September 14, 2012

Kobo e-books in indie bookstores: one bookmonger’s impressions


As reported earlier on MobyLives, Google announced this April that it would no longer be selling e-books in independent bookstores after December. And though Google had been the most fickle and lead-footed of partners, its decision to fold book sales into the Google Play store threatened to leave the majority of the nation’s independent booksellers alone on the dance floor, shuffling awkwardly, unsure what to do with their hands, trying simultaneously to seem as if they were fine, even enjoying themselves, but glancing around with increasing desperation for someone to save them from being the odd one out.

This past week news finally arrived that Japanese e-book proprietor Kobo has stepped up and joined the dance. Kobo remains the dominant e-book vendor in Japan—though Amazon’s entry into that market this summer may bring changes there—and produced the chosen e-reader of the ill-fated Borders bookstores. Now, in an agreement with the ABA, independent bookstores will be able to use Kobo to sell e-books and, through Ingram, e-readers in their stores. Presumably Kobo e-book sales will be integrated with the Indiecommerce retail package used by many ABA member bookstores, as well as the Indiebound mobile app. One challenge for booksellers, even in the current Google incarnation of the program, has been educating their customers about how best to buy and read ebooks while still supporting local bookstores, and in a market where easy book purchases unburdened by ethical concerns are only ever a click or two away, a small amount of confusion can cost indie bookstores a large portion of their online sales.

To help get a sense of bookseller and customer reactions to the news I turned to Jenn Northington, events coordinator at WORD Books in Brooklyn, and e-book reviewer for Shelf Awareness.

1. Hi Jenn. Have you used the Kobo e-book store personally? What were your impressions?

I’ve tested out the app on my phone, and liked it a lot. They have a tracking system built in that will tell you how much time you’ve spent reading, what days/hours of the day you’re most likely to be reading, all those nerdy stats that are both horrifying and really awesome to know.

2. Is it your understanding that Kobo e-book sales will mesh with ABA bookstore sites to the same extent that Google e-book sales have? Do you foresee problems explaining the switch to your customers? Do you think they’ll even notice?

From what we know so far (and it’s still evolving) the integration with our site will be very similar. The goal is to make it as integrated as possible on both sides. I do think our customers will notice, but they’re a pretty savvy bunch, so we have high hopes for a smooth transition. And a lot of them have already asked us about it, since it’s been talked about a lot online, so that makes it easier as well. This is a great opportunity for us to offer customers an ebook solution they can use on an ereader as well as multi-tasking devices, which is not something we had with the Google ebooks.

3. Do you have any thoughts about Kobo devices being supplied to stores through Ingram? Have you discussed stocking them at WORD?

We are definitely going to offer them! While I think there are a lot of folks who have their own devices already, we do get a fair number of customers (especially around the holidays) asking about ebook and ereader options, so this will be a convenient way to answer that question. A lot of them have been holding off on getting an ereader, since they want to support their indies, and this is a really cool opportunity in that regard. Ereaders purchased through indies means that we get a cut on books purchased through the reader, as well as through the app or through our site, so it actually gives customers more ways to support us.

4. Much as it makes life easier, do you feel limited by the ABA agreement? Do you see a place in in bookstores or on bookstore sites for boutique e-book publishers like Emily Books?

One of the nice things about this agreement is that it’s nonexclusive. We’ve talked with other ebook publishers like Zola and Emily Books, and under the new arrangement we’re able to work with them if we want to. Of course, we want to make the sales as streamlined and simple as possible on our site, but there if there are opportunities for additional partnerships, we’re still able to explore them.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.