|Future Fragments: Pottermore and the Future of eBooks|
Harry Potter is well known to be the boy who lived--but the real story these days is how he spawned that franchise that couldn't die. For Harry Potter fans, we seemed to be closing in on a final chapter as the last movie hits theaters in just a few weeks. But even as fans worked to come to terms with this ending clues were dropped in the hands of a number of proven fan leaders that set off a virtual scavenger hunt pointing towards another resurrection for the franchise:
The clues lead to the website for Pottermore, which originally held only images of owls and the promise that the content was "coming soon." As the countdown continued, speculations went wild as to what might be coming. Many dreamed of another Harry Potter book, despite JK Rowling's repeated insistence that she has no intention of writing more books set in the series. Some hoped for a Harry Potter massive multiplayer online gaming experience in the footsteps of Lord of the Ring's games. Others speculated that since the scavenger hunt had involved pseudo-location-based gaming via Google Maps, perhaps Pottermore would be a massive ARG geocaching hunt involving a search for Harry Potter artifacts--the deathly hallows themselves, perhaps. Others warned that whatever was revealed was likely to disappoint. The teaser for Pottermore has been revealed, although the details are still hazy.
Does Pottermore take what has traditionally been the production of fans and put it under authorial domain? The idea of building communities around the houses and extending the stories of each of the familiar characters has already been going on in fan space since the very first book was released. Notice how that lavishly produced trailer emphasizes the word "safe"--safe for whom, I wonder? Will this world reveal the grand romance of Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald in more detail than the announcement JK Rowling made after the last book went on sale? And if so, will it create an authoritative story where there was once only a community of "Grindeldore" fanfiction writers? Will Rowling's release of an encyclopedia-like amount of knowledge around the world take what was ambiguous and put it in perhaps less interesting clarity, or will these new words inspire even more creative actions around the world of Harry Potter?
Pottermore has a CEO--this is clearly a corporate enterprise. While the exact nature of the "interactive" components has not yet been revealed to the waiting audience, we do know that the development collaboration with Sony suggests a well-produced technical framework. Certainly the teaser video, with its beautiful use of typography and visuals emerging from the book itself, promises a gorgeous experience. Some elements, like the use of a starting quiz or scenario to emulate the sorting hat process, promise to build "official" versions of concepts that have been around the web in RPG games for years. But unlike fan-run collaborative storytelling experiments like Alternity: A Harry Potter Alternate Universe, the Pottermore focus on the original stories promises--or perhaps threatens?--not to deliver much in the way of surprise.
It is impossible to know yet exactly where on the spectrum of interactivity Pottermore will fall. The creators behind an under-development platform for interactive storytelling, Varytale, recently posted their thoughts on what is required to make truly interactive narrative: "The second kind of interactive book is the one we’re interested in. Where interactivity isn’t an add-on, but is the core of the experience. This interactivity isn’t about audio tracks, or pictures, or pop-up content, or 3d models. It is about story."
Harry Potter is a franchise built on story, but as a transmedia experience it has been mostly redundant: the movies are faithful adaptations of the books, not extensions. The closest to new stories has been the supplemental Tales of Beedle the Bard, which filled in the gaps of the fairy tale equivalents for a wizarding world. Fans, on the other hand, have imagined the fate of the next generation, rewritten the romantic entanglements in every possible direction, gone back to tell of the school days of beloved characters and gathered to role-play their way through their own adventures. Will the Pottermore extension really harness even some of this creativity? Or will it provide an illusion of interactivity while keeping readers on the rails of the original stories, with little opportunity to explore?
Whether Pottermore strives to be an interactive narrative or an elaborate marketing campaign surrounding the release of ebook versions of the original series remains to be seen. In either case, the results will make the publishing industry take notice. Already, JK Rowling has decided to write the rules for her ebooks, and will be negotiating across platforms for releases that will all be run through the Pottermore store--perhaps eliminating the bookstores completely. And given the heft of the original volumes, ebooks will definitely have an appeal to those looking to reread the texts without lugging them along on trips. (Of course, illegal ebook versions already exist, but this will be the first legitimate digital form of the books.)
JK Rowling has never failed to maintain her authorial control over the franchise, and this latest project is a major endorsement of the possibility of both digital distribution and experimental interactive forms. Yes, it is a proven franchise, and thus can get away with what others may not--but it's only one of the children's publishing experiments embracing new digital forms. Take, for instance, the Booksurfers series, which is a just released Kindle only franchise adding narratives around classic children's books: it has echoes of Pottermore in that it offers a digital extension around an already-told story. But will the digital trappings add real value, or just clutter the narrative? Only time will tell if these are well-crafted transmedia experiences. The forms themselves, however, are only going to grow more interesting and common.
And as for Harry Potter fans, the coming of the last film, a still-expanding theme park, and now unreleased texts all promise that the franchise is still alive and well.