I’m not saying that J.K. Rowling could single-handedly keep independent booksellers in business, except that’s kind of what I’m saying.
This article was written in response to the news that J.K. Rowling is releasing three Harry Potter-related e-books on Pottermore.com.
Harry Potter was much more than a good story about a teenage wizard.
J.K. Rowling’s magical series of novels came out at a time when the future of printed books was very much uncertain. With the influx of new technologies came a myriad of new ways for people to entertain themselves, and over the course of the ’90s and ’00s we saw the birth of first-generation smartphone devices and e-readers.
Harry Potter is widely credited as teaching a whole generation of kids to read fiction, but each new volume of the seven-book saga also gave a significant revenue and publicity boost to independent bookstores, that were already then beginning to drop like flies.
When The Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, SFGate could joyously report a 20% rise in revenues for independent booksellers in San Francisco’s Bay Area — and that was just one example out of many.
As all things must do, the Harry Potter series eventually ended. Both Rowling and her readers moved on, and over the course of the next 10 years we lost not only independent bookstores, but giant chains, with Borders infamously closing up shop in 2011 (four years after the release of the final Harry Potter novel).
But then came a ray of shining light: The publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the rehearsal script for the London-based play of the same name, sent readers flocking back to bookstores for spectacular midnight release parties.
Unsurprisingly, considering the popularity of the franchise, the script book broke sales records, with both Barnes & Noble and Waterstones expecting it to be their biggest seller of the year.
It should go without saying that book releases hardly ever strum up this kind of fan fervour. And — despite a surprising wave of backlash to the phenomenon — it really is something of a miracle that a book can still invoke the same kind of passion and excitement that you’d normally only see at concerts or celebrity meet-and-greets.
Isn’t it amazing that in 2016, almost 10 years out from the final Harry Potter novel, fans of the series will still show up at a bookstore, at midnight, to get their hands on a physical copy of the next chapter of Harry’s story? I sure think it is. And no, it won’t fix booksellers’ problems overnight. But continuing to release Harry Potter stories in physical book format (like they’re doing with the Fantastic Beasts script, it should be noted) definitely wouldn’t hurt.
And this is why it was so massively disappointing to wake up this morning to the news that J.K. Rowling is releasing new Harry Potter-related stories exclusively in e-book format, via her website Pottermore.
I still maintain that receiving new Wizarding World information in this format just doesn’t feel quite right, but my disappointment goes deeper than simply personal preference for how the story is being told to me.
Whether or not she meant to, J.K. Rowling has played a major role in ‘making books cool again’ and getting people to visit physical bookstores, and to see her so fully embrace the e-book format for her Harry Potter series breaks my heart. Because if Rowling isn’t going to support physical book sales, who will?
Of course we don’t know what went into this decision. Unlike her previous mock Hogwarts textbooks, the proceeds from the three new installments don’t appear to be going to charity, so perhaps this is all part of an effort to keep Pottermore — which is struggling financially — afloat.
Because, at the end of the day, this is really just a fancy way of putting new Harry Potter content behind a paywall on Pottermore.com, without having to use that nasty, off-putting word.
And that’s a perfectly reasonable business strategy. J.K. Rowling is totally entitled to take her property wherever she wants. Part of me is happy that new Harry Potter material is coming out at all, and that I get to experience all kinds of cool new stories set within a world I already love. It’s kind of like the Star Wars expanded universe, or the Silmarillion.
But another part of me feels like Harry Potter is so fundamentally tied to the medium in which it was first dreamed up. Whether it’s movies, blog posts, e-book novellas, plays or prequel movies, it just doesn’t quite feel like ‘real’ Harry Potter content to me if it’s floating around without a tangible, literary anchor. As someone who considers herself a Harry Potter book fan, it’s hard to contend with new canon that isn’t being made available in that format at all.
It also feels like a bit of a jerk move (sorry, I know she’s #queen but I don’t know how else to put it) to abandon the very industry that was so intrinsically tied to her original success, and which clearly benefits from every boost she can still give it.
So here’s my plea to J.K. Rowling: Write whatever you want. It’s your world. I’m happy for any new piece of Wizarding World backstory you’re inclined to give us. But please don’t divorce Harry Potter from the medium of print literature, because they’ll both suffer for it.
if JKR is publishing ebook-only stories and producing plays most people can't see I guess pen and paper truly is no longer her priority
— Marama Whyte (@maramawhyte) August 17, 2016