Rant O’Clock: No, JK Rowling is NOT Self-Publishing


Sitting in front of YouTube last Thursday, my heart sank – and not just because that “due to unprecedented demand” I couldn’t register my e-mail address on Pottermore. JK Rowling has decided to sell the most anticipated e-books in the history of… well, e-books, directly through the site, skipping the likes of Amazon, iBooks and other retailers.

“JK Rowling is self-publishing!” Twitter said, collectively and breathlessly, as soon as the announcement was made. It was, apparently, “a watershed moment for e-books.” It proved that the “stigma of self-publishing is finally over.” This was “publishing’s Radiohead moment.” The death knell of books and the publishing world as it is now was suddenly ringing louder and more frequently. Surely the end of it all – print books, agents, editors, booksellers – was now only days away.

So why did my heart sink?

Because ignoring the gaping black hole of distinction between Rowling’s situation and everyone else’s on earth without exception, the self-publishing evangelists could now claim her as one of their own, and they were wetting themselves with glee at the prospect. But JK Rowling is only the new John Grisham: a self-publishing success story that’s regularly trotted out to validate self-publishing as a choice, but is in fact about a writer who never self-published.

Because Rowling is not self-publishing.

She is not self-publishing because she is not self-publishing. The Harry Potter e-books may be on sale from a site owned by the author and not third party retailers, but she is doing this in partnership with her print publishers and Sony, who will presumably do the techie bits. (They already have their logo on the Pottermore home page.)

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

“Ms. Rowling isn’t entirely pushing aside her publishers. Bloomsbury and Scholastic both said in statements Thursday that they would receive a cut of Pottermore’s e-book sales. “It is because J.K. Rowling wanted to be in a partnership with her print publishers on this project,” a Bloomsbury spokeswoman said. Both Bloomsbury and Scholastic said they would provide marketing and promotional support for the Pottermore site.”

But Rowling is also not self-publishing because there is a difference the size of the Grand Canyon between a billionaire author who has the most successful series of books in the history of paper and is responsible for movies, merchandise and theme park attractions starting to sell directly to readers, and you or I uploading a 99c book to Amazon KDP or Smashwords.

Her “self-publishing” is not the same as our “self-publishing.” I would even go so far as to say one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

Why do authors self-publish?

  1. Plan B after rejection
  2. Higher royalties/profits
  3. More creative control over covers, etc.
  4. Less time between project completion and publication
  5. No need for publisher’s help due to existing readership.

Do you think Rowling is motivated by any of those? (Remember she can’t be by No.5, because she is getting help from her publishers.) Hardly. Pottermore is a new experience for Potter fans that will help drag Harry into the digital age, and selling the e-books from there is just one facet of it. If I was Rowling I would do the same thing, but I would do it solely as an antidote to piracy. The Potter e-books will reportedly be inked with a digital watermark so any pirated copies can be traced back to the original purchaser but they will be DRM-free. If the books were sold through stores like Amazon, iBooks, Sony, Barnes and Noble, etc. etc., I can’t imagine that would work.

But that’s all beside my point, which is JK Rowling is nothing to do with you. Or me. Or any self-publisher.

It doesn’t mean that traditional publishing is dead, that you should forget submitting that novel you’re working on to agents and take it straight to Smashwords instead, or that the fastest way to the millionaires’ club is a series of thriller novels priced at just $2.99. All it means is that what surely must be the most successful writer in the world right now (at least in terms of revenue) has found a way to bring her books into the digital age, to introduce them to a whole new, younger audience and to give something new to the existing fans who may have started reading them nearly fifteen years ago.

And she has already been traditionally published. She is a traditionally published author. She has submitted her work to agents, got an agent, had that agent submit her work to publishers, got rejected, got rejected some more and finally got an offer of a book contract. She has done her time, so to speak. She is not sitting at home, tapping her fingers on the desk while she waits for her 385,000-word novel, Zodiac Goldbottom and The Enchanted Fairies of Realm Number 6 (Volume 1), to finish converting on Smashwords so she can go into work on Monday morning and tell her colleagues that since she last saw them on Friday afternoon, she’s become A Novelist.

You don’t need anyone but yourself and your work to validate your decision to self-publish. The best way to prove that self-publishing isn’t just for deluded losers is to self-publish a good book professionally, and do it without making grandiose claims that make me want to slap you repeatedly on the head. (With your own book, for added effect.) Let your success speak for itself, and let that success say, “I’ve successfully self-published and I’m proud – but that doesn’t mean every last bookstore in the world will be closed forever by 5pm tomorrow and dead trees will have to go find something else to do.”

I was lucky enough to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando last October. I was utterly blown away. And as I walked through Hogsmeade, queued up to enter Hogwarts, flew across the Quidditch pitch, peered in the window of Ollivander’s, eyed up cups of Butterbeer (and ultimately decided against it) and finally strolled through a gift shop that had a whole host of items adorned with Harry Potter images and logos – and there, in the corner, the books themselves – I felt a little emotional.

All this because of an idea that popped into a woman’s brain while on a train, I kept thinking. Look what books can do.

