POSTED: 7:11 a.m. HST, Jun 23, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 7:40 a.m. HST, Jun 23, 2011
LONDON >> Harry Potter battled the forces of evil and now is set to conquer the web — coming to e-books in a groundbreaking deal that has delighted fans but alarmed the book industry that helped make creator J.K. Rowling a billionaire.
Rowling announced Thursday that her seven novels about the boy wizard will be sold for the first time as e-books, beginning in October, exclusively through a new online portal to her wizarding world called "Pottermore."
The deal brings longtime e-book refusnik Rowling into the digital fold, but comes as a bitter potion to established booksellers, who will be shut out of the latest chapter of a vastly profitable saga.
"You can't hold back progress," Rowling told reporters in London. "E-books are here and they are here to stay."
The Potter novels will be available as audiobooks and e-books in multiple languages, initially including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. Prices have yet to be set. The "Pottermore" website, meanwhile, is an immersive online environment that combines elements of a role-playing game and a digital encyclopedia with social networking and an online store.
By selling directly to fans, Rowling is bypassing established online retailers like Amazon, although the creators of "Pottermore" say the books will be compatible with popular e-readers including Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and Apple's iPad.
Tom Turcan, chief operating officer of the new venture, Pottermore Ltd., said Rowling wanted "to make the books available to everybody, not to make them available only to people who own a particular set of devices, or tethered to a particular set of platforms."
Phil Jones, deputy editor of The Bookseller, a London-based trade magazine, said cutting out retailers was a gamble — but if anyone can pull that off, it would be Rowling. The 45-year-old British author has retained the electronic publishing rights to her books, which have sold 450 million copies around the world in paper form.
"Only Rowling could do this," he said. "I don't think any other author could launch their own site and get fans to buy e-books through it. And I think she will succeed. I think she will get hordes of fans on the site and sell hundreds of thousands of e-books."
Booksellers hope the e-books will further boost sales of the printed Potter books, but have otherwise been cut out of the electronic future of the mega-successful series.
Jon Howells, spokesman for Britain's Waterstone's chain, said the Harry Potter book launches, which for years drew throngs of fans in wizard garb to midnight store openings, "have become the stuff of legend at Waterstone's and other booksellers."
"We're therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited e-book editions," he said.
"Pottermore" had been the subject of intense speculation among fans since it appeared on the Internet with the words "coming soon." Rowling revealed Thursday it is a website designed to immerse users in her intricately crafted world of wizards and magic.
The site lets fans delve into Harry Potter's beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They can shop for wands in Diagon Alley, travel to Hogwarts from the imaginary Platform 9 3/4 at London's King's Cross train station and be sorted into Hogwarts school houses by the perceptive Sorting Hat.
Along the way are wand fights, games and new information about characters beloved around the world, including Harry's boorish relatives, the Dursleys.
The website also features 18,000 words of new Potter material from Rowling, who said it will have "information I have been hoarding for years" about the books' characters and settings. The level of detail is sure to please fans of Potter minutiae, who have been sharing their enthusiasm online for years.
"I go into ridiculous detail about wand woods," Rowling said.
"Pottermore" was trademarked in 2009 by Warner Bros., which distributes the Potter movies. But the site is a partnership with Sony Corp. and its online shop is described as "a potential outlet for Sony products." Rowling spokesman Mark Hutchinson said Sony was selected as "the most appropriate partner."
The site goes live on July 31 — which as true fans know is Harry Potter's birthday — when 1 million registered users will be chosen through an online competition to help flesh out the Pottermore world. Visitors can register now to enter that competition.
The site will be open to all users from October, in languages including English, French, German and Spanish.
Initially it will follow the plotline of the first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," with the six other adventures added later.
"(It's) a way I can be creative in a medium that didn't exist when I started the books back in 1990," Rowling told reporters. She said it was a way to incorporate the thousands of "stories, drawings, ideas, suggestions" she still receives from fans four years after the last Potter book was published.
Potter fans should be delighted by the new digital world, but Rowling said she wanted to keep the emphasis of the site firmly on the written word.
"We've had a lot of requests for online games," she said. "I wanted to pull it back to reading."
The seven Harry Potter novels have made Rowling one of the world's richest women, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1 billion.
The last book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," was published in 2007, and Rowling said she still has no plans to write an eighth. But she said Pottermore was a way to reconnect with a character and a universe she loved.
"It is exactly like an ex-boyfriend," Rowling said. "Finishing writing Harry — I have only ever cried in that way and that much when my mother died. I have never cried for a man the way I cried for Harry Potter."
There may yet be another Potter book — a long-anticipated encyclopedia. Rowling said she was still considering compiling one, with the proceeds going to charity.
"Will there ever be an encyclopedia?" Rowling said. "Possibly."
The final Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," has its world premiere in London on July 7. Hutchinson said timing of the website announcement had nothing to do with the Warner Bros. movie.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report from New York. Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless