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Jul 08

Pottermore fansite could mark multimedia publishing revolution.

If Harry Potter opened a whole new world for readers, Pottermore offers citizenship in it.

Though the forthcoming website made headlines for its promise of digital books, some say the bigger story is its "game-ification" of reading -a shift that could have seismic reverberations for the publishing industry.

"There are still reading purists who think books should be on paper, and who turn up their noses at the video game industry. There's a kind of artistic snobbery to it," says Michael Wolf, a digital media expert with market research firm GigaOM. "But the very nature of a book is starting to blur -and I think that's a good thing because it expands the demographic and gets more people to read."

Pottermore, which officially launches in October, will sort site-users into a House, and select for them a custom wand, based on their personality traits; allow them to compete for points in a virtual House Cup contest; showcase newly commissioned illustrations and writing, as well as interactive moments that delve beyond Rowling's original story; and create a social networking experience around the bestselling series.

"This could be the next evolution of social reading," says Wolf, though he hastens to add that the required financial investment could paralyze independent publishers. "To be certain, this is something that, for now, only an elite author like J.K. Rowling can do."

Bridget Hooper, a 17-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta., submitted her email address to join Pottermore as soon as the site was announced. A fan of Rowling's books for half her young life, the teenager has high hopes of rediscovering the series alongside other members of the virtual community.

"I'm really excited to get sorted into a House," says Hooper, who's a dead ringer for Potter's paramour Ginny Weasley. "I hope I'm in Gryffindor."

Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of media and mass communication at Queen's University in Kingston, describes Pottermore as a "gated community" for bookworms.

"They have exclusive sales of the e-books, offer an experience you can't get anywhere else, and have a fan base like nobody's business. So from a commercial standpoint, it's pure gold," says Matrix. "From a cultural perspective, I see it as the game-ification of reading, which will appeal in a big way because it connects readers and fans in a way that feels relevant to them."

Amazon recently reported that e-books have surpassed paper books in sales on its site. And Sony, a Pottermore partner, has teased the release of technology "that will help shape the future of storytelling" -rumour has it, a Pottermore reading app for the company's new hand-held game device.

Matrix says these elements could theoretically be applied to entire genres, with publishers creating niche virtual worlds to enhance their various properties.

An online experience built around Harlequin novels, for example, would be ideally suited to romance readers, whose demographics mirror those of the biggest social gamers: females in their late thirties to mid-forties.

In other words, this isn't about simply transporting book clubs online. It's about transporting the entire world within the book and everything that comes with it.

"It's not just me and my book any more; it's me, my book, all my friends, the whole fan community, the publisher, the author's there," says Matrix. "I mean, WOW. Reading just got really fun again."

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