Thursday, December 8, 2011

Guest Post: When the Reader Becomes the Enemy: Lessons from Pottermore

I am thrilled to welcome to the blog today Jami Gold. Whenever I read Jami's blog, I feel that she has written her post just for me. She has such a personal and caring way of writing, and she's always in tune with topics of high interest in writer-land.  Her balanced and insightful perspective helps shed new light on any topic, whether it's discussing the advantages between traditional and direct publishing or dissecting a popular movie for plot points.  The discussion in her comment trail is often as enlightening as her wonderful posts.  And to top it all off, she's a wonderful person who does whatever she can to help out other writers!

Today, we're fortunate to have her help navigate the troubled waters of Pottermore.  Please join me in welcoming Jami to Harry Potter for Writers, and please also check out her blog and Twitter!

When the Reader Becomes the Enemy: Lessons from Pottermore

This past weekend, the Pottermore Insider reported that Pottermore will be offline for at least a week, and the complaining and gnashing of teeth has been deafening.

Oh, wait… It hasn’t.

How is it that one million people can be denied access to an online site for an undetermined length of time and this not be huge news? If Twitter or Facebook were down for even a day, it would be an important story on all the news sites.

Instead, the few people talking about the shutdown at Potter-specific websites aren’t making enough noise to carry the story into mainstream media. Why?

Because the beta users of Pottermore—the biggest Harry Potter fans—have by and large gotten bored with the site.

Wow, that’s… Sad.

How Did Fans Turn Into “Enemies”?

“Enemies” is a strong word, I know. HP fans still love Harry Potter—that hasn’t changed—but most beta users won’t be championing the greatness of Pottermore when it finally opens to the general public sometime next year.

Without their support, how much more will the site grow among those who are less fanatical? Or to put this in terms all writers can relate to:

What happens when your word-of-mouth platform rots beneath your feet?

Only time will tell.

Personally, I want to understand how this happened so I can avoid pissing off my future-fans. *smile* So let’s take a look at some of Pottermore’s problems to see what all writers can learn:


From the beginning, JK Rowling described Pottermore as an online reading experience. In fact, that’s very much what Pottermore is. But that’s not what the fans wanted. So no matter what Jo said, many fans “heard” a description closer to the online game they craved. The reality disappointed them.

As writers, we always have to worry about reader expectations. Readers have expectations based on the cover, the back cover copy, recommendations, the genre, etc. No matter how good our story is, if it doesn’t meet their expectations, readers might be disappointed.


Pottermore has interactive slides to go along with the pages of the book…and not a whole lot else. A dueling game was very popular. Too popular. They had to shut it down because it crashed the servers. The only other “game” is brewing potions. So there’s nothing to keep people coming back once they’ve spent a handful of hours clicking around the pictures to find Jo’s new tidbits of information.

As writers, we have to keep our work top-of-mind with our readers. Being on blogs and social media can help a bit with this, but the best way to keep readers engaged is to give them new content, new information, new books.


One of the loudest complaints about Pottermore has been the way this beta period has been handled. From the many broken promises of deadlines to the difficulty of giving feedback, this preview period—that was supposed to be a gift to the hardcore fans—has instead turned into a frustrating experience for many.

As writers, we have to remember that without readers, we’re just talking to ourselves in public. *smile* Our readers are our customers. We should be listening to what they have to say. And if we choose to ignore them, we have to be prepared for the consequences (see Expectations above).


JK Rowling chose Sony as her partner for this experiment, and unfortunately, Sony has a horrible reputation. (Sony’s Playstation Network exposed information of 70 million users earlier this year.) Pottermore has suffered several outages like the one this week, and various glitches have prevented users from using the site as intended.

As writers, we need readers to trust in our ability to deliver a good story. Readers also want to trust that they’ll be satisfied with the ending, that we won’t waste their time, and that we’re competent enough to do the job (story-wise, writing-skill-wise, and formatting-wise).

None of this is meant to slam JK Rowling or Pottermore. Other than the technical issues, I think the site runs very much as she intended, and I can appreciate Pottermore for what it is rather than bemoan what it isn’t. However, I think it’s important for writers to understand these problems so we can prevent them from undermining our efforts.

Are These Problems Preventable?

As writers, we all want to build a platform, a stage from which word-of-mouth about our work can spread. It’s our job and our goal to make sure that word-of-mouth message is positive. Negative messages always travel faster and wider than positive, so prevention is important.

We need to manage expectations by making sure we’re not misleading readers. If the back cover copy implies a fast-paced, action-packed thriller and the reality is closer to a quiet romance, readers will be disappointed.

Likewise, if we’re too mysterious about the story, readers will come to their own conclusions. When story questions are dragged out too long, endings often can’t live up to the hype. We see this happen at the end of series all the time. Another common example is found in love triangle plots, where long build-ups over several books mean readers proclaim loyalty to one side or another, potentially being disappointed when their choice doesn’t win.

Our platform is made up of our customers (or potential customers), and that means we have to treat them with respect and keep them interested with new content. Our stories should be told with skill and without distracting errors. In many ways, we could—and should—exceed our readers’ expectations.

If we do that, the message spread by word-of-mouth will be positive and our platform will grow, strong and solid. Otherwise, all our efforts will fail, and we’ll become yet another example of “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” *smile*

Are you a beta user of Pottermore? Do you disagree with my assessment? Can you think of books or series where the readers turned against the story or the author? Can you think of other ways writers can keep their readers from turning against them?

After politely declining to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas. Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Goodreads.