Sony has scored an exclusive lead on other e-readers in selling copies of Harry Potter as e-texts, industry sources tell The Register. It's all a part of Pottermore, the upcoming online Potter portal. The deal could leave the Amazon-dominated e-reader market spellbound.
The Pottermore site went live in limited beta testing yesterday, but the full launch isn't until October. At this point, the rumors say, the e-text editions will go live as an "online reading experience" and then in November they'll appear as a bundle of all seven e-books, a letter from Rowling, a subscription to the Pottermore site, and a "themed" carrying case (can you imagine a faux-leather spell book perhaps?). The digital parts of the bundle will be pre-loaded onto an upcoming and unannounced Sony Reader.
Pottermore began with the usual level of excitement surrounding any content dripping from the pen of J.K. Rowling. News about e-book formats was a bonus. The buzz faded, though, when Pottermore was revealed not to be a Warcraft-style online game but an exclusive portal for access to the e-books themselves. (Though, from a business standpoint, the move will give publisher Bloomsbury much more control over the distribution of the e-texts.) Now with Sony on board, the full picture is coming into focus.
And since widespread access to the e-texts via Pottermore for users of other devices won't go live until 2012, this means for a while Sony is going to be the only device on which to read digital editions. Retailers are expecting the bundle to be the biggest seller for Christmas 2011. If cleverly packaged and carefully priced, history tells us the Potter offering will sell like hotcakes to little wizards and witches worldwide.
Amid the slightly chaotic launch, it was curious why Bloomsbury was moving so slow to launch the Potter e-texts, and why it appeared to shun the current king of e-readers, Amazon, with its enormous international reach and millions of customers, and the current king of tablet PCs, Apple, with its tens of millions of iPad sales and the world's most accessible online app store as a distribution channel. Suddenly it makes sense. Sony sponsored the Pottermore site from the get-go. And Sony's reported to have paid "millions" to convince Bloomsbury and Rowling to follow this route to market (the money is reported to be going to charities for learning-disabled children), showing how keen Sony is on the idea, and how much it's gambling.
The launch will happen at about the same time that Amazon is expected to reveal its new tablet PC device, and close to one rumored launch date for Apple's next-generation iPad. And neither platform will be able to offer, like Sony will, access to the world's best-selling series of books. At over 450 million sales to date, the Potter series certainly still has scope for more sales as digital editions—for new readers, people who want to re-read the books, or replace their aging physical copies which are hefty compared to the zero-weight e-editions—and thus could earn Sony a serious pile of cash.
The one issue that'll probably keep Sony's hopes at bay is consumer reluctance to embrace Sony's Reader device, which operates outside the cozy and well-stocked Amazon ecosystem, with its seamless online store and wireless delivery of books as part of the clever Whispernet service. We know that partnering high-tech with a creative arts package really works: Apple's U2 iPod, pre-loaded with the band's entire discography, was the talk of the industry for a while, for example, and in a slightly similar vein, Sony's had success in selling PS3s that were released in limited edition versions with the hardware dressed to match a particular game. And as the PS3 and iPod examples show, these tricks are as much about the ecosystem as the particular marketing promotion itself: Once you're hooked into the iTunes ecosystem, and Sony's gaming platform, you'll make ongoing purchases on that platform to make your initial investment more "worthwhile." Which is certainly what Sony hopes will happen with the Harry Potter books.
The e-reader itself is quickly becoming outdated by the explosive growth of the full-featured tablet market, and even Amazon is feeling the push to move away from an exclusive device design. Assuming Sony is marrying the Potter e-books with a low cost e-ink e-reader (rather than its upcoming Android tablets, which will likely be too expensive to partner with the Potter books in a bundle), it's got a slightly hard sell—even with the Potter exclusive—thanks to the commoditization and superceded nature of the e-reader market. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that Bloomsbury's cavalier move with its most lucrative publishing asset shows that neither Amazon nor Apple can get things their own way all the time—and this may even inspire other publishers to try similar tricks in the future.
Update: Sony's been in touch, and has a comment about the news:
Sony is very excited about the overall marketing partnership with J.K Rowling’s newest project, Pottermore, and as we have previously announced, the site will be an outlet for Sony products designed for Potter fans. We have previously said that Reader might be a logical product category for a partnership, however we have not yet released any details about any new Sony Readers, including any Pottermore related products, and any details being reported are purely speculative. When we do have Sony Reader or Pottermore news, we will share the details with you.
So, it's stressing that this is all speculation, and can't disclose anything. Would you do that if the guesses are close to what you're actually planning...or far away?
[Image: Flickr user celticblade]