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Indie bookstores try new e-book angle, striking deal with Kobo

August 29, 2012|by Carolyn Kellogg
  • Kobo's Vox
Kobo's Vox (Kobo )

The American Booksellers Assn., the trade organization of independent bookstores, has struck a deal with Canada's Kobo to sell e-readers, tablets and e-books. The arrangement will begin in October, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Independent booksellers watched from the sidelines as e-books captured greater mindshare and a rapidly increasing percentage of actual book sales. They were not able to sell e-books until Dec. 2010, when Google began selling e-books and partnered with the ABA.

That partnership failed to take off, in part because buying the e-books was cumbersome, particularly in light of the ease of purchase at industry leader Amazon.

To buy an e-book from an independent bookseller, a customer had to visit the store's website -- many independent bookstore websites suffer from awkward design -- and navigate through a number of pages before checking out. Then the customer is instructed to give the bookstore access to her Google account, which might make some balk. Particularly those who knew they could buy the same e-book from Google from any computer on their own, leaving the bookstore out of the loop.

Another thing that Amazon had that independent bookstores do not is a device. Amazon's Kindle e-reader and Fire tablet provide easy and direct access to its own e-book store. And this is where Kobo may give them a boost.

Kobo will provide in-store displays for its tablets and e-readers, and bookstores can stock the devices "at no risk," according to Kobo's chief executive Mike Serbinis. The company will also train booksellers to become Kobo-sellers.

When a bookstore's customers shop for e-books from their Kobo -- or the Kobo app on another device -- independent bookstores can recieve a share of the revenue from their purchases. That's a direct link between a device and e-books for sale, something independent bookstores need.

And Kobo needed a way to reach American readers. The company, which leads the field in Canada, had partnered with Borders -- when that company went bankrupt and was dissolved, Kobo lost most of its American footprint.

The company's technology has been praised; Rakuten, Japan's largest e-commerce website, recently completed a purchase of Kobo.

The challenge to Kobo, and to independent booksellers, will be to find American customers who want a new e-reader.

Barnes & Noble has brand recognition and 689 brick-and-mortar bookstores nationwide in which to sell its Nook e-readers, but Nook sales have gone flat. Sure, Barnes & Noble is spinning off Nook for a partnership with Microsoft into a company called Newco, whose future is impossible to predict, but 2012 numbers aren't promising. In a statement to shareholders earlier this month, Barnes & Noble announced that Nook sales, which include both devices and e-books, had a first quarter up just 0.3% from the year before.

Has Amazon achieved dominance, or has everyone who wants one gotten one? Maybe. Or maybe Kobo and independent booksellers will find an enthusiastic audience.

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