This week something momentous occurred in the world of book publishing.
J.K. Rowling, renowned author of the Harry Potter series, finally released the seven Potter books for sale as ebooks.
For those who follow neither Rowling’s work nor the publishing industry, this will seem an anticlimactic bit of news. Haven’t the Harry Potter books been available as ebooks for years?
Actually, no. Rowling very wisely retained the electronic rights to her books, biding her time until the release of her own Pottermore website, where the books are now available on an exclusive basis. (The interactive dimension of Pottermore is scheduled, after a long delay, to go live in April, but the Pottermore bookstore is now open for business.)
So while you will see advertisement for the Potter books if you go to Amazon.com, Amazon will simply link you to the Pottermore bookstore to make your purchase. Amazon gets some sort of cut in making it possible for you to download the book onto your Kindle.
Rowling has made similar arrangements with Barnes & Noble, Apple, and with Sony, so that you can read the Potter books on the e-readers made by these companies as well. Amazingly, once you purchase the ebook, you can read it on any e-reader you like (an unprecedented development).
Why is all this important?
Rowling’s ebook strategy has placed a massive new force behind changes which have been accelerating in pace for the past couple of years. While traditional publishing is still trooping along conventional platforms 9 and 10 (where books are published in New York and distributed through brick-and-mortar stores, with ebook sales as ancillary), Rowling is showing the way to book publishing platform 9 and 3/4, a portal to a strange new world where publishing and distribution channels are becoming more and more electronic in nature–and more and more in the ownership control of authors.
Author independence is the key.
Now more than ever, authors and small publishers are in control of their destiny.
The clout she wields in the publishing industry may seem to make Rowling’s actions unique. The fact that the Potter books were originally published through a conventional book publisher may also seem to diminish the significance for others of what she is doing with Pottermore.
But while Rowling’s content is certainly her own, and while it is true her books came to intergalactic attention under the aegises of Bloomsbury and Scholastic, it is also true that the technology she is using now is available to everyone. Any author can now write a book, publish it, distribute it, and market it all on his or her own. There are enormous challenges, of course, to going independent–going without, for example, the marketing machine of a conventional publisher. But consider the books on the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble (which is, by the way, probably the only brick-and-mortar bookstore in proximity to where you live). Most of those books are not enjoying a major marketing campaign. The author is probably working just as hard as the publisher, maybe even harder, at getting the word out about his book.
I like to think of these developments in publishing as making possible for authors and publishers a central aspect of the economic distributism championed by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: wide distribution of individual ownership.
It also strikes me as a huge opportunity for Catholics. Electronic technology has made it possible for us to get our writing out into the world with incredible ease, circumventing decision-makers who may want nothing to do with our point of view, and driving down costs that traditionally have been spent on binding hardcopy volumes, warehousing them, distributing them, and marketing them.
I have seen some blog chatter from Brandon Vogt on others on this. But I’d like to see more Catholic authors and publishers thinking and talking about it. Pope Benedict has encouraged us to embrace the new media, and independent electronic publishing seems to be one exciting way in which to help blaze a trail.