In the last few days, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has announced a new website which will create a whole new way to engage with the Potterverse. Pottermore, which launches in beta at the end of July before going on general release in October, will offer a place for fans to read new material, both from when Rowling was writing the books and some written since. In addition it will also offer games, social networking and an online store with audiobooks and, for the first time, ebooks.
In the introductory video on the website, Rowling says the site will change and develop with input from fans, a community she has always courted very well.
While it's an exciting time for Potter fans, who now have a new fix with the last film rapidly approaching and Rowling categorically stating she will not be writing any more books, it's also interesting for the publishing industry. I've wondered before why a big name author hasn't gone this route, and some authors have, but Rowling is by far the biggest. This new project is a little more like the recent deals announced by the Catherine Cookson estate and the Ian Fleming estate than an established author selling direct to the consumers in that she is releasing books which were previously released via the traditional route, rather than releasing new works solely this way.
I don't suspect for a second Rowling is releasing the site to make money, I think she's still pretty comfortable from the profits of the books, movies and merchandise. I suspect she, like many other people, is just having difficulty letting Harry go and wants to give something back to all her loyal fans.
Aside from selling audiobooks and ebooks direct, what's interesting is the desire to create a community around her work. Although no one's exactly sure what it will entail, pulling an audience together and providing a platform for them to interact and enjoy your work shows how authors could finance future works or expand their revenue sources from the relatively few that currently exist (essentially selling the book in various formats and licencing the rights for adaptations into other mediums).
Make community access free but sell advertising, or offer premium accounts with early access to new features, sell app versions of the online games, allow people to buy things to use in the games (upgrades, etc), offer a wide range of merchandise via the online store, sell items that you can't find anywhere else, open the platform up to third-party developers and take a cut of any money. Maybe we'll see a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) version of the Harry Potter games. Maybe book sites are going to become the Facebook equivalent of MMORPGs, with huge communities.
I imagine we'll start to see more authors do things like this (some already do) and, over the coming years it will be interesting to see if the book itself gets relegated to just another revenue stream amongst many others (it could be that authors end up making more money from other products/merchandise than the book itself). Not that it will happen overnight of course.