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'Harry Potter' e-books: game-changers for the digital world?

Unlike most e-books, digital versions of the 'Harry Potter' series can be read on any device, which may be a harbinger of practices to come.

By Husna Haq / March 28, 2012

'Harry Potter' books finally became available in digital form on Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new web store, enabling fans to buy e-books and audiobooks of all seven 'Harry Potter' novels.

Jaap Buitendijk/HONS/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

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With a wave of the famous boy wizard’s wand – and a bevy of distribution deals – Harry Potter’s Pottermore has brought the wizarding world to the digital world.

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That’s right, Harry Potter books finally became available in digital form Tuesday on Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new web store, enabling fans to buy e-books and audiobooks of all seven Potter novels.

But there’s more magic there than meets the eye. In a major departure from industry standards, the Potter e-books aren’t locked with encryption, allowing consumers to share and read the books on multiple devices. In other words unlike a typical e-book, the same Potter e-book downloaded from Pottermore will work on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, smartphones, and more.

It’s a significant break with industry practice and it could provide the model that will undermine e-book dominator Amazon.

“I think it’s a very large crack in a dam that’s going to collapse in the next nine to twelve months,” Matteo Berlucchi, CEO of independent UK-based online bookstore aNobii, told the Northwest Indiana Times.

As the music industry did until 2008, distributors sell e-books in encrypted form that only authorized devices can read. A digital book from Amazon, for example, can only be read on its Kindle e-readers and on Kindle apps. It won’t work on other devices. Similarly, e-books purchased from Apple or Barnes and Noble will only work on i-devices (iPads, iPods, iPhones) and Nooks, respectively. 

The encryption used today is in the form of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, which distributers say stops piracy. It was the practice in the music industry until 2008 and it’s still the standard in digital books.

Until now. Potter e-books from Pottermore can be downloaded in a variety of formats and read on a variety of devices and apps – unprotected by DRM. Pottermore will insert a watermark identifying the buyer – an effort to stop piracy – but the books can be shared with friends and family.

“We believe that people should have the right, once they’ve bought the book, to read it on any device that they choose to,” Charles Redmayne, CEO of Pottermore, told the NWI Times.

“Of course,” writes the NWI Times, “there’s another reason Pottermore is going DRM-free. It wants to “own” the relationship with the customers – the Potter fans – rather than have them go to other retailers. And the only way to get onto all reading devices without dealing with the other retailers is to sell books without DRM.” 

“It’s a very valuable thing to us to own that customer relationship,” Redmayne said. “It gives us a tremendous opportunity to create new products that we can sell to those consumers around the Harry Potter brand.” 

So far, distributors like Amazon, which sells about 60 percent of the e-books bought in the US, are playing along. If customers look for Potter e-books on Amazon, the site sends them to Pottermore. 

Pottermore e-books mark the first major experiment in DRM-free e-books, so it remains to be seen whether the industry adopts this model as standard practice, as the music industry did four years ago. If it does, that would upset Amazon’s colossal influence in the digital market and return some of that power to publishers.

Whatever happens, we’re not surprised Harry Potter is behind some potentially earth-shaking changes in the industry. It’s not the first time.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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