E-book retailer Kobo reports impressive growth for Writing Life, its nine-month-old self-publishing platform, as well as surprisingly robust sales of the Kobo Aura HD, its newly released dedicated e-reader. In a wide-ranging conversation at the Kobo booth at BEA, Michael Tamblyn, Kobo's executive v-p of content, also offered a progress report on its deal with the American Booksellers Association to support e-book sales and the sale of Kobo devices through indie bookstores.
After nine months, Tamblyn said, units sales of Writing Life self-published titles are already 10% of all sales at Kobo, in addition to being 10% of sales at other retail sources to which they are distributed. Tamblyn described the growth in sales from "nontraditional" sources as "a significant change in the market." Tamblyn also noted that these authors "are managing their prices and responding to customers," pointing out that the average price of a Writing Life title is now $3.50, "a climb up from what it was almost a year ago. Authors are experimenting, and they are raising their prices as they mature as writers."
Tamblyn divides Kobo Writing Life authors into three categories: those writing their first book; authors with conventional publishing experience who are bringing their print fans to the Kobo platform; and "hybrid" authors, who have published in various ways and are also bringing in new audiences. These authors are "uploading thousands of new titles every week," he said. Writing Life is also highlighting the growth of an international market. Its titles are sold in more than 180 countries, and Kobo is seeing the growth of "new authors from other countries" in what was once only a U.S. phenomenon. "We've seen a big increase in Italian and French writers," he said.
He noted that Kobo is working now with about 500 ABA stores. "The ABA deal allows indies to leverage their hand-selling skills and get people to pick up our devices and try them out," he said. While he acknowledged that it was encouraging to work with indie booksellers "who want to bring digital into their stores," he acknowledged that e-book sales may not be high. But he emphasized that "device plus content sales and device accessories can be profitable," and that Kobo is helping indie stores "maintain a relationship with customers who do want to go digital. It keeps these people connected to indie stores when they do need print products and brings them back into the stores."
Kobo has been pleasantly surprised by the sales performance of its Kobo Aura HD dedicated E Ink reader, released at a higher price ($170) than consumers are used to seeing. The device offers a high-resolution screen that is sharper than some tablets, as well as a faster processor that was designed for the hardcore digital reader. Tamblyn said the company surveyed 10,000 customers to find out if E Ink devices were "going away" in favor of tablets. They found that 36% of these customers in their survey (including 53% that use the device every day) had a tablet, but preferred E Ink for reading. Indeed, they asked Kobo, "How close we can get to a device that's like paper?" Indeed, he said, they wanted to know if a device could be made "like a hardcover book." He said, "We expected it to be about 5% of sales, but it has been 25% of the sales of all Kobo devices."
Tamblyn also said the company is at work on enhancing "the color reading experience" on the Kobo Arc, its seven-inch tablet, and said the company was working on initiatives around children's books, magazines, and graphic novels/comics (and due to Rakuten, its Japanese parent company, Kobo is paying close attention to manga). He highlighted the acquisition of Aquafadas, the multimedia authoring platform noted for its comics and rich content-authoring tools: "It offers great tools for publishers and designers, and they don't need programmers or need to outsource."