J.K. Rowling and the bold business model

The Harry Potter series will soon be available as e-books. That in itself is good news for many people, but according to this article the real excitement may be in how Rowling is releasing them. Along with the more standard formats, her e-book store at her new Pottermore site will offer DRM-free copies with only a digital watermark to let people know who actually bought the copy. This will allow customers to read her books on any reading device regardless of manufacturer. This will also open the files to sharing (and piracy), but she rightfully is not as concerned about that.

I’ve not read anything yet from Rowling as to why she is approaching things this way, but I can think of a few possibilities:

– She does not want her empire held captive by any one distributor. If customers can only read her works on Kindle, Nook, or iPad then Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Amazon can control her distribution network to a degree. This opens the door for people anywhere in the world to get her books, so long as they have even a basic computer. 

– As indicated in the article, she’s already got plenty of pirates out there. Well-meaning fans (and not-so-well-meaning crooks) are willing to go to great lengths to get her books, including typing them all out by themselves or scanning them in with good OCR software. Non-DRM copies of her books are already floating around out there. The pirates are already getting them. But te rest of us who would actually prefer to be honest and pay at least something for what we use will also have the option.

– She acknowledges the value of borrowing books, even if the sales are not immediate. For every person who bought her books originally there were probably at least as many who borrowed them from friends or family (ie. Me!). Years later, however, and even after my kids have read library copies, we’re buying the books. Eventually something like Harry Potter becomes beloved enough you want to own it. She may have made a boat-load of money the first time through releasing her books, but I’ll bet she continues to make a sizable residual each month from people like me who are late to the party.

– She’s made enough money from the books already that even if they end up being given away by everyone who buys a DRM-free copy they’ll still be advertisements to get them to Pottermore and sell them related merchandise. Rowling’s got business sense, and knows she can’t just milk the books for eternity. She needs to ride the merchandizing horse as long as she can until she gets something else into mix. Her adult mystery novel is still perhaps years off, and likely won’t be the mega-sensation Harry Potter was.

It will be interesting to see, however, if she remains committed to DRM-free when her new book comes out. What she does when that is released electronically will indicate which of my suppositions is really closest to the mark. If there’s one thing we’ve seen about Rowling and her millions (or is it billions) is that she’s not content to sit on her money. She plans to make more (and why not? Good for her). Whatever she does she will do because she believes it will be in her best interest long-term. Certainly that is one thing that has changed–the woman who was barely getting by day to day when she first published Harry is now able to look long and hard at the long-term.