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Pottermore: interview with chief technology officer Julian Thomas

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Since the Harry Potter e-books website Pottermore launched earlier this year, copies of the series of seven books worth millions of dollars have sold. We caught up with Pottermore CTO Julian Thomas to find out more about the new site.

Internet Retailing: How has the launch of Pottermore gone?

Julian Thomas, CTO, Pottermore: From a business perspective it’s going fantastically and we’ve done something very different with the Pottermore shop, in partnership with the solution provided by Intershop.

We launched in a few phases – the English version of the shop, that’s both US and British language on the site, because the US and UK originated ebooks and digital audio books on the site at the end of March. That was a massive event for us. In the world of Harry Potter, while it is a global brand, the US market is an enormous part of it.

We didn’t pre-announce it – it was switched on, followed by a tweet, because the brand speaks for itself.

Shortly after we launched, alongside the new ecommerce business. It’s an online experience for Harry Potter fans that complements the ebooks, a content, community and interactive experience site. That was about April 14. Then around April 23 or 24 we rolled out to the Spanish, French, Italian, German markets and that opened up a large part of the central and south American market and French-speaking Canada. It’s been a busy month and a half and very successful from a business perspective. Within the first few days we’d sold several million dollars worth of ebooks, alongside the digital audio product.

Internet Retailing: I understand this is the exclusive site for Harry Potter ebooks – how does it work?

Julian Thomas: Jo is a very smart and capable lady – she hung onto the digital rights to the e-books. They haven’t been officially brought to the market before now. The Pottermore shop is the first place they have been available. Jo wanted to be sure it was a really compelling offering for the audience and so uniquely we have some deals with retail partners. Our prime partner in Pottermore is Sony so the only place you can transact for those books is on the pottermore. If you go to the Sony reader store, Amazon, you are presented with e-books and digital audio books in the catalogue. Then you click to go through to the Pottermore website where you transact with us.

This allows us to do a number of things. Most importantly for us as a business and for JK Rowling, it allows people to buy the product once from us and push it to whatever reading device they choose to use now or in the future. You can download a new book and read it on tablet, pc or phone but can also do an account linking with Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, Barnes and Noble Nook, Google Plus and just in the last day we have launched with Kobo.

IR: How have sales been so far?

JT: We don’t publish the figures but we can certainly say it’s exceeded all expectations. As we launch with new partners and in new languages we’re only seeing the sales increase.

The physical books sold 450m copies – it’s the largest selling book series of all time and there is still a very healthy run rate of those sales in physical copies, clearly there’s a lot of harry potter readers and fans out there, and a lot with digital readers, devices for reading books. The bulk of sales are in the US. Approaching 30% of book market is now digital there, while the UK is a bit behind that and elsewhere in Europe further behind again.

IR: What are your plans to develop the site in the future?

JT: Now we’ve got Pottermore launched we’re very well placed as the penetration of e-reading develops to deliver Harry Potter books, books delivered for great quality and on a very flexible proposition.

The books were translated into 73 languages – while it will take a while for that to happen there are obviously more book languages and site languages. We’ll be launching in the Far East in various languages for the store- and we’ll also add new payment cards and new payment gateway integration.

Jo holds exclusive rights around the digital product and we’ll be looking to release enhanced ebooks, it has the potential to reinvent the enhanced ebook. Then we will look to extend beyond that to other Harry Potter products.

IR: What were the technical challenges in launching the project?

JT: The Pottermore shop project and also our online experience of were a massive challenge and there have been some technical false starts in how we delivered that. Intershop has the proud boast of being the first time we’ve managed to get something to market and very successfully. It’s a key criteria for us of scalability and we saw Intershop had proven they could deliver scalable sites.

What was very important was that we got to market quickly. Because of those false starts we had some very strong commercial considerations to get this shop live and the products available to the world. We were reminded that all the time e-books were not available would only encourage piracy of the books and we wanted to make them available in a really easy way.

There are things that haven’t been done before in our shop. What was unique and different was the digital fulfillment side of the solution and how, having transacted with a customer, we manage to get the content to the place they want to consume it. Remember that a key objective from JK Rowling was that we should make it as easy as possible for them to consume this on any device that they want to. While some of those elements required discrete integrations with the likes of Sony, our chief partner and other retailers the ‘cartridge system’ within Intershop made it quite straightforward to develop those plug ins to integrate with those ebook providers, devise an account link in and the push of the product you’d bought out to those devices. That was a key part – probably the most technically uncertain part of the project and what attracted us to Intershop was the way art detective made it straightforward to do that.

Payments, catalogue management, including products and management, it was a really powerful white-label place to start building the store from. It was the seed of our solution – a lot of things were there and ready, rather than just installing from software. Allowed us to do this project in a few short months.

IR: How long did the site take to build?

JT: It took about three to four months to deliver the site, which given the the complexity of what we’ve done – even the first initial launch had sterling, dollars and euros to accommodate the Irish markets as well – is pretty impressive. Often these projects are much more difficult than you anticipate when you set out. We’ve hit the date which is testament to the team involved and to the solution.

IR: What part has social media played in the launch?

JT: Pottermore is a social network in itself to an extent but our audience is out in other places. We have a very active social media strategy. We have a very broad audience that stretches from 8 to 80 – because of that we’re very mindful of what we do in the social media space.

We have a mantra in the company that we would have absolutely failed as a company if one child is harmed. Our engagement in social media is quite controlled because we don’t want to make that a key part of what we do or exclude an under-13 audience because most of the social sites are for over 13s – and engaging there anyway could encourage younger kids to engage there. We have used Twitter and will be using Facebook more. As we move out of the initial launch period where we’ve soaked up a big chunk of demand for these books, we will be adopting an emarketing approach that will include social media.

IR: What have you found out about your audience through the site?

JT: As we knew before, the US is a huge part of the market, and Harry Potter is huge there. But people have bought from more than 50 countries. Literally all over the world people are buying these books and visiting the site.

What’s interesting is while we launched in English/UK/US French, German, Italian and Spanish, we have had great demand from the BRIC countries, Brazil, India and Russia particularly and this starts to inform our future strategy.

We also asked Matt Ball, head of sales UK & Ireland at Intershop, about the platform, Intershop’s Enfinity.

Pottermore is of huge strategic importance to Intershop, demonstrating Intershop’s functional flexibility, scalability and speed to market and opening a new market segment in which Intershop can provide support for an ever growing number of digital goods providers

Pottermore’s innovative implementation is cloud based, enabling the shop to access additional resources on the fly to handle large spikes in traffic generated by new launches, product releases and PR relating to the Pottermore brand.

The combination of Pottermore’s commitment and drive to deliver a highly complex project within aggressive timelines showcases the quality and reliability of Intershop’s professional services team, which worked in close collaboration with Pottermore’s chosen partners to deliver the project exactly on schedule.

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