Books and Bloomsbury, the house that first published them.


Self-publishers, I will give us one thing: this is good news, although not for the reason you think. As Steven Lewis pointed out on Taleist yesterday, the release of the most highly anticipated e-books ever to grace the publishing world will surely result in even more people purchasing e-reading devices, especially if the Potter e-books have some added value (like an enhanced reading experience), which they surely will. And the more people with e-readers, the more people who can potentially buy your book.

UPDATE: I didn’t think I could agree with anything in a post called “JK Rowling Really IS Self-Publishing” (!) but this post by David Gaughran makes a lot of sense. Follow it down to the comments where I weigh in, and David says this golden nugget of common sense:

“Funnily enough, I think this will have a lot more impact on successful trade published writers than it will have for self-publishers. The big publishers will be working even harder now to keep their stars.”

To which I say: YUP.

If you like your self-publishing to come served with a glass of sanity juice, you might like a little book I wrote called Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. You can find out more about here

16 thoughts on “Rant O’Clock: No, JK Rowling is NOT Self-Publishing

  1. Alison Morton says:

    Lovely rant to begin the week with. Not so much a breath of fresh air as the whole French mistral funelling down the Rhone valley at top speed.

    J K Rowling’s decision just altered the book world forever. ‘Quantum leap’ is a silly expression as few people understand the physics behind it, but this is huge. If it dispels some of the prejudice against buying and reading e-books (however published), then I give it three cheers.

    Perhaps ‘traditional publishing’ will develop into paperback plus e-book as its mainstays in the future. Who knows?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted about Potter e-books (and Pottermore) and anything that encourages more people to read is a win with me. What I’m NOT happy about it is people saying things like, “See Mum, I *told* you everyone was self-publishing. JK Rowling just did it! Let’s serve everyone in traditional publishing their P45s and do it ourselves! Viva la revolution!”


      • Toni says:

        I read the news about Pottermore and, after trying to sign up for e-mail updates about a million times, signed on to a Twitter feed that read like self-publishing authors had been freed from maximum-security prison. I felt puzzled; I thought I must have missed a detail that would make this akin to a self-publishing Independence Day (American here, ha)!

        Your post, Cath, makes me feel a little less crazy for thinking this way. I agree with you — it’s wonderful news for indie authors, of course, but not for the reason everyone thinks. Anything that gets eReaders in the hands of more readers will be a win for us!

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          If you haven’t already, you should have no trouble signing up with your e-mail now – I did it last night. Presumably the initial surge has passed!

          Sometimes I feel like self-publishing is turning into a 9/11 conspiracy or something – they take things that only have the most tenuous link to their “truth” and adopt them as evidence of whatever they want us to believe.

          I despair, I really do…! 🙂

  2. Christopher Wills says:

    Good rant and very cathartic. And you are right to also say it is a good thing. It will raise the profile of ebooks in the minds of the public, a lot of whom are converts anyway, because of the huge publicity surrounded the launch, which will hopefully result in more sales for all of us. It may convince other top name authors to consider doing the same or similar especially when they read about the returns JK may get. But I think the most important thing to come out of all of this is to convince the media that ebooks are here and have credibility. At the moment I get the impression that there is snobbery in the media (BBC and the newspapers) for ebooks. How many review ebooks? The only sane voice I have read was a Guardian review of an ereader a few years ago by Andrew Marr who started off anti but became a convert because of the problems he has lugging heavy books around as he travels (he likes to read political biographies which are often hardback and big). The other thing I hope the rise of the ebook will signal is the death of the celebrity biography and anything JK does, that contributes to this will be most welcome in my corner.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think e-books already have credibility; the reason most reviewers don’t review them is that like the rest of the world, they don’t all have e-reading devices (they like to use – reading a book on a computer screen is not the same as reading on a Kindle) yet. And book reviewers tend to be book lovers, and some of us just like getting free books! 🙂

      What doesn’t have credibility are self-published e-books, and I think despite the gazillion sales, they haven’t earned it yet. But they are getting there.

  3. Graham Strong says:

    Hey Catherine,

    I talked about this on my own blog the other day:


    I agree with you, you can’t exactly call it “self-publishing” when you have enough money to buy or hire your own publishing company.

    However, what she is doing isn’t quite traditional publishing either. She may have people helping her with the “techie bits” but that doesn’t mean they are her “publishers”.

    I’m not quite sure of her motivations, but it could very well be your Number 2 — higher royalties/profits. Although she likely had more creative control than any other writer out there, she might gain even more with this venture, giving Number 3 and Number 4 some validity too.

    I believe that this move will be seen as a watershed in publishing: the time when “self-publishing” started to become more of a synonym for the (more prestigious) “self-imprint” than of “vanity press”.


    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I disagree Graham. It not about her having the means and she is NOT self-publishing because her traditional publishers are getting a share of the profits. Just because someone is skipping third party retailers does not self-publishing make.

      The problem is everyone is looking at this move on its own, i.e. how Rowling is getting these e-books out there, and not at the situation as a whole, which is that this woman who has become a billionaire thanks to traditional publishing is now selling more directly to readers.

