A Conversation With Kobo President Michael Tamblyn

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Bookselling This Week recently had the opportunity to talk with Kobo’s president and chief content officer, Michael Tamblyn, about Kobo’s engagement with the U.S. market, the role e-books can play in independent bookstores, customer preferences regarding e-reading devices, and more.

BTW: Many thanks for taking the time to discuss what’s on the horizon here in the U.S. for Kobo.

To start with a recent media piece that seemed surprising, Jeremy Greenfield wrote in The Atlantic that “Kobo is rumored to have all but given up on growing its business in the U.S.” Understanding that there have been some changes in the leadership at Kobo, has the company’s commitment to the U.S. market altered or diminished?

MT: Altered, yes, in the sense that it is constantly evolving. Diminished, no. But neither altered nor diminished in regards to the great work that we are doing with ABA.

It’s funny which ideas gain traction and why. There are some journalists who seem to love writing stories with an apocalyptic “Amazon as juggernaut” theme and they like to draw us into a narrative that suggests no one could withstand their awesome power. They are easy stories to write, I guess. It’s certainly true that the U.S. is the most ferociously competitive e-book market in the world, but that just means that to compete in it, we have to do things differently.

For us, part of that difference comes from working with independent bookstores rather than big chains. And it means running a very lean and agile operation that is focused on finding those people who have reading at the center of their lives. We will let our competitors chase the customer who reads two books a year. We want the customer who reads two books a week, and the best place to find them, we believe, is in an independent bookstore. 

BTW: Kobo’s stress on the concept of “reading freely” — that is, consumers having the ability to read Kobo titles via a number of apps and devices, without being locked into a proprietary system — has highlighted the importance of content. Given the role that indie bookstores play in the discovery of new titles, handselling, and inventory curation, does Kobo currently have anything in the works regarding its content strategy that might offer opportunities for ABA member stores?

MT: There are a couple of completely different directions I can take that question.

First, we are starting to look at how we can wrap more e-book activity around existing ABA programs. The Indie Next List is fantastic. How can we support it in digital without just swapping print sales for digital sales? Are there digital extras that could further enhance it? We are working on that now.

Second, there is so much more that stores could be doing to promote reading on devices that people already own. A lot of our work with independents has involved selling devices and for many store owners, that’s what they think about when they think Kobo. But many of the people walking into an independent store already have a smartphone or tablet, and all of them can use the Kobo app. Most of them don’t know that they could be supporting their favorite independent store by choosing Kobo when they decide to read using an app. It’s an easy message for a store to share.

Beyond that, we are deep into experiments with bundling print and digital, seeing where the two can work together to help both the store and the customer.

BTW: When you were on the panel at BookExpo America on the “The Future of Brick-and-Mortar Retailing,” you talked a bit about what the data has to say about both the unique attributes of indie bookstore customers who purchased Kobo e-books and potential marketing and inventory opportunities. Could you share a bit more about that?

MT: The most common question that comes from independent store owners is “Why would I spend time, effort, or shelf-space on e-books or e-readers instead of the print books that are the heart of my business?” And it’s a totally fair question.

To answer it, we are looking at where e-books can be complementary to a bookstore — extra sales rather than lost sales. Independents are masters of curation and personal recommendation in beautiful spaces. What they lack is an infinite amount of shelf space. And that’s where we can help. A perfect example: the average independent bookstore gives at best a token nod to Romance as a category. It’s impossible to stock all of the series, authors, and imprints that a romance fan cares about. The result — those customers go elsewhere.

For e-book retailers like us, it has helped Romance become a huge part of our business. For independent stores working with Kobo, it’s a great opportunity for signage or shelf-talkers in that part of the store: “Can’t find it? Read it instantly on Kobo.” And that’s true of other genre areas as well — sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, erotica — where, unless you are a specialist, there isn’t the shelf space for every book of every series from every author. We can help there, and are looking at how we can build out programs to support that kind of merchandising. That’s just one example — we’re working on more.

BTW: Our industry has been in the media a good deal of late given the Hachette-Amazon controversy. What’s your perspective on it

MT: It is a moment of reckoning for publishers, retailers, and book-buyers. It shows what could happen if one retailer becomes truly dominant in this market — the possibility of authors suppressed and books hidden until authors or publishers submit. It is hopefully an eye-opener for consumers, who until now probably didn’t think too much about the possibility of retailers behaving badly. And it represents an opportunity for independent booksellers to show themselves as the polar opposite to Amazon — local, personal, committed to authors, publishers, and the free flow of stories and ideas, both in print and in digital. There has never been a better opportunity to win customers back.

BTW: Regarding e-reading devices, what changes have you seen related to consumer preferences regarding hardware. Are tablets fully in ascendance? Is there still a place for e-ink devices? 

MT: E-readers and tablets seem to address two very different parts of the market. People who use tablets or smartphones are more likely to be casual, occasional readers, mixing reading with other online activities. E-ink devices continue to be extremely popular with that ideal customer we were talking about before — the person who reads a book a week. They want the best possible reading experience, something optimized for reading above all other things. That is the customer we love, so we continue to develop and invest in dedicated reading devices.

BTW: Conversely, regarding app development, are there any updates that you can share? 

MT: It’s one of the most interesting R&D areas at Kobo. And the one that I can say the least about right now. Some really smart people are working on some really cool stuff. So more on that soon. But the most important thing for us right now is making sure that indie retailers make those apps a part of the in-store experience, right alongside e-readers and right alongside print books. Apps help us fill that promise of “Read Everywhere,” and we want to make sure that every reader possible knows that there is a great independent solution with Kobo and ABA.