J.K. ROWLING, the author of the Harry Potter series, is ubiquitous again. At the London Book Fair, her face dominated the Little, Brown booth, promoting her forthcoming novel, “The Casual Vacancy“. Her online fan world Pottermore launched, a fortnight after the long-awaited Harry Potter e-books started gushing forth. Over Easter, Warner Brothers opened “The Making of Harry Potter”, a tour of the sets on the outskirts of London where the films were shot. The press seized on a gnomic utterance buried in the author’s website to breathlessly announce that Ms Rowling was finally at work on the long-promised Harry Potter Encyclopedia.
It all smacks of a carefully orchestrated publicity juggernaut. But in the world of Harry Potter, nothing is quite as it seems. The Pottermore site was quietly launched on April 14th at 8:15am with little more than a tweet—a time “when every self-respecting teenager on the east coast of America is asleep,” in the words of Charlie Redmayne, the company’s chief executive. Such is the clout of the world’s most successful fictional franchise, however, that even its slightest movement generates extraordinary hype. No one knows this better than Ms Rowling, who has enjoyed publishing’s version of Beatlemania over the past decade. Nor was it ever in doubt that once all seven books and films had been wrapped, some new magic would be required to keep the brand alive.
Enter Pottermore, which Ms Rowling has described as her way of “giving something back” to the fans who have bought 450m copies of the books and made her one of Britain’s richest women. In its first five days, the free online adventure had “sorted” some 1.5m children into one of the houses at Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s magical boarding school (including this correspondent’s son). The figures mushroom daily. Mr Redmayne, who extended the site’s beta testing to build a more robust platform to bear the load, is gratified. “Millions have signed up for it,” he says, “and spent an enormous amount of time online.” Though the chapter-by-chapter journey through the first volume—“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”—can feel static to the adult eye, it elicits steady mutters of “cool” and “awesome” from both the resident Ravenclaw and excited online commenters, as they zoom in and out of the Great Hall, Diagon Alley, and the like.
Players can collect chocolate frog cards, stash their galleons at Gringotts, practise spells, mix potions and attempt to catch the Golden Snitch. Most of the excitement revolves around the Sorting Hat, an apparent variation on the Meyers-Briggs personality test, which questions children before assigning them to a Hogwarts house. With its treasure-hunt aspect and gentle animations, the site feels geared toward younger readers, and is unlikely to hold the interest of older gamers. (The separate Harry Potter videogames, released by Electronic Arts in the wake of the films, did not impress hardcore gamers much either.) In part, this is due to the purposefully fuzzy fictional nature of the site: on Pottermore, the characters’ faces are left to the imagination. In larger part it is due to the gradual, roll-out approach that Mr Redmayne and his team have chosen. Pottermore will be an evolving world in which new books, activities and background stories from Ms Rowling are added bit by bit. Titrating the content in this way may be too slow for the original fans who grew up with Ron, Harry and Hermione. (Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, after all, received his world’s back story in one hunk called The Silmarillion.) But it may well seem magical enough to generations of new readers who will enter Hogwarts with 11-year-old Harry the way their parents once entered Middle Earth.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” is a lesson learned by Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Peter Parker. High expectations are the price of Pottermore’s guaranteed success. Ms Rowling knows full well that she, like The Boy Who Lived, does not abide by ordinary rules. Already she has changed the e-book retailing model. By retaining her own e-book rights, and then forcing Amazon and others to sell them via Pottermore, as well as offering vastly extended access to libraries and schools, she is evening the playing field. Fans responded by buying $1.5m in e-books in the first three days, particularly the seven-book set. The sales are fundamental, Mr Redmayne says, to financing the free Pottermore platform, which can be accessed in a variety of languages.
Whether Ms Rowling and her team can bring this same disruptive innovation to the Pottermore world itself, and sustain the momentum of the original series remains to be seen. How fast, and how creatively, the site builds out will determine the answer. An entire world of linking interactivity between the digital books and the online universe of Pottermore is possible. The medium is in its infancy. One thing is certain: if there’s anyone who can turn an e-reader into a device that “apparates” from the everyday into the truly magical, it will be Harry Potter.
From the Economist, published under licence. The original article can be found on www.economist.com