If You’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ve probably been busy waiting for the premiere of the final film in the series?or checking J.K. Rowling’s new Pottermore site for updates. So you might be forgiven for missing some other big news in the world of Hogwarts: Rowling’s ditched her long-time agent and gone indie. Much like the first appearance of a certain boy wizard, It’s a move that could change your reading landscape forever.
There will, no doubt, be critics who call Rowling out as ungrateful. After all, Christopher Little is the literary agent who got the unknown Rowling started. He not only took a chance on the first-time author, but he also shepherded her career through a minefield of international rights agreements, and?in a presciently wise move?retained the author’s digital rights for her. If Rowling had signed them away, she might only be getting a 15 or 20 per cent slice of the e-book and audiobook pie. Now She’s in charge of the whole thing, and will even bypass retailers like Amazon to sell directly and exclusively through her new site.
So is she hurting a publishing world That’s already in flux, with agents and legacy publishers scrambling to stay afloat? No. She’s simply making a smart business move that will benefit not only herself but her readers and, potentially, literary agents.
For starters, Christopher Little has already earned something in the ballpark of $200 million in commissions. Nothing close to Rowling’s billions, but not a bad payday for a 15-year period. And Rowling has, perhaps inadvertently, just given a huge boost to the thriving new market set to hire agents: indie authors.
But not in the traditional sense, where agents sorted through the slush pile, signed a promising writer, then tried to earn a commission by selling a book to a publisher. These days, with the traditional market shrinking and e-book sales growing, agents? roles are shifting. they’re taking on more of the marketing and promotion that publishers used to do (and I do mean used to, since much of that heavy lifting has become the writer’s job).
Agents still work on commission, but a growing number now get paid directly by the indie authors they promote, not by the publishers. When a big name like Rowling starts selling directly to readers, it adds credence to the do-it-yourself model?a burgeoning market that may soon be keeping agents in business.
The other factor at play here is the role of publishers. Far from being the romanticized curators of culture, publishers are businesses. Their focus is on finding bestsellers, those literary home runs that make up for all the mid-list titles and failures they’ve lost money on.
Yes, acquisitions editors recognize good writing. And yes, publishers have brought thousands of classic titles to readers. But they also have a track record of unabashedly putting profits over quality (the esteemed imprint William Morrow, which published Mystic River, also brought you The Rules According To JWOWW). If an author hasn’t earned out an advance, or doesn’t look like a profitable new risk, publishers won’t hesitate to cut him loose. Rowling is simply playing by the rules that legacy publishing set and striking the best deal for herself.
And last but definitely not least, we come to the readers, the people who keep the whole thing in motion. Does Rowling’s move mean fewer choices for readers, as an enormous slice of the publishers? pie crumbles and they hesitate to take risks? Not at all. In fact, now that final decisions aren’t made by a publisher, Rowling has more options. She can take more chances, perhaps spin her imaginary world in a direction that an editing committee would never have approved.
By adding her voice to the self-published market, Rowling will also guide readers off the beaten path of traditional book buying and help them discover alternatives to the Amazons and Walmarts. She’s not the only major author doing so but She’s the biggest, and her voice lends a certain authority to the notion of buying a book straight from the author’s web site. And that may just help people discover other Rowlings-in-waiting, the ones who take literary chances that publishers won’t bet on but that readers may come to love.
So rather than looking at it as a big-time author turning her back on the establishment that got her started, I see it as an author connecting directly with her audience. And isn’t that really good for everyone who loves books?