The Pottermore Effect on Ebooks and Transmedia Storytelling


6.30.11 | Last week, author J.K. Rowling announced the next chapter in the Harry Potter series—a new website called Pottermore that will sell all seven novels as ebooks this fall. It will be the only place where digital versions of the series will be available.

A test version of Pottermore will launch July 31, and e-book sales will begin in October. Pottermore also promises to build “an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books.”

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Paul Sonne of the Wall Street Journal note that the decision “to release the Potter books digitally comes at a time when there is increased speculation about which formats—physical or digital—children will embrace in the years ahead. Scholastic, for example, is currently working on an e-reading software application for kids that is designed to bolster digital reading and that will likely be unveiled this fall.”

They also describe the book extras that the site will offer:

Pottermore is a Harry Potter online world that allows readers to join one of the Hogwarts wizardry school’s four houses and travel virtually through the first Harry Potter book. Along the way, members encounter extra material Ms. Rowling has written or unearthed from her notes, giving intense Potter fans much-desired insider explanations of key characters, places and plots. Users receive their own magical wands and home pages—and can do things like post drawings and challenge one another to wizard duels.

Among the many impressive statistics of the “Harry Potter” franchise, NPR’s Margot Adler notes the involvement of its fans: “Since the series began its cultural ascent in the late 1990s, its fans — adults, children, and those who have grown up in the 14 years since the first novel was released — have created thousands of fan sites and more than 1 million fan fiction stories.”

Henry Jenkins, the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, weighs in with “Three Reasons Why Pottermore Matters,” starting with Pottermore as transmedia storytelling:

Relatively little of the official Harry Potter media produced to date has been transmedia in the sense that I use the term—as an extension of the information we have available about the world rather than as a replication of the story from one medium to another. I’ve been suggesting lately that we might identify transmedia projects through the combination of two factors—radical intertextuality (that is, the complex interweaving of texts through the exchange of story-related information) and multimodality (that is, the mixing of different media and their affordances in the unfolding of the story). Pottermore works at both levels.

On the one hand, Rowling is making a commitment to provide fans with a large chunk of additional information about the world of Harry Potter, nuggets which, as she puts it, she’s been “hoarding” during the writing process. We might think of this as a more interactive version of the kinds of “further stories” or notes on the mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate has been slowly feeding Lord of the Rings fans in the decades since the author’s death. Some estimates suggest that she’s already got 100,000 words of new material which is going to be inserted into the interstices of the original novels—that’s more or less the length of a typical book (not as much as a Harry Potter book, but still)—and she’s hinted that there may be more where this comes from. During the Harry Potter lexicon case, it came out that she had been planning to publish her own encyclopedia which would expand our knowledge of her fictional universe. It is not clear whether this will supplement or replace that original conception.

By far, this is the aspect of the announcement which has caught fire with fans, especially those who have been worried that the intensity of the fandom will fade once the last film is released into the theaters. Trust me, there’s been lots of mashing of teeth about this. No one thinks that Harry Potter fandom will go away completely—we’ve seen many fandoms long outlast the production of new material—but there is apt to be less intensity and visibility once the final film hits the theater. For these fans, Pottermore is a game changer.

Read the rest here. Also check out yesterday’s post on “Teaching Students to be Multimedia Storytellers,” which includes more links to Jenkins’ writings on transmedia and participatory culture.

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