On Thursday, April 20, 2017 I had a chance to interview Kobo’s CEO, Michael Tamblyn on the sidelines of the “6 novels in Search of an Author” awards ceremony. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Mr Tamblyn.
Luca Albani: Did you like the Italian response to the competition “6 novels in Search of an Author”? Are you going to replicate the competition every year? In France you have organized – “A la découverte des talents de demain” – did you notice differences between Italian and French writers?
Michael Tamblyn: We were extremely pleased with the success of the Italian competition “6 novels in Search of an Author” as it brought us more than 700 entries – and this, in the first year. The interest was so strong that we would like to make this an annual competition and are working with our Italian partners Mondadori and Passione Scrittore on a second edition for next year. Our French competition was very successful as well.
Between the two competitions, one interesting difference we noted was in the reflection of local culture in the books from the Italian authors, and especially the six winners. For example, La danza del puparo evokes traditional puppet theater from ancient Sicily; Il frullo del beccaccino takes place among ruins of old temples in the magical Sicilian countryside. Meanwhile, the French manuscripts were set all over the world, from the American East Coast to the Polynesian Island of Tahiti.
Both competitions are in keeping with our commitment to emerging writers. In Canada, we have an annual Emerging Writers Prize where we give debut fiction, non-fiction and genre authors not only a monetary prize but a year of merchandising and marketing support to help kick start their careers.
We focus on debut writers because breaking through with a new book can be difficult in the world of online sales, where factors such as sales history and click-through rates directly affect its discoverability. We hope these prizes help focus attention on new works.
LA: You recently described the self-publishing as “dark matter of the editorial universe” (The Bookseller). They already acount for 10% of the Kobo Store unit sales, do you believe that this figure can still grow?
MT: We are already seeing sales growth in 2017, so yes. And while it represents 10% of sales globally, in some markets it’s more than 20%. We don’t try to replicate the work of a publisher, but rather, through our self-publishing service Kobo Writing Life, offer independent authors a distribution ecosystem and a sales channel where they can reach customers directly. In some cases, self-publishing enables authors to share stories with booklovers that may not fit a traditional publisher’s mandate or categories. As well, in the case of books such as Fifty Shades of Grey, self-published titles capture the attention of traditional publishers, who help catapult them to bestselling international phenomena.
We’ve discovered readers have a real appetite for self-published books, or, put another way, don’t distinguish between self-published and traditionally published work if the story appeals to them. We fully expect self-publishing to continue to expand.
LA: As stated last year to CNBC, the Kobo reader does not jump between applications (Teleread) but focuses on a single platform to read. Can we expect that Kobo will continue to support E Ink E-reader in the future?
MT: Everything we do is for the reader, and through speaking with thousands of our customers, we have found that a large percentage of people look for a distraction-free reading experience – and E Ink eReaders like the new Kobo Aura H2O offer just that. We create these types of devices for the avid booklover looking for the best reading experience, very much like the music lover who chooses to listen on quality headphones as opposed to cheap earbuds in search of the best possible music experience. That said, many of our customers love to read on devices they already own, and we continue to offer best-in-class free reading apps available for the most popular tablets and smartphones.
LA: Kobo has acquired a few weeks ago Shelfie (The Verge): this application promotes the meeting between the printed book and its electronic equivalent, and in 2015 was able to enter into agreements with about 1,200 English-speaking publishers and to promote experimentation in bookstores. Will you bring Shelfie forward as it is, expanding it to other markets?
MT: With the acquisition of Shelfie, we want to find new and innovative ways to bridge the print/digital divide and make it easier for print readers to try digital. The integration will enhance book recommendations for our customers, as well as make it even easier for readers who are new to eBooks to get started by recommending titles they might like based on what they already have on their bookshelves at home. We will have more information to share in the coming months.
LA: By the end of January 2017 Kobo became the new technology partner of Tolino and in February you have launched Kobo Plus – an all-you-can-read subscription with a stock selection – in Netherlands and Belgium. Do you think that there is still the possibility to gain market share from your competitors in Europe?
MT: Yes, most definitely. New services such as Kobo Plus offer great opportunities to reach readers who want lots of choice at a great price and we are always looking for ways to reach booklovers and to offer them services allow them to fit reading into more parts of their day, and to make reading ever more convenient.
Our Tolino partnership alone means that Kobo owns the platform that now serves a substantial portion of the German eBook market. Our primary partner is the Tolino Alliance, an alliance of the three largest bookstore chains in Germany, with other partners in six countries, including: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, serving 22 retail brands. Add that to the very successful partnerships run by Kobo in France, Spain and Portugal with FNAC; in Netherlands and Belgium with BOL.com; and in Italy with both Feltrinelli and Mondadori and you can see how there are more opportunities than ever for Kobo to make the reading lives of Europeans better.