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J K Rowling ditches agent and sells ebooks direct

4 July 2011

Rather to the amazement of the publishing world, J K Rowling, long a bye-word for her loyalty to her agent and publishers, has cut out her publisher Bloomsbury and set up a new site to sell ebook versions of her books direct to her readers.

When it launches in October, the site will enable readers to 'walk' through the Harry Potter books, exploring the places and people that feature in them. It will allow each user to complete a personalised homepage as if they were about to start at Hogwarts School, where Harry studies as a young wizard.

Even more surprisingly, Rowling has announced that she has left her agent of 16 years, Christopher Little, and moving to a new agency, The Blair Partnership, set up by Neil Blair, the lawyer who worked with her at the Christopher Little Agency.

Rowling is the biggest of big authors. She has sold 450 million books worldwide and the last book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 11 million copies on the day it was published. The last of the immensely profitable films of the Harry Potter books will be released this autumn.

The Pottermore site, which will launch in October, will be the only place selling the Harry Potter novels as digital downloads. Booksellers have expressed frustration over being unable to sell the Harry Potter e-books.

Jonny Geller of the agency Curtis BrownSee Curtis Brown listing said that the move was a game-changer for the industry. He said: 'This does feel like a significant moment. If I was a brand author I would be asking my publisher how to get to the online communities that J K Rowling is getting to. It might be a wakeup call to think of a new way of getting to readers.'

Rowling has said that 18,000 words of new material about characters, places and objects will be released online, rather than in a new book, because she did not have "a new story". She said: 'It's background, and lots of details that didn't make it into the book. Some of it is new stuff in response to things fans have asked me over the years.'

As regards the change of representation, a spokesman for the agency said: 'Christopher Little has worked closely with J K Rowling since the very beginning 16 years ago... He greatly admires her and her extraordinary talent and is proud to have played his role throughout this journey. However, he is disappointed and surprised to have heard the premature news about the proposed new arrangements. There is no comment as to the prospect of legal action.'

Little reportedly struck a deal under his usual terms when he first signed up Rowling - 15% of gross earnings for the British market and 20% for merchandising rights, for film, for the American market and for translation deals. The agent has been discreet about everything to do with Rowling, but there is a possibility that this percentage has been negotiated down somewhere along the line.

It is a graceless departure, but Christopher Little can comfort himself with the thought of the millions he has made from this one client. And perhaps what changed the picture was Neil Blair's command of the new media and the suggestion that ebook versions of Rowling's books could be sold directly to her fans through a website which was state of the art and offered much more to keep them interested.

The agency clause in Rowling's contracts cannot be rescinded without Little's agreement, so the agency will presumably benefit from royalties on the backlist sales of the whole Harry Potter series for many years to come. After all, authors are always free to move from one agent to another and in this case there appear to be no new books to come.