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Reuters has today announced that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have made huge concessions to Pottermore in order to offer the Harry Potter ebooks through their online stores.

Although they won’t be able to sell the books directly, they will be directing buyers to the Pottermore site and the ebooks will be compatible with their devices/apps. This is the kind of compromise that would, almost certainly, never wash with any other author. J.K Rowling and her magical universe certainly has the power to command whatever deals she wants from retailers, but I don’t expect them to be sending their traffic and sales to many other authors or publishers in the near future.

Even The Hunger Games, which has now sold 36.5 million print copies and surpassed the Twilight movie in terms of ticket sales for the first installment of the adaption, will never be able to replicate the Pottermore effect.

The only way authors of the future will be able to do this is by keeping all the digital content rights to themselves from the beginning of the publishing process. As you can imagine, not many publishers will be keen on this idea. As Neil Blair, J.K Rowling’s agent and the man behind her own digital deals, said (and I reported here):

Digital rights are the biggest sticking point in contract negotiations, but when he asks publishers what they plan to do with those rights they usually don’t have an answer.

Now matter how savvy or creative publishers, authors and agents get in terms of selling digital content over the next few years, it seems unlikely any will be able to create the industry shake-up the Rowling has today. I certainly don’t expect to see two of the biggest book retailers handing their customers to other websites without some seriously magical intervention.

This afternoon the Bath LitFest featured a debate on the future of printed books. To discuss the topic, several key players in the publishing and writing industries were policed by James Runcie.

Neil Blair is a lawyer and, most importantly, J. K. Rowling’s literary agent.

Charlie Redmayne, who is formerly of Harper Collins, is now  the CEO of Pottermore.

Nicola Solomon is the General Secretary of the Society of Authors, and was the only speaker without the Rowling-Connection. (Although presumably JKR is a member of the society…)

“The power of the story will matter more than the means of production.” – James Runcie

Runcie opened the debate by stressing that authors are less concerned about what form their book comes in than how to make money in a fractured market.

Blair said that “The biggest challenge IS the digital revolution” in part due to “the problem of privacy and the perception in digital space that content should be free.”

The solution he came to was ensuring that JKR controlled all the digital rights to her content rather than selling it to her publishers. However, this is a difficult issue and that solution won’t work for everyone.

As an agent he finds that digital rights are the biggest sticking point in contract negotiations, but when he asks publishers what they plan to do with those rights they usually don’t have an answer. Blair believes this is because they have relied on a “lazy cookie-cutter approach” for too long. Publishers need to discover and develop new ways of providing and marketing an author’s work.

For JKR, launching Pottermore was the answer, but it will not work for everyone. One of the key reasons this method works for Harry Potter readers is the sense of community and the subsequent expectation of integrity between the reader and the provider.

Someone asked the panel about the feeling that writers now have to become a brand as well as an author.

Writers, like musicians, are having to rely on their own profile and contact with fans to generate an income. The panel certainly agreed this is a challenge; writers are very different people to rock stars!

There was a concern that publishers will stop supporting authors who aren’t seen as guaranteed successes. That will, in turn, create a lack of new talent in the industry- writing is becoming more and more of a full time job without full time pay.

Redmayne raised the point that the big issue at the moment is about the content. “Books are just a vehicle which carries content around.”

Personally, I think the industry’s biggest transition needs to be made by consumers. The adjustment is getting used to paying for the content, rather than the format the content is in.

Piracy is the other major concern in the digital revolution and all three speakers felt it was like “playing a game of Whack-A-Mole”.

Because it’s a well hidden and global industry, it is very expensive to fight. Blair stated that “it is up to the industry to find a creative way to fight privacy, it can’t be left up to the legislators.”

The talk concluded with Runcie asking the panel where books will be in 10 years time. Here are each of their answers:

Charlie Redmayne:

“Hardback market will be the prevalent book sector, ebook sales will make up over 50% of the market, and enhanced ebooks will be popular options.”

Nicola Soloman:

“Of course books will still be there. They’re they legacy media!”

Neil Blair:

“Books are not doomed, digital and print can compliment each other. What I’m concerned about is authors being able to earn a living and create quality books. We need to find solutions for the challenge of digital space.”

 

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