.). So if I understand Publisher’s Weekly correctly, in this case I’m also not making any sort of self publishing, I just made the decision to be my own publisher. Yeah, right.

    Geez. I “love” when so called professionals are twisting the words just to hide the absolute and obvious facts.

  3. In England, in the literate circles as well as the American literati, it’s considered poor form to admit to wanting to make gobs of cash. If Rowling’s goal is to bank by self- pubbing, she has to hide it in altruistic banter. I doubt that’s case. I think control is much more her game. Creative control is gold for writers. She doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

    1. There’s no doubt that control is a big issue here. She wants to be sure that everyone reads the same book at the same price. The only way to control that 100% is to sell through your own website.

    1. No idea if that is a factor or not. There is talk of some kind of “watermark” being attached to the books, so she does appear to have some concerns about piracy but (rightly) doesn’t think DRM can do the job.

      The two best ways to combat piracy are through convenience and price. The “convenience” ship has sailed to some extent – because the e-books weren’t officially on sale they were heavily pirated. There was no legal way for a reader to purchase the e-books – which is a huge motivator for piracy. What happens with price will be interesting. How much will she charge? If it’s too high, that will encourage piracy.

      If she prices low, then most people won’t go through the hassle of finding a “clean” pirated version. It will be interesting to see what approach she adopts and what this “watermark” will be. Whatever it is, some dude in Indonesia will have it cracked in about 10 seconds.

      1. =o) That’s funny but true. Pirates will crack it within seconds. It’s the downside to being such a famous author – if you are like her, you are the prime target of pirating.

  4. Whatever name you want to put on Rowling’s venture, her results are going to be very important in how e-publishing develops. If she succeeds, others will emulate. Whether her method winds up being followed or avoided, she’s going to be a trendsetter.

    Speaking of results, these new interactive features she’s hyping had better be unique enough to hook people that have already bought the books. I’m an American college student. A lot of my classmates got into Harry Potter when they were younger, and read the whole series. On my side of the pond, it’s going to take something absolutely revolutionary to get people to purchase this “interactive experience”, when they’ve already paid money for books, movies, and video games.

    If Pottermore can’t deliver that, then Rowling needs to cross her fingers that there will be enough newcomers to help her “make another billion”, because she won’t get any help from us.

    1. The newcomers already are comfortable with e-reading. My two year old know the IPad better than I ever will. While we read print books to her, she already has a preference for digital. To keep the ‘Harry Potter’ open as a long term franchise, JK had no choice but to go ebooks.

      I’m more interested in the impact of the shift. It will “pull” a huge audience that was ‘pro-hardcover’ to ebooks. The only question is at what rate?


      1. It was fascinating watching my brother’s three year-old use an iPhone and play games on it. After a few minutes it was second nature.

        It will pull kids to e-books a little sooner than expected. It will be fascinating to watch the e-reader numbers from October to Christmas. I think it’s going to be BIG.


    2. Hi Sean,

      You make an excellent point. It’s 14 years since the first book came out. However, there are a whole bunch of kids who could discover him for the first time that weren’t even born when the first book came out. It will be interesting to watch the sales numbers IF she ever releases them – she might not.

      The interactive reading aspect, as I understand it, is separate from the books and free to use. That way, existing fans can enjoy it without spending money. That’s the “give back” to the fans she was talking about. But it’s also a clever way to connect with them again.


      1. I’m digging your point. Nevertheless I must play devil’s advocate. What’s stopping these kids from pulling the books off the shelves, books that their older siblings (or parents) had bought years before?

        1. Maybe they will. Maybe the e-books sales will be disappointing. We have no real way of knowing how saturated the market is for the books, and what percentage of people will be willing to buy the e-book. It will be fascinating to watch though.

  5. Reading the PW piece is like listening to politicians talk – always putting a spin on things to detract from the basic, obvious truths.

  6. Go, JK! I wish my brain worked like that. Though I imagine she has lots of smart business people advising her.

    In regards to the situation of ebooks not being available to a huge chunk of the world; I think that makes it a good idea to have books for sale via your blog/website. Of course, us little guys aren’t going to have the clout JK has, but if we can somehow steer people in India or Africa or Japan our way…

    1. They can all buy from Smashwords, but they would need a credit card – and getting one in certain parts of the world is much harder than it is in the US or the UK. In addition, Smashwords buying system is quite clunky, and takes a bit of figuring out, and I could see some people just giving up before purchasing.

      Selling through your own website has its pros and cons. Pros are you keep up to 95% of the cover price (depending on your price and payment processor). Cons are you could cannibalize your own Amazon sales and affect your ranking and any potential position in the genre bestseller charts.

  7. Great post David but I think the self-publishing world (by which I mean self-published authors, including myself) are missing the point, which is that this is nothing to do with them. I’m sick to the teeth of reading things about “how self-publishing came of age” and how it “lost its stigma” etc. etc. because of this. We are talking about a phenomenally successful TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED author who is now in a position to skip retailers and sell direct to her readers, but since the books she’s selling earned her a billion+ in print (and have been edited, etc. by her publishers) she has to pay them a cut. She is capitalizing on her traditionally published success. How is this a win for self-publishers?

    I’m not saying *you* said it was a win for self-publishers, but that’s the general self-published-author angle on the reporting of this, and in case you can’t tell, it’s driving me mad! 🙂

    1. Hey Catherine,

      I actually agree with you. I think this changes little for the average self-published author – excepting a related bump in e-reader sales from October on perhaps. Now, if I was about to e-publish an MG fantasy I might feel a little different…those kids will need something else to read when they are done with Harry Potter.

      Funnily enough, I think this will have a lot more impact on successful trade published writers than it will have for self-publishers. The big publishers will be working even harder now to keep their stars.

      Regarding “coming of age”, I think John Locke selling a million Kindle books is more of a sign of that. And as for any stigma, to be honest, that only exists among writers and those in the publishing industry. The general public don’t really care. They just want good books – whoever they are written by.

      I think it’s important to separate two things out here that Rowling is doing – one is not that revolutionary, and one is. Deciding to self-publish your backlist and sell it through your website is not that revolutionary and anyone – in theory – can do it. Deciding to cut out all the retailers is, and she is one of few writers in the world that could do it without decimating her sales.

      I think the kind of articles you describe are just lazy journalism. They need a “face” to put on self-publishing so they can now say it’s viable or that it’s “arrived”. However, it’s been viable for quite some time. The media like to box things off, or put their finger on some arbitrary moment so they can say: this is when it got serious. It’s nonsense.

      I found this story interesting because of what it says about the ability of major publishers to hang on to their talent, and another sign of how disruptive to their business model the rise of the internet and e-books is, not as validating self-publishing, or proving it’s a viable choice or anything like that. For me, that argument was won a long time ago.


  8. I 100% agree. Well said.

    The main point I think – and you just made it – is that Rowling being able to sell outside the established retailer channels IS revolutionary, but she is one of a handful of authors who can feasibly do that, if not the only one. This is nothing to do with the average self-publisher, and they need to stop waving it around like it is.

    1. She probably is the only one. And even still people could argue that she might make more if she sold through the other retailers as well.

      Maybe she will do that in time.

    1. I saw the addendum and left a comment.

      It’s funny, you wrote your post in response to flag-waving by self-publishers, and I wrote mine in response to what I saw as denial by agents and those in the publishing world.

      To me, the publisher is the person who controls the rights, not the one who uploads the books, arranges for the covers, or anything else. I accept that others may have a different definition of what constitutes a “publisher” and what particularly defines a “self-publisher”, and I think the latest developments are showing the limitations of our current definitions rather than any real disagreement.

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