Ether for Authors: Is the Dust-Up Over Kobo’s Devices Fair?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

3 September 2013 iStock_000013457655XSmall photog Brian Brown Images texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Left to Their Own Devices
  2. Libiro the Liberator
  3. Reach­ing Read­ers Where They Read
  4. Con­fer­ences
  5. Last Gas: Every­body Has a Price

Left to Their Own Devices

Kobo’s announcement last week—new devices, eyebrow-raising prices—showed nothing if not chutzpah. And predictably, that ambition was challenged before the equipment even rolled down the runway. Maybe rightly. Maybe not.

In Macon, Georgia, 1924, an ambitious upstart, Huff Daland Dusters, spun its props on its fleet of six planes. The “first commercial agricultural flying company” took off, no doubt amid a few hoots. Here’s a timeline, in case you’d like to see how those puddle jumpers ended up as Delta Air Lines (yes, three words), flying more than 160 million people a year to 330 destinations in 65 countries.

KoboThere are a lot of reasons, good ones, to wonder if Team Toronto has the right flight path in mind. We’re going to look at that skepticism remembering that surprises still do get off the ground sometimes.

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams

My colleague here at Publishing Perspectives, Dennis Abrams, got right into his headline with what Kobo’s content chief Michael Tamblyn had enunciated as his target customer, worldwide: Kobo Aims at “People with Reading at the Center of Their Lives.”

And there’s’ consistency there. You’ll remember that at the time Kobo announced its Aura reader at London Book Fair, the language then was on devoted, reader-specific interests. And still is. Sales copy for the Aura includes calling it “the only premium eReader on the market…designed for the discerning reader…” and so on, special emphasis on “the most evenly front-lit eReader on the market.” You can read it on the crop duster. And it gets a new model September 16 at $149.

So what Abrams brings us in summing up the company’s new announcements follows suit.

The company is positioning itself as being focused on the reading experience, especially with features such as “Reading Mode,” which allows the user, among other things, to turn off notifications from other apps on its tablets to keep distractions at a minimum…Beyond that, Kobo has launched a new book discovery tool called “Beyond the Book,” designed to help users find new books “via highlighted topics within books and content from across the Web.”

Publishers LunchOver at Publishers Lunch, Michael Cader, in Kobo Expands Device Line, was raising up points from the Kobo presentation with a bit of call-and-response that might work well in a good Macon church, pausing for the Nook Amen! on his listing of the Kobo devices:

They are adding a 10-inch model (like Nook did a year ago); promise very high-resolution screens (like Nook did a year ago) of 2560 x 1600 on the 10-inch model