As the dominant player in the e-book game, Amazon gets a lot of headlines, and generates a lot of uneasiness among publishers (as author Anthony Horowitz suggested in his London Book Fair talk). But Amazon is of course not the only game in town. And among its competitors, Kobo rather stands out as the anti-Amazon.
On the floor of the London Book Fair, we caught up Kobo's newly installed president and chief content officer Michael Tamblyn to talk about his promotion, e-books, and of course, the value of partnerships.
PW: Congratulations on the new job.
MT: Thank you. It’s a dream job. Having been one of the executives that helped start Kobo, and seeing it grow from a handful of people to the 16 countries we are in, it’s fantastic.
Tell us a little about what's on your plate?
If you look at the development of Kobo over time, we started as an apps only company which then figured out that devices were a great way to acquire customers, so we succeeded in building a lot of devices and released them into a lot of markets, and then figured out how to get partners selling those devices, in a lot of different territories. Now, we’re coming back with a greater focus on the content side of the business. Now that we have all of our partners putting devices on shelves and putting them in customers hands, how do we get those partners more engaged in the promotion of the digital titles that go on those devices? How do we get bricks and mortar locations promoting more digital in more ways? So I’ve been spending a lot of my time looking at the publisher, author, and title side of the business.
Speaking of your independent partners, how are those arrangements working out?
They are going well. We have a partnership with independent bookstores in the U.S., with big chains like W.H. Smith in the U.K., with FNAC in France, and we have the two largest book chains in Italy. We are definitely learning what the independents are really good at, we’re learning where we can help them get better, and they are teaching us things about how to work with independents, which is different than working with a single large chain. We are starting to see that some stores have really embraced digital and are doing quite well, and, those are experiences we want to share with others. But it is a slow process. Independent stores are of course independent by nature, so there is no centralized training or testing facility.
The nice thing is the American Booksellers Association has been a great partner. Of all the bookseller associations we’ve encountered around the world, they have been the most interested and the most effective in trying to get this into their membership’s hands, and getting people over their initial resistance to e-books in stores. And that's not just about getting devices on a shelf in a bookstore, but getting people involved in the promotion of our reading apps, and learning how to use e-books as virtual stock for an independent who can’t carry every one of the millions of books we offer on their shelves, but want to makes sure that a customer never leaves disappointed if they are looking for something.
Tell us a little about what you do at the London Book Fair?
The London Book Fair is always a place where people come to check in and find out how we’re progressing. There is a big team on the ground here and we are working and meeting with U.K. and European publishers, we have a great presence here from our self-publishing team, The Kobo Writing Life group, over at the Authors HQ, running sessions on how to grow sales for self-published authors. And there is a steady beat of new partners wanting to learn more about Kobo. It is a big fair for us.
It is worth noting that I have not been able to get in to the Author HQ stage, where all the self-publishing events have been, it's just too crowded.
I know, I couldn’t get in to our event! It was standing room only. I had to hold my phone up over people’s heads to see what it looked like.
What does that tell us about the impact of self-publishing, and how do you view self-publishing at Kobo?
It's become a very significant piece of the business for us. It is now quite easily 10% or 11% of unit sales on any given day. That means self-publishing in any given country is a big five publisher, if you look at it weight for weight. In the aggregate, it has become a significant force, I’d say a transformative force when we look at authors and their relationship to publishers. Authors now know this other means is available to them and that in turn has made publishers step up their game. To me, this is kind of the Golden Age of the author, and we're happy to help move that along.
As a device maker, and content provider, a final question about devices. Tablets were supposed kill off E-Ink. But I see a lot of them around the fair. Has the death of E-Ink devices been greatly exaggerated?
When you screen out a lot of the noise about tablets and what tablets are doing, and you focus on what does a person who reads two books a week want, you get a very different set of device preferences. Someone who has books at the center of their life is really interested in the benefits that E-Ink offers compared to someone off the street. We’ve built a lot of our success by fanatically focusing on that person who loves reading more than all other things, and that means E-Ink remains a significant part of our portfolio. We also have fantastic tablets, but we make sure we are taking our cues from that person who loves reading.
What we are seeing now that I find interesting is that some people swing out to tablets, and then come back to an e-reader as their preferred, primary reading device. Those heavy readers also tend to supplement with other other devices, a tablet, and a smartphone, to pull reading into more parts of their day. And these multi-platform readers are significantly higher in the amount of overall reading, and the amount they buy, just by virtue of being able to read in more places, and at any time.