Well, the Harry Potter e-books are out, and they’re making a splash. There are a number of reactions being reported on the web to various aspects of the announcement, and it interests me to look at some of them.
For starters, Tim Carmody at Wired calls attention to the fact that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are both unprecedentedly referring customers to Pottermore to register and buy the books, then automatically adding them to their respective e-reader accounts. (And both of them are promoting the Potter e-books on their respective front pages as if the sales were their own idea—just look at the inset image on this article.) The major e-book sellers referring their users to buy e-books elsewhere like this is something that’s never happened before (even if, as Mike Shatzkin points out, both booksellers are certainly getting a cut of each sale they refer over).
Thus far, Apple has proven unwilling to compromise its agency-pricing principles to refer its own e-book buyers elsewhere, though Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne (whose name I can’t help thinking ought to belong to a character in the Harry Potter books itself) is hopeful of making a deal with them later. Kobo isn’t mentioned at all. and the main Harry Potter books are not referenced on its website.
Carmody also points out that regional restrictions continue to stymie readers who want access to other countries’ versions—we Americans can’t get the Philosopher’s Stone versions of the e-books, or the Stephen Frye rather than Jim Dale audiobooks:
Normally, this is because publishing rights are assigned to different publishers in different regions, who then mark up and market the books accordingly. When the Harry Potter series was published in print, Rowling ceded a certain amount of control to Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom and Scholastic in the United States. But Rowling controls all the digital rights to the series. Continuing to hold up the regional restrictions makes no sense.
In an update, Carmody adds that a Pottermore spokesman said the site had decided to respect the publishers and their territories. Still, I find it a little odd given how popular cross-importing of UK format titles has historically been for the Potter series (indeed, it was the whole reason the franchise went to synchronized international releases after the first couple of books). If we’re willing to pay, why shouldn’t we be able to get the format we want? We could import the physical books from amazon.co.uk, after all.
Meanwhile, Leigh Beadon notes on Techdirt that the efforts of Pottermore to cut out middlemen from the sales process have had the effect of making it a lot more complicated for ordinary users who want to purchase the books.
Downloading from Pottermore requires you to create yet another account with yet another website—a growing source of consumer fatigue online. Rowling has struck deals with major ebook stores to funnel people into her website, meaning if you pull up a Harry Potter title somewhere like the Kindle Store, you are asked to click through and set up a separate Pottermore account, then go through additional steps to link it to your Amazon account. Since many readers do all their ebook shopping this way, and since these stores have always focused on (and found success by) reducing the number of forms and clicks needed to buy a book, this is likely to put off a lot of customers. It also means the books won’t be available in the iBook store, since Apple, with their trademark stubbornness, did not agree to a special deal alongside Sony, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google. So Rowling is giving up the entire market for impulse buys on the most popular mobile devices in the world, and asking her iFans to go through the more tiresome process of downloading local versions and transferring them to their phones and tablets.
And over at The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder complains about the “high” price of the Potter e-books—$8 each for the first four, $10 each for the last three—and observes that the versions Pottermore pushes back into those other e-book stores’ reader platforms are not DRM-free the way we were originally led to believe they would be—Pottermore itself requested that the bookstores use DRM (which is a bit odd given that Amazon is perfectly happy to sell DRM-free if that’s what the publisher wants, but there you go). Update: Charlie Redmayne claims that the DRM is only applied because Pottermore does not have any way to watermark e-books that get uploaded through other e-book stores.
I have a bit of a hard time sympathizing with Nate’s arguments. For starters, that $9.99 price is still cheaper than the MSRP of the books in paperback. For example, the paperback version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is MSRP’d at $12.99. Amazon sells it at $7.33 because discounting paper books is what Amazon does, but nonetheless you’re still saving $3 over what you would pay for the cheapest edition of that book you can find at your local bookstore, or a bit more if you buy the $57.54 collection of all 7 books at once. (And wasn’t $9.99 the price that Amazon customers thought best-sellers should be, rather than the higher prices the publishers wanted to impose via agency pricing?)
I’m a bit more sympathetic to the DRM argument, but only a bit. Yes, we were led to believe the books would be entirely DRM-free. But on the other hand, anyone who buys the DRM-locked versions via Amazon or B&N also has access to a DRM-free-but-watermarked version they can download directly from Pottermore (that’s the point of having to have a separate login for Pottermore to begin with), and then can use Calibre to convert into their format of choice. And it seems to me almost anyone who cares about not having DRM on their e-books is probably already tech-savvy enough to know how to use Calibre—most people who read e-books on Kindles will never even be able to tell the difference. Those of us who do care can get a DRM-free version of one of the most popular book series ever completely DRM-free direct from the publisher—and I still think that’s nothing short of miraculous.
TechCrunch quotes Mark Coker of Smashwords calling this a “dark day for publishers” because it will lead authors to realize they can take control of their digital rights and go it alone for their e-books. But on the other hand, most authors aren’t J.K. Rowling, and e-book rights over the last few years have escalated to a bit of a contractual sticking point where publishers tend to require authors hand them over as part and parcel of the overall publishing contract (and in some cases are even willing to go to court over them when the contracts were too old to include them explicitly!), and exceptions (such as Cory Doctorow) are pretty rare.
And finally, Amazon suffered a strange glitch today wherein for an hour or two it wasn’t able to sell any Kindle e-books at all. While some have wondered at the timing (is it coincidence this happened on the first day the Harry Potter e-books have been available?), Amazon doesn’t seem to be saying whether or not it’s related. It does tend to make you wonder, doesn’t it?