JK Rowling’s new website Pottermore is a shrewd move, and may usher in a golden age of fan fictionby Sam Leith / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
JK Rowling’s new website is sure to be a hit, but will it allow Harry Potter fans to contribute? Image: I.M. Bitter
I’m not proud of it, but it’s still out there somewhere—in some needle-strewn clearing in a neglected byway of the internet: my own Harry Potter story. This slice of adolescent sadism saw Dobby the house elf, overcome after receiving a parcel of socks on Christmas morning, tumble into an open fire and burn alive alongside the chestnuts.
I posted it online while preparing an article years ago, and had, truth be told, quite forgotten about it. But memories stirred when JK Rowling announced her new Harry Potter website. “Pottermore” goes live on 31st July and promises to gather fans like myself to its bosom.
The name’s great, isn’t it? When the waters eventually close over the Potter franchise—some time long after humans have abandoned Earth and set out to explore the stars—one imagines the Pottermore URL quietly redirecting visitors to a legacy site called “Dunpotterin.”
But I digress. Pottermore seems to me to be more than just a PR stunt, another flash of the petticoats from Rowling. I think it’s doing two interesting things.
The first is interesting in industry terms. One of the things publishing folk worry about in the digital age is “disintermediation,” which sounds like a spell for Death Eaters but means cutting out the middle man. Authors can disintermediate publishers by self-publishing ebooks or with print-on-demand and selling through their own websites. Publishers can disintermediate booksellers by selling to readers directly. The literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has already started publishing books himself, dreams of the day when he can disintermediate everybody else in the industry with a Dalek-like shriek of triumph.
By selling the Harry Potter ebooks exclusively through her website, JK Rowling is disintermediating Amazon. Her publishers Bloomsbury will still get a cut, which points to either great warmth of feeling or a scrupulously drafted contract. But Amazon won’t get a sniff. That’s pretty punchy. Yet she’s a big enough name that the company will probably have to suck it up (I can’t see it refusing to stock her paperbacks in protest). How it goes for her will be of great interest to writers like Dan Brown, Stephen King and James Patterson.
The second interesting thing that the website is doing is sort-of literary. It will be an open-ended resource of supplementary material about the Harry Potter universe. Rowling says she has 18,000-odd words of background material. There will be readers’ companions to the books, expanded back story, and even—for nerdy dads—a clarification of the rules of Quidditch.
This is at once self-serving and generous. Rowling recognises the value to readers and author alike of extending Harry Potter’s imaginative franchise. It’s a world in which both are invested and rather than simply spin out more merchandising, she’s spinning out some more of the world itself.
This sort of world-building around fiction isn’t new. In the science fiction and fantasy genres, and in children’s books—both of which categories Harry Potter falls into—it’s routine. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Larry Niven’s Known Space, Blizzard’s Azeroth, the Marvel and DC universes, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, even the island around which Thomas the Tank Engine chugs and puffs… all are worlds susceptible to having their lore and geography, their imaginary hinterlands, charted by readers who treat them as real places.
There are exceptions—coach parties touring Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or Jane Austen’s Bath—but readers of adult or literary novels tend not to be interested in this. You can’t see Kazuo Ishiguro returning to the world of Never Let Me Go to supply a historical excursus on Hailsham School: in most mainstream novels, the world created is sufficient to the story in which it appears, and doesn’t seek to outlive it. But in genre fiction, readers treat the stories as sightseeing routes through a larger terrain—one that invites off-piste exploration.
One of the natural emanations of these story-worlds is the desire of fans to write their own stories set in them. Though Trekkies were doing it long before the internet, fan-fiction now usually appears online. The question of how much of Pottermore will be a walled garden and how much will be common ground is the really interesting one. Rowling—though she and Warner Brothers fiercely protect their intellectual property—has always been shrewdly and feelingly tolerant of fan fiction. What if Pottermore not only enabled, but hosted it?
If so, it might emerge as the template for a more complex and unstable version of the old triangular relationship between author, reader and story. And, perhaps, there’ll be a place in it for my crispy Dobby.