LONDON – Harry Potter battled the forces of evil and now is set to conquer the Web – coming to e-books in a groundbreaking deal that has delighted fans but alarmed the book industry that helped make creator J.K. Rowling a billionaire.
Rowling announced Thursday that her seven novels about the boy wizard will be sold for the first time as e-books, beginning in October, exclusively through a new online portal to her wizarding world called “Pottermore.”
The deal brings longtime e-book refusnik Rowling into the digital fold, but comes as a bitter potion to established booksellers, who will be shut out of the latest chapter of a vastly profitable saga.
“You can’t hold back progress,” Rowling told reporters in London. “E-books are here and they are here to stay.”
The Potter novels will be available as audiobooks and e-books in multiple languages, initially including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. Prices have yet to be set. The “Pottermore” website, meanwhile, is an immersive online environment that combines elements of a role-playing game and a digital encyclopedia with social networking and an online store.
By selling directly to fans, Rowling is bypassing established online retailers like Amazon, although the creators of “Pottermore” say the books will be compatible with popular e-readers including Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and Apple’s iPad.
Phil Jones, deputy editor of The Bookseller, a London-based trade magazine, said cutting out retailers was a gamble – but if anyone can pull that off, it would be Rowling. The 45-year-old British author has retained the electronic publishing rights to her books, which have sold 450 million copies around the world in paper form.
“Only Rowling could do this,” he said. “I don’t think any other author could launch their own site and get fans to buy e-books through it. And I think she will succeed. I think she will get hordes of fans on the site and sell hundreds of thousands of e-books.”
Booksellers hope the e-books will further boost sales of the printed Potter books, but have otherwise been cut out of the electronic future of the mega-successful series.
Jon Howells, spokesman for Britain’s Waterstone’s chain, said the Harry Potter book launches, which for years drew throngs of fans in wizard garb to midnight store openings, “have become the stuff of legend at Waterstone’s and other booksellers.”
“We’re therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited e-book editions,” he said.
“Pottermore” had been the subject of intense speculation among fans since it appeared on the Internet with the words “coming soon.” Rowling revealed Thursday it is a website designed to immerse users in her intricately crafted world of wizards and magic.
The site lets fans delve into Harry Potter’s beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They can shop for wands in Diagon Alley, travel to Hogwarts from the imaginary Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross train station and be sorted into Hogwarts school houses by the perceptive Sorting Hat.
Along the way are wand fights, games and new information about characters.
“Pottermore” was trademarked in 2009 by Warner Bros., which distributes the Potter movies. But the site is a partnership with Sony Corp. and its online shop is described as “a potential outlet for Sony products.” Rowling spokesman Mark Hutchinson said Sony was selected as “the most appropriate partner.”
The site goes live on July 31 – which as true fans know is Harry Potter’s birthday – when 1 million registered users will be chosen through an online competition to help flesh out the Pottermore world. Visitors can register now to enter that competition.
The site will be open to all users from October, in languages including English, French, German and Spanish.
Potter fans should be delighted by the new digital world, but Rowling said she wanted to keep the emphasis of the site firmly on the written word.
“We’ve had a lot of requests for online games,” she said. “I wanted to pull it back to reading.”