25 April 2012

Harry Potter Changes the Rules Again

Every new Harry Potter book changed the rules of American publishing. The first book signaled the resurgence of fantasy after years of doldrums. Then readers started using Amazon.co.uk to get the second volume. That necessitated worldwide publication dates, which led to midnight book parties.

The New York Times changed its bestseller lists to keep those darned kids from annoying authors of adult fiction. Volumes 4 and above showed that ten-year-olds gladly read books more than twice as long as people expected, and so on.

I thought that the end of the series might mean the end of its disruptions. But the recent release of J. K. Rowling’s digital editions is making the same sort of waves. Not only is she managing those rights herself through her Pottermore site, but her team decided to release the ebooks without digital rights management (DRM) protection.

Mike Shatzkin passes on the results he heard from Charlie Redmayne of Pottermore:
The key to Charlie’s disruption was his willingness to substitute watermarking for DRM. He said it definitely made him nervous to do it, but he couldn’t see any other way to achieve what he wanted for Pottermore. He had to be able to sell to any device; he wanted to be able to allow any purchaser complete interoperability. There was no way to do that and maintain DRM. . . .

Apparently, Potter ebook files started showing up on file-sharing sites pretty much right away after they opened. But before they could serve any takedown notices, Charlie says the community of sharers reacted. They said “C’mon now. Here we have a publisher doing what we’ve been asking for: delivering content DRM-free, across devices, at a reasonable price. And, by the way, don’t you know your file up there on the sharing site is watermarked? They know who you are!” And then the pirated content started being taken down by the community, before Pottermore could react. And very quickly, there were fewer pirated copies out there than before.
Shatzkin also reports that major British publishers were saying they might discard DRM as well. Already Tor announced that it would stop using it. Paid Content quoted an anonymous publishing executive saying that he or she now breaks DRM on ebooks. The industry may decide that going DRM-free is the only way to stem the rising flood of Amazon.

Of course, whenever the Harry Potter books shift the ground in publishing, the big question is whether those changes will benefit, or even affect, ordinary titles. Most books don’t have thousands of people lined up to buy them before pub date. Most authors haven’t become richer than the queen of England and therefore able to take chances with their digital domain.

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