Pottermore: Future of publishing or Club Penguin for Potter fans?

Last week, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling announced Poettermore, an ambitious new online property. While details are still scant, the site is guaranteed to be successful in at least one respect: As the exclusive retailer for Potter e-books, Pottermore will no doubt do a mean business as an e-book storefront.

But Pottermore, at least on the surface, looks to aim much higher than a glorified digital bookstore. While a virtual world based on an existing media property is by no means new, this combination of social elements, avatars and and interactive reading “experiences” looks like it has the potential to be something fairly unique.

So, will Pottermore be something revolutionary for the book world, or will it simply be a Potterized version of Club Penguin, a site aimed mainly at hawking Potter merchandise?

It may be too soon to tell, but a Harry Potter virtual world that allows fans to undergo similar experiences the characters in the books do — being sorted into a house, learning spells and competing for a “house cup,” to name a few — could be the start of a new shared social, transmedia world for books, a living, breathing online experience that goes significantly beyond an individual’s reading experience.

And it’s exactly this new world where many in publishing may have a problem. The publishing industry is full of people already bemoaning the arrival of enhanced e-books, those digital books that combine multimedia elements. And if some write off enhanced e-books as not being books, but something akin to CD-ROMs, how will those parties view something like Pottermore, which takes a book’s world, puts it online and makes it a fully interactive experience that may — or may not — require a whole lot of actual reading?

The reality is that the book industry is in the throes of a huge tranformational shift, one where the transition to digital is moving at a much faster pace than many anticipated, headed towards an uncertain future where traditional distribution models are being dismantled and new, more efficient ones are being erected. New incumbents are rising up by creating offerings like Pottermore, and J.K. Rowling may be giving them a roadmap to do so.

But as many have already said, not everyone can create a Pottermore. That may be the case, but who’s to stop a publisher, or a collective of publishers, from creating their own immersive online experiences where their authors’ books can come alive, and where they can engage directly with fans? For example, why couldn’t a publisher with a big mystery imprint make a gritty, online watering hole for  its readers? Or why couldn’t Harlequin, say, make a “romance-ville?”

Some would argue that the reading demographic is too old, that 50-year-old women wouldn’t want to spend time in a Harlequin online world. But that type of thinking assumes that these same books won’t ever make the generational leap to 20- or 30-something readers.

Instead, maybe what publishers need to do to bring in new readers is go to where future ones are spending their time nowadays: online. And maybe, just maybe, Pottermore shows a way they can do just that.

To read more on the implications of Pottermore and what it means for the future of publishing, see my weekly update at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image courtesy of flickr user KitAy