Why J.K. Rowling's "Pottermore" reveal was a magical letdown
More than a week ago, J.K. Rowling set the Internet abuzz with a mysterious site named Pottermore. It had a “magical” deep pink background with two owls sitting in branches on either side, and the words “Coming Soon” emblazoned in the middle. It was accompanied by a Twitter account that pointed fans towards a YouTube video, which in turn displayed a countdown to a big reveal by the billionaire author of Harry Potter. People were in a tizzy: a new Potter book? An MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)? Maybe even a 3D encyclopedia of Potter mythology?
The countdown expired yesterday, and Rowling made her big announcement. What she unveiled, however, was far less exciting than the mysterious promotion would have you believe. I’m not sure what Rowling’s motives are behind Pottermore, but at the moment, I’m one disappointed Potter fan (and media observer). Read on to find out what Pottermore is, and to leave your thoughts on it in the comments!
Naturally, Harry Potter fandom and the Internet make a volatile mix. Some fans held strong to the idea that Pottermore would result in a new book, that the denials by Rowling’s publisher were false (as many a perceptive Internet commenter pointed out, Pottermore = More Potter). What Rowling actually revealed will be an online destination for Harry Potter readers, where they can discuss the stories, buy the upcoming audio and e-book versions of the novels and…that’s about it.
Even in her announcement video, Rowling’s details about Pottermore were vague. She didn’t say how fans would be meeting up and talking about Potter, only to stress that Pottermore will be “safe” – an effort to ease the minds of parents worried about allowing their kids to participate in the site. She tossed around other words like “share” and “rediscover the world of the books”, but didn’t explain what format this will take: will it be like Facebook and Twitter, with individual fan profiles? Will it be more like a World of Warcraft-style game world, where users have digital avatars and meet up with other users to explore the Pottermore “universe”? We won't know until we hear reports from the limited number of users who will get to try it out this summer - before Pottermore is fully opened in October. (Rowling invites her fans to check her website on July 31st for more on early admission.)
Rowling’s reveal was intercut with what I thought was the most notable piece of the video: a clever stop-motion animation sequence where the pages of the Potter book are sliced up by invisible scissors and fold themselves into origami versions of trees, spiders and characters like the Sorting Hat. These figures then move about the surface of the book (the pages literally come to life). Unfortunately, even that feels like a gimmick; an impressive visual treat seemingly meant to distract the viewer from the fact that Rowling really isn’t giving us anything new. She almost admits it herself, saying “it’s the same story, with a few crucial additions; the most important one is you.”
Rowling claimed in a recent interview that she’s written something like 16,000 words of new Potter material that she’s “been hoarding for years”, which will eventually be incorporated into Pottermore. Again, what kind of material and how it will be released are still hazy. Maybe Rowling will have an account on the Pottermore site and offer tweet-like posts with the new content - or maybe the secret material will be hidden like “Easter eggs” across the site for users to uncover. Ask yourself, though: is new Potter material all that exciting? 16,000 words aren’t much compared to the books, and what more could she really add? I didn’t feel like the novels had many loose ends when I finished Book 7 – at this point, secret Potter writings seem like filler designed to bring users to a glorified online store.
The sale of the e-books present another problem with Pottermore. True, they are one of the few titles not yet available for mobile devices like the iPad, Kindle and Nook. But this huge campaign was expressly targeted at established fans of the series, many of whom already own at least one copy of each book in the series, if not more. I can’t imagine a majority of them will spring for the e-book versions - I certainly wouldn’t buy a book twice, even if I wanted a convenient digital copy on my device. So if Potter fans already own the chief product you’re selling, why tease them with a big online campaign when you have no significant new content to offer – just another product?
I can empathize with Rowling, in a way. She is, after all, the most successful novelist ever. When you finish the series that made you rich and famous (and pulled you out of poverty, in Rowling’s case), what do you do with your life? Do you start over with a completely new story, and risk your fans deeming it “not as good as the first series”? Do you retire from writing entirely? Pottermore doesn’t seem to be a decision on either front. It’s more like Rowling is delaying her separation from the Potter universe, or maybe prolonging her involvement. Rowling has said that writing Harry Potter had a profound emotional connection with her - finishing the final book caused her to burst into uncontrollable tears and trash the hotel room she was staying in at the time. It’s as though she’s having a hard time letting go – and has crafted a site to keep the Potter community (which she obviously treasures) alive beyond the release of the eighth film (while, y’know, selling something too…).
Maybe I’m just being impatient, and the sparse details in this announcement will be followed by some more concrete information later. What I really disagree with is how Rowling went about this reveal, using viral marketing strategies to build buzz and then giving us very little. Perhaps Pottermore will truly be an enlightening experience for Potter fans. But I’m still skeptical - it feels like this has been in planning for quite some time, so why not let us know how Pottermore will work? Unless this is all there is: a lame social network and a chance to buy versions of something we already have - no new magic at all.
What do you think about the Pottermore announcement? Is it *gasp* a cash grab by our beloved Potter scribe? Will you be one of the first to sign up? Share your reaction below, and check out some of my related articles: