Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Kobo, the Japanese-owned, Canadian-based ebook retailer, has been in the news quite a bit lately. It appears that the company is starting to position itself in all the right places—and stands to become an important competitor to the Amazon, Apple, and Google e-bookstores. Founded in 2009, Kobo’s popularity has exploded over the last three years, and, as of April 2012, Publishers Weekly notes, Kobo offered “content in 60 languages in over 190 countries.”
Its expansion comes with good reason: Kobo has made several important moves in the last two years that leads this writer to believe it’s poised to seriously challenge the dominance of entrenched ereader makers and eretailers.
Partnerships with bricks-and-mortar retailers
Kobo’s strategy to promote its ereader line by teaming up with retailers all over the world certainly seems to be paying off. In these partnerships, Kobo devices are touted in physical locations while Kobo’s e-bookstore allows the retailers to offer an online ebook store to its customers. Its first international partnership came when it struck a deal with Hong Kong-based retailer, the Swindon Book Company, in July 2011. Kobo announced a partnership with Fnac bookstores in France in October 2011, the number one bookseller in that country. That same month, it announced a deal with WHSmith stores in the United Kingdom. Not long after those announcements, in January of this year, Dutch retailer Libris Blz. joined the Kobo bandwagon. According to the Kobo Retail Partners page, the ebook seller also has agreements with Walmart, Best Buy, Future Shop, and Indigo Books and Music (the Canadian book retailer that owned a majority of the company prior to its acquisition by Rakuten).
Just last week, Kobo and the American Booksellers Association (ABA) revealed an agreement in which the e-retailer will take over when Google’s partnership with ABA members comes to an end. In the deal, Kobo’s devices will be sold in independent bookshops, and “booksellers will share in the revenue from each e-book and device sold…Kobo will also be providing support to the bookstores, in the form of training and in-store displays.”
Acquisition by Rakuten, Japan’s largest e-commerce company
When Rakuten acquired Kobo in November 2011, it definitely turned heads in the digital publishing world. What Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis referred to as the “‘Amazon of Japan'” in an interview with Digital Book World, Rakuten has the international presence and financial power to strengthen the growing Kobo brand. In a statement to Wired’s Tim Carmody, Kobo Executive Vice President Todd Humphrey explained:
“Rakuten is a perfect partner for us…It gives us the opportunity for fast growth in new markets all over the world — some of which we’ve already entered, and some of which we haven’t had access to before,” singling out Japan, Spain, Brazil, as well as the rest of South America and Asia.
Kobo’s quick and widespread international expansion after teaming up with Rakuten now rivals even Amazon’s international reach. And, as fellow Appazoogler Jenka Eusebio aptly observed, the international ebook market is the one publishers and eretailers such as Kobo really need to be focusing on.
Policy of Openness
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Kobo’s business is its policy of openness. Unlike other ereader makers, including Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, Kobo doesn’t sell ebooks for its line of ereaders in a proprietary format: The Kobo ebook format is universally accepted EPUB. Coupled with it’s huge international growth, Kobo’s policy could become (we hope) the new standard for ebook retail. Readers will come to expect the ability to move their ebooks from one device to another without restriction. According to Kobo’s About Us page:
We believe open standards for eBooks are best for consumers, publishers, retailers and hardware manufacturers. Closed systems stifle innovation and growth. Kobo proudly supports EPUB and encourages our users to read a Kobo-purchased eBook on their smartphone, eReader, laptop, or whichever device they choose.
This policy also extends to Kobo’s recently unveiled self-publishing service, Kobo Writing Life. In an earlier post I described the benefits of publishing your book on Kobo Writing Life, which include being able to create your ebook in EPUB format and take it with you to other retail channels, no strings attached.