      This is a win for e-books, yes, but it’s nothing to do with self-publishing.

      • Graham Strong says:

        Ah, I see where the miscommunication is…!

        Yes, you’re right, making her books available on the website is NOT self-publishing, I agree.

        However I was referring to the new content that she is planning to publish on the site. I suppose that really, I don’t know what her arrangement is with her original publisher is, so perhaps they will get a portion of sales of her future work published on the website (though I suspect not…)

        Even if that’s the case, I highly doubt that her international publishers, like her publisher in Canada, for example, would get anything from those sales.

        So no, making ebooks available on her site — not self-publishing in any way, shape, or form. New books/content she makes available through her website — that, I believe, would be closer to self-publishing than traditional publishing.


        • catherineryanhoward says:

          She’s not making new books available through her site though. The content is part of the whole concept of the site itself – an enhanced and social reading experience – and will be accessed merely by using it (unlocking clues, solving puzzles, etc.).

          And as Pottermore will be completely free to use, that’s not self-publishing either.

  4. Hibiscus Moon says:

    Excellent post and point well made about e-reader device sales possibly increasing. Sidenote: I visited that Harry Potter world about a month ago and…ugh! The lines were ridiculous. I was w/ 2 Harry Potter freak-a-holics or I never woulda done it. 2.5 hour wait to go onteh ride then 40 min. wait to buy a disgusting Butter Beer….agh…this was torture for me. I’ll wait on the lines at Kennedy Space Center any day to meet any astronaut but this was a no-no.

  5. Talli Roland says:

    THANK YOU! I spent all yesterday afternoon trying to explain to my other half why she wasn’t self-publishing. Now I’ll just get him to read this! 🙂

  6. Elisa Michelle says:

    I think the first mistake most writers make is even comparing their work to the likes of Rowling or even Hocking. They’re the exceptions, we’re not. I’m never (statistically speaking, anyway) going to be a Hocking, and I have to learn to be okay with my own version of huge success. I think Rowling’s move into the ebook world would be great for self publishers in general because more people will buy ereaders or iPads or whatever just because of this woman. It’s amazing how much influence she has, really, and I’m just as awe-inspired by the power of the idea she got on a train has over so many people.

  7. davidgaughran says:

    Hi Catherine,

    I think we may disagree on the finer points of how to label JK Rowling’s latest move, but I think we can agree that the label isn’t that important, and that publishing is changing so dramatically that the old labels may not be as useful as they once were.

    Before, everyone had their place. Books went from author to agent, to publisher, to distributor, to bookseller, to reader.

    But that linear publishing model has collapsed.

    Now we have agents becoming publishers, booksellers becoming distributors and publishers, publishers becoming booksellers, and authors becoming their own agent, publisher, distributor, and retailer.

    “Self-publisher” used to mean the guy who printed up his own books and hawked them out of the back of his car because he had no way of matching the distribution of a publisher.

    But now anyone can match the digital reach of a publisher, just by uploading to a few websites. And as such, we have writers who self-publish because they can’t get a trade deal. We have others who don’t want one. And we have others again who hope to snag an agent on the back of their self-published sales figures.

    On top of that, we have veterans from trade publishing whose career hit a wall and they are hoping to pick up the pieces in the self-publishing world. But then we have others again who have had hugely successful trade publishing careers (like Bob Mayer) who are making more money now through self-publishing.

    Finally, we have writers who will self-publish some projects (short stories, backlist, niche books) and continue with trade deals for other projects (novels with commercial appeal). I think this will become more common not less common.

    Using JK Rowling as a template for what you could achieve in self-publishing makes about as much sense as using her success as a template for what you could achieve in trade publishing. When you have sold 450m books and people are howling for more, you make the rules, whatever label is attached to you.


  8. vanderjohn says:

    I’m not mad. However she publishes her new content, I’m just glad she’s publishing more good stuff. That’s what everyone’s goal should be.

  9. catherineryanhoward says:

    To “JK IS Self-Publishing” –

    I didn’t approve your comment because I didn’t like its tone. This is my site and if I feel as if someone is being abusive towards me or unnecessarily aggressive over an issue that is hardly life or death then I don’t publish the comment. See my comment policy below for more information. Also, you clearly registered a Gmail address JUST so you could comment on my blog anonymously which is the second reason I’m not approving it.

    But to address your points:

    Pottermore is not books. It’s an interactive site where the new content will be part of the experience, e.g. unlocking a puzzle will lead to an expanded backstory about a character. The new content is not books.

    More generally speaking, my point is that to the average self-publisher, me or possibly you, whatever she does is irrelevant. It is not evidence that in a year or two all bookstores will be shut and all publishers and agents will be queuing up for unemployment. It does mean that the self-publishing evangelists can say, ‘See, I told you so!’ nor does it mean that all aspiring writers should just go straight to Smashwords and start to sell their work direct. JK Rowling is, I believe, the first billionaire author and as such she is in a unique position. Maybe she’s not traditionally publishing, but I don’t believe she is self-publishing as the term is used today either. Maybe we need a new word. But whatever we call it, you can’t cite her as an example of self-publishing success.

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