Kobo’s 10th Anniversary

From Publishing Perspectives:

On Sunday (December 15), Rakuten Kobo [reached] its 10th anniversary.

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In any week, [Kobo CEO Michael] Tamblyn says, Kobo will deliver ebooks to some 150 countries. “Over the course of a year,” he says, “we’ll hit all the countries the United Nations recognizes and a few others.”

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The operation also has localized merchandizing and/or other partnerships in some 25 countries. The catalogue available through the retailer comes in at between 5 and 6 million titles.

At the end of November, another new market was opened: Vincent Chang in the Singapore Straits Times welcomed the introduction of Kobo’s e-readers to the island nation

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And that factor in itself—leading with a line of e-reading devices—is a clue to how Kobo has become the most purposefully internationalized player in the digital reading industry.

“It’s been really interesting too look back over the development of the company, you know,” Tamblyn says, “to look at how we achieved the position that we have and what were some of the decisions we’ve made that resulted in that. Out of all the startups that we were on the starting line within 2009, why are we still standing? So many others have gone away. And we need to take that point of retrospective as we get ready for the next 10 years.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that this is a business that rewards scale,” he says. “It definitely helps to be one of the big players in the space. But it also rewards diversification.

“We see a third of our sales coming from Asia, a third from the Americas, north and south, and a third from Europe.

“We do see ups and downs in individual territories,” Tamblyn says. “We see individual markets peak and then plateau. We see other ones start slowly and then accelerate. And spreading ourselves out—realizing that this is a long game as opposed to something to be won in a couple of years—has given us a lot of resilience and diversification. And that’s allowed us to keep going when a lot of others didn’t find themselves able to get that critical mass.”

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The January 2018 announcement of Kobo’s partnership with Walmart in the United States drew widespread attention in the world industry.

Already well recognized for its emphasis on international expansion and partnerships, Tamblyn had taken a turn into a market he’d effectively conceded years earlier to Amazon’s dominance. What made the Walmart arrangement clever, of course, was that it integrated the Kobo offer into Walmart’s growing online retail effort, meaning that Kobo had landed, effectively, as the big-box retailer’s in-house vendor in the field.

Walmart had the same reason Kobo did to want to build its online presence in the American market: Amazon.

“Walmart, when you look across its entire portfolio of e-commerce,” Tamblyn says in his interview, “is really pushing hard on being that strong competitor in the US. They’ve been a great partner to work with, and there’s still a lot more we can do in that channel. So really this past year has just been getting us started.”

But asked if the success of the Walmart partnership doesn’t turn on the fact that Kobo can ride the energy of that huge company’s online expansion, Tamblyn has another approach.

“There were a couple of pieces” to the arrangement, he says.

“One is that we want to be where readers are, where books are getting purchased, where people are showing up and making shopping decisions about reading—so we can introduce ebooks and audiobooks to them. And we can do that in a place where they’re already showing up for that reading experience every day.

“So that has us looking at each individual market in terms of where is there a great retailer who has access to that customer in a privileged way. At the same time, who sees themselves as being in a competitive battle with those big ecosystem players—Amazon, Google, Apple—and wants to hold on to that customer and retain that reading relationship with them over time?”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives