Over the last three months, e-book retailer Kobo has launched a new $140 touchscreen e-reader, seen its user base grow to more than four million and debuted Read On, a reading support campaign that donates funds to community organizations. Not quite done, last week Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis was in New York to announce the launch of a German Kobo site offering 80,000 German-language titles along with localized versions of all Kobo's services and reading software, as well as its new reading device.
In an interview at PW's offices, Serbinis said Kobo will be launching similar Kobo online stores in France, Spain, Holland, and Latin America in the next year. "Kobo was designed to be a global platform right from the beginning," Serbinis said. "Our platform allows us to sell e-books in the appropriate geographical territories when we have world rights—titles not licensed for certain geographical areas just don't show." Serbinis said Kobo has been selling "mostly" English-language titles up until now, but that the plan has always been to publish in multiple languages.
He was bullish not only on the new Kobo Touch Edition, a b&w 5-in. touchscreen e-reader that will sell for $140, but on dedicated e-readers in general and touchscreen technology in particular. The devices can be purchased in Wal-Mart, Sears, K-Mart, and Borders, and Kobo will be opening kiosks (like the one recently opened in New York's Grand Central Station), and pop-up stores to allow consumers to browse Kobo's devices and services—and to buy them. "The competitive bar for e-readers is very high," said Serbinis. "Touch is a rich experience and you can't offer consumers less than a state of the art device. Price is also important." He said that contrary to the media coverage of tablet computing devices, "we're selling a lot of dedicated e-readers, and consumers that use them buy a lot of books."
Although it is not as well known as Kindle and Nook, Serbinis said that Kobo also offers consumers a self-publishing channel, and the retailer also sells content produced through Smashwords.com, the self-publishing platform. But he said the service is not aggressively marketed and not automated. "Self-publishing interest is growing and we need a formal program," he acknowledged.
Serbinis was particularly enthusiastic about Read On, a community reading support and promotional campaign the company launched during BEA that combines Reading Life, the company's social reading application, with corporate social activism. Reading Life tracks time spent and pages read and offers graphic and humorous updates and badges and awards for personal reading benchmarks. The company has launched a $10 million fund that will provide community grants based on the amount of time spent reading on Kobo software. "We stand for reading," Serbinis said, noting that Reading Life also allows readers to share their reading lists and stats (pages read, total hours read, books completed, how many books, magazines, etc.). "People spend more time on books than just reading them; they talk about them, they loan them, there's a life cycle around books and we want to bring that to the e-book experience."
Indeed, Serbinis cited Reading Life and social media as the basis for "discoverability," that is, the ability to find books and receive book recommendations. "Online reviews are one way, but tapping into friends and their recommendations is really important," Serbinis said.
"It's not print vs. digital," Serbinis said, emphasizing the growing access to reading and literacy thanks to e-books. "It's reading vs. all the other stuff we can do. Smartphones mean access to everything." He said that while it's convenient to buy books in the U.S., in places like Brazil and India, "there's not a big physical bookstore market and books are expensive. Cellphones give everyone access to books at a great price."