Canada-based e-book retailer Rakuten Kobo has a long history of partnering with retailers, including, since 2012, ABA stores. But Kobo and Walmart’s recently announced partnership takes the strategy to a new level, according to Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s CEO. “It’s going to be very different working with a mass market retailer like Walmart and the scale it offers,” he said. Walmart has nearly 5,000 stores in the U.S.
In January, Kobo announced an agreement with Walmart to sell Kobo products, including e-books, audiobooks, and electronic reading devices, in Walmart stores and on the retailer’s website. The partnership will also feature a co-branded app available on iOS and Android devices.
Tamblyn declined to specify the number of Walmart stores that will be selling Kobo devices or to give other details about the deal, explaining that “it’s all in the works.” He did confirm that the partnership will offer the full range of Kobo content and devices “in-store and online” by the end of 2018.
“Walmart wants to provide its customers with an extensive collection of digital content, and Kobo can make that happen,” Tamblyn said. “We’ve done similar deals around the world, and we’re a good fit.”
Walmart has been expanding its online presence to better compete with Amazon—the chain has been experimenting with different options for selling e-books for a number of years—and the deal with Kobo gives it access to the U.S. e-book market.
Tamblyn said that Walmart, which has long sold print books through its stores and via its website, “is a significant bookseller, and its scale and ability to execute makes it great for us.” He noted that Kobo continues to be “competitive in the international space that’s not dominated by a single retail player” and is the e-book “market leader in Canada” and has “a strong presence in Mexico,” but added that “this is a great opportunity for Kobo in the U.S.,” where it has not had much success.
Tamblyn is bullish on the growth of Kobo Writing Life, the company’s self-publishing platform. He called the growth of the self-publishing category “the dark matter of the publishing world,” essentially describing the category—which produces hundreds of thousands of books each year—as a kind of powerful but unseen force. He noted that KWL titles represent 20%–25% of all English-language books sold via Kobo. Although Kobo does not disclose the number of authors using the platform, Tamblyn said KWL authors publish in 97 languages and their books are distributed in 150 countries. “Our international presence is attractive to U.S. authors looking to sell their books into overseas markets for English writing,” he explained.
On the promotional side, Kobo works “to shine a light on KWL authors,” Tamblyn said. He added that Kobo has deals with retailers around the world to support its authors. “Retailers are interested in bringing in self-published authors with a following,” he noted, though he acknowledged that the strategy of creating in-store promotions for self-published authors has been most effective outside of North America.
Tamblyn also said the old debates over e-book prices—99¢, $2.99, $9.99, etc.—are done. There are no “sweet spots for pricing,” he said. “Publishers and authors are constantly experimenting to find the right price for particular books. There’s no one price for fiction or nonfiction; the price is whatever the market will bear.”
In today’s reading marketplace, Tamblyn said, e-books are just another format. Consumers read across a range of formats, he added, and are comfortable with all of them, depending on what’s available. He pointed to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which was popular as an e-book when the hardcover was temporarily unavailable.
“E-books respond to demand,” Tamblyn said. “They’re just another part of the fabric of publishing. It’s up to us to keep making the reading experience better.”