Can Kobo Level the Playing Field?

Josie Leavitt -- November 1st, 2012

The Kindle has done much to erode sales at brick and mortar bookstores. I think mine is not unique in that there are customers I haven’t seen in the store for a year or longer. These folks, at the least the five I spoke to, all have confessed to getting a Kindle. These folks have stopped buying physical books. They only read on their e-readers. While I don’t understand this, I have to find a way to get these folks buying their e-books from me.

There was an inelegant solution with Google. Indies could be affiliates of Google and get a small percentage of the e-book sale through their website. Shortly after the deal went through, Google began letting indies know they didn’t much care for us. Many stores were cut off just as they started to build campaigns around being able to sell e-books. The final blow came when Google announced they were opening their own store and would no longer let indies sell e-books. This goes into effect on January 13th.

The American Booksellers Association was committed to helping us find a way to sell e-books. Enter Kobo, the e-book and e-reader solution. I have to admit, until September, I’d never heard of Kobo. But as I’ve learned more, I become more and more impressed, but I’m still skeptical. Indie bookstores who sign up will be able to buy e-readers right from Ingram. So, now folks can come into my bookstore and buy an e-reader. We are trying to get them away from Amazon during the holiday season.

This could be genius. A lot of the success of this program rests in our hands. As booksellers we have to embrace this and really push it. We have to have that hard conversation that none of us likes to have customers: we know you have an eReader or are thinking of getting one, shop local for that and we can sell you eBooks. We have to concede that we’re losing a part of the book buying pie before we can get folks to be eReaders and eBooks from us. Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Some bookstores argue that we should all stay focused on what we do best which is selling physical books. Let’s face it, we all opened our stores because we love books, real books (please don’t get all mad at me for saying that, but reading a screen is not the same thing as a book with pages, a spine and that wonderful book smell) that you can hold in your hand or open on your lap with your child ready to hear a story. We do do that well. But a lot of us are tiring of the “did you know you could buy eBooks from us” discussion. Customers found it difficult to navigate the Google wallet and often there were just too many steps involved to make for a smooth transaction. One thing I have to give Amazon is they know how to make just about every aspect of shopping easy. Come the holidays, the easier the experience the more likely it will be to be repeated.

Stores that have already signed up should be receiving their Kobo eReader displays next week. Payment for the ten eReader display aren’t due until January 15th and they are fully returnable until February. So, aside from the initial outlay, which is not inconsiderable, there is little risk. The challenge is selling the devices. Kenny Brechner, owner of DDG Books in Farmington, Maine has a great link on his website to Kobo.

Kenny’s advice to customers is simple: if you’re going to go the eReader route, do it with us. I think this is sage advice. By selling the devices in the store we are hopefully creating our own closed loop of device sales and eBook sales. I hope by heeding his advice we take the stigma, and sometimes shame, out of buying eReaders and eBooks for our customers. Now, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too.