independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Video: JK weaves her magic on interactive website

Pottermore is said to be a game-changer in the publishing world, but is it that spell-binding, asks Claire Coughlan

IT'S A MUGGLE'S GAME: JK Rowling is 'giving something back' to the fans. Photo: Ian Gavan

It may have been four years since the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Potter series, but the story is by no means over for fans of the fictional wizard.

On July 31 (which happens to be HP's birthday), a select few, who have registered their email addresses with JK Rowling's new Pottermore website, will be invited to enter the author's new online portal and will help shape the experience for the rest of the Muggle world in October, when the website will open to all. The site, which Rowling has developed with Sony and is completely free to use, also comprises an online shop, selling the collection of Potter books in digital format.

Rowling has said that she launched Pottermore with the aim in mind of "giving something back" to her loyal fanbase. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first book in the series, will be interactive on the website from its inception (although the collection of books will be available to buy digitally from the get go), with an estimated 18,000 words of new material from Rowling, containing back story and insights into characters and objects. The second book will be available from early 2012 and the rest will be released accordingly. So what can fans expect from this new reading experience?

Rod Henwood, CEO of Pottermore, won't give too much away, but he explains that the reader becomes part of Harry Potter's world, even being asked a question by the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts and being assigned houses, just like Harry and his friends; or going to Ollivander's shop in Diagon Alley and being allocated a wand.

"Similarly to the sorting hat, it's done by an algorithm that JK Rowling herself has written and it creates about a thousand permutations of wands that can be allocated to users," he says. "So that's quite exciting, especially for younger users.

"What we've found with the sorting hat is that everybody who does it is really curious about where they end up and JK Rowling said that she wrote the questions with certain kinds of outcomes in mind, but there are obviously loads of questions that you could get, so it's quite a magical experience in its own right.

"The good thing is that of the people she knows who've done the sorting hat, they have always ended up in the right house. So from her perspective, it works."

Literary agent Jonny Geller, head of the book division at Curtis Brown UK -- which represents bestselling authors such as Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly -- has called the Pottermore site a "game-changer" for the publishing industry. So might it change the way authors engage with their readers?

"I think it's hard to say ahead of time what influence it has on the rest of publishing, and [Rowling's] aim and our aim isn't to do anything dramatic to the publishing structure itself," says Henwood.

"The aim is really to do something creative within the world as we know it -- and in the world as we know it there's still a huge appetite for anything to do with Harry Potter.

"And we know that more and more people are reading books in digital format, as well as in print format, and we definitely don't want to pre-judge how that world will shape up; some people may end up doing both: print and digital reading. But what we do want to do is encourage reading, per se, in whatever form it takes place. This feels like a vehicle for doing exactly that."

Literary agent Julia Churchill -- from the Greenhouse Literary Agency, which specialises in children's books -- recently secured a major deal for Irish author Sarah Crossan with Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books. Churchill says that she can't imagine any other children's writer being in the position to develop a site like Pottermore.

She cites Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, as being one of the few authors who might be able to do something similar.

"All the children's writers who I represent interact with their fans digitally, in small ways, through their websites, blog tours, through social networking, and that's always going to be there. I think that will continue and I guess we're in a game-changing time as well, entering into -- in a mainstream way -- that physical interactivity. It's quite new. I guess it will set a precedent. I guess there will be some extraordinary Second Life-type book-based websites in the future, but will they be free?" Good question.

"In my time working the children's book business, Potter really brought forward the middle grade; it really changed the industry and if you've got millions of children going to a website now where they're able to buy digital books, I think it's going to accelerate the idea of children reading on reader and digital formats," she predicts.

"I think that is an inevitability, because how often do you have millions of children going to a website? I guess it's fractional how many children have an e-reader, but I guess putting the Potter books online might drive the market a little bit and drive the market for everyone, which is what Potter has always done."

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