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16 October 2013
It is unlikely to have escaped your notice - whether you have children or not - that last weekend saw the release of The Book. The latest Harry Potter novel, previously only read by four people at Bloomsbury sworn to a secret pact worthy of Professor McGonigall himself, finally emerged from weeks of hype to take the bestseller lists by storm and throw literary prizes into a frenzy as judges tried to find ways to keep it off the shortlist. The book is only available in one cover, but if it follows the others, the publishers will soon release an adult dust jacket to save embarrassment on the Tube.
The story of how JK Rowling managed to sell her first manuscript is now the stuff of urban legend, rehashed in interviews (sorry, only the one interview) and spun in publicity blurbs to such an extent that the real JK has ceased to exist - if indeed she ever did. Just what does the K stand for anyway?
And it is not just the book-selling industry that is being transformed by the internet. Publishing too is seeing a seismic shift in its relations of power. Rowling's heart-warming tale of finally finding a publisher, tugging her forelock in gratitude and then letting it manage the business, may soon be the stuff of not only myth but also nostalgia. The publishing industry knows it and the new generation of e-law firms should take note too. Of course, authors - established and newcomers alike - are bypassing the publishing industry and taking their work direct to the public, but more significantly, a new breed of online rights centres are springing up that are revolutionising a traditionally sleepy and cliquey industry.
No longer does an agent or author have to tote a manuscript around, wine, dine and schmooze or try to find out who owns the rights to a particular text in a particular area in a particular medium. By logging onto a website such as Rightscenter.com, they can find out all the information they need, auction and complete the deal. Of course, this is faster, more cost-effective and enables better tracking of intellectual property. But more fundamentally, it changes the relations of power. Now it is the seller who is in control. The publishers are responding to their agenda, playing their game. There was a time when firms ran the show. Clients waited in their reception to be seen at a set time and the firm dictated the pace and direction of the work.
But the e-volution of legal business has caused a wholesale re-evaluation of that relationship, and 24/7 advice, transparent billing etc are now commonplace. And if the legal industry follows the publishing industry, the revolution could go even further. Imagine if clients posted work in the equivalent of a rights centre. What if they could access the details of existing and previous deals around the City and the world and what if they invited firms into their virtual rooms rather than asking for access to a firm's online deals space? Of course, firms will say that clients will come to them based on their reputation and past work. They will say that relationships built on countless lunches and rounds of golf are strong relationships and they can withstand some new-fangled gimmick. "You won't catch us bidding online like some newcomer", they will claim, and they may be right. At least for now.
But what happens if the big clients get together and decide to build a deals centre and agree to share information on billings, service and quality, allowing members to share and profit from information? Then who's in the driving seat? Bloomsbury knows it has a cash cow. It signed her early and has given her everything she could want. Harry Potter's creator was grateful, but that was in 1998. The next JK Rowling is sitting on her manuscript, researching her options, exchanging information with other authors, floating her work across the various rights centres, and taking