Why Is Rowling Howling and Growling?
Let’s get one thing straight at the outset.
If someone creates a product or service that enhances the value of your product or service—makes it more valuable to the user and very likely results in additional sales for you—that is called a PR coup.
Do not sue the guy.
Better yet, send him a case of Dom Pérignon.
A Personal Digression
A number of years ago I got hooked on Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic era. These were the stories of Captain Jack Aubrey, a “Master and Commander,” who was a daring fighter and hero at sea, and a social disaster ashore.
His sailing companion was the brilliant ship’s doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin. How good a physician was Maturin? At one point he performed successful brain surgery on a sailor wounded in battle. This was in the 18th century.
To create the series, O’Brian did interminable research in ships’ logs from the time as well as naval history. His narrative was punctuated with highly technical words and descriptions of period sailing ships that are incomprehensible to a nonsailor in the 20th century.
Enter Dean King, a journalist with a Master of Arts from New York University, who dove into the O’Brian series and produced three invaluable works:
* “A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales” (with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes). An illustrated A-to-Z glossary of terms, from the “Articles of War” and “blue peter” to “yellow admiral” and “Zealous, H.M.S.”
* “Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian” (with John B. Hattendorf). During the course of the 21 novels, Aubrey and Maturin sailed the world from the Mediterranean to the far Pacific. Here are vivid descriptions, drawings, etchings and maps of the world in the late 18th century that make the novels come even more alive.
* “Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed,” the strange odyssey of Richard Patrick Russ (his real name), who abandoned his first wife and children and went on to become a best-selling, beloved cult author whose works will be gobbled up by armchair adventurers for generations to come.
Other delicious add-ons to the Aubrey-Maturin series:
* “Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian” by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas. Here are fascinating 18th century recipes from the captain’s table, the wardroom, the gunroom and the seamen’s mess. Included: Suckling Pig, Jam Roly-Poly, Goose and Truffle Pie, Floating Archipelago in the Shape of the Galapagos and Plum-Duff. In addition, here are recipes from dinners ashore at Port Mahon, Malta, Bombay and Boston.
* “Musical Evenings with the Captain.” Prior to CDs, iPods, DVDs, radio and Wi-Fi, men at sea had to create their own entertainment. Jack Aubrey was an accomplished fiddler, while Maturin played the violoncello. To pass away the long evenings at sea, they would play duets. Here are two splendid CDs of Handel, Bach, Haydn, Boccherini and Mozart that the two seagoing companions enjoyed playing, as well as performances of chamber music concerts in London and Port Mahon.
These incredible add-ons to Patrick O’Brian’s work turned many hours of gripping reading into a sublime time travel experience in swashbuckling Britain in the 19th century.
The Queer Behaviour of J. K. Rowling
I tried reading the first Harry Potter book, got to about page 10 and decided J. k. Rowling is a wonderful writer, but a tad airy-fairy for my taste.
Nevertheless, Rowling is arguably the most important and widely acclaimed author alive today. Apart from selling more than 55 million books, the Harry Potter series has entranced kids and gotten them to read, which is huge!
Enter Steve Vander Ark, a 46-year-old librarian who fell in love with the Harry Potter books. He’s reportedly read the entire series nearly 50 times, and definitely created the Web site The Harry Potter Lexicon as companion-guide to the book series. He called all this “a hobby, passion, labor of love.” It was hardly a moneymaker, generating a paltry $6,000 in advertising in seven years.
The Web site is a stunner, containing more about Harry Potter than even the author knows. Included are an A-to-Z Index, FAQs, forum, hyperlinks to 142 essays going back to 2000, search capability, quotes, galleries and an online store.
Rowling herself was so delighted with Mr. Vander Ark’s work that she gave it a fan-site award in 2004.
Roger Rapoport, publisher of RDR Books, a small Michigan book publisher, read about the Web site and offered Vander Ark a contract to create a book based on his Lexicon Web site. It was scheduled for publication Nov. 28, 2007.
Pride and Petulance
Rowling went up the wall. After loving the Web site, she hated the idea of a book that actually might make money from her work. On Oct. 31, the film producer, Warner Brothers Entertainment, and Rowling filed an injunction against the publication.
The three-day trial held in Manhattan Federal Court wound up yesterday, and the accounts in The New York Times by Anemona Hartcollis are riveting. (See hyperlinks below.)
In a remarkable turnaround, Rowling has accused Vander Ark of plagiarism, saying, “I believe that this book constitutes the wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work” and calling it sloppy and lazy.
Rowling has also claimed that since 1998 she has had in her head an idea to create a Harry Potter encyclopedia with the intention of donating the profits to a British charity.
Obviously, I am no expert, but is Rowling the person to do a Harry Potter encyclopedia? After all (1) Steve Vander Ark has already produced one and (2) Vander Ark knows more about Harry Potter than Rowling herself. For, as she reportedly said on her own Web site about Vander Ark’s work:
I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact, rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).
The Legal Conundrum
Intellectual property lawyers, constitutional scholars, publishers, authors and Web experts are watching L’affaire Rowling v. Vander Ark closely. Among the issues:
* Is not the Supreme Court decision in the Pentagon Papers case—New York Times Co. v. United States (403 US 713)—operable here: that an injunction against publication is prior restraint and therefore unconstitutional?
* What is plagiarism as opposed to “fair use?”
* Is an author’s ownership of copyright material so absolute that she can control what is written about it?
* What effect will Rowling’s unqualified approval of the Web site have in the judge’s decision whether or not to forbid publication of a book based on the Web site?
The PR Fallout
You would think that J. K. Rowling would be delighted to welcome the Vander Ark Lexicon, which would put into printed form a Web site that enhanced the enjoyment, knowledge and understanding of her Harry Potter series.
A slew of other authors have cashed in on the Harry Potter phenom, generated buzz and presumably helped sales.
It’s not like Rowling is financially threatened. Thanks to Harry Potter, she has progressed from being a single mother on state aid to the 136th richest person in England, with a personal fortune estimated at £545 million (U.S. $1.09 billion).
By launching a legal attack on what appears to be the definitive companion and guide to her Harry Potter series by an adoring fan, Rowling is coming off as a petulant, picky, nasty human being who cares not a rap about the reading pleasure of her next 55 million customers.
She has taken what should be a PR bonanza and turned it into a PR nightmare that may well hurt not only Steve Vander Ark’s sales (assuming the book is published), but her own as well.
It seems to me that if Rowling wanted to experience outrage at personal theft, it would be at the sale of a 2005 unauthorized translation of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in Beijing two weeks after the book appeared in English and almost three months ahead of the planned October launch of the official Chinese-language edition.
A Final Thought
Several years ago while waiting for a train at Philly’s 30th Street Station, I wandered into the bookstore and saw a sight that would make the heart of any author leap. The centerpiece of this display was “The Da Vinci Code,” surrounded by books devoted to proving or disproving the thesis of Dan Brown’s marvelous thriller.
An illustration below shows the original title surrounded by 10 derivatives. For a reader, no point exists in buying a spin-off without first buying the original. Every spin-off is a promotion for the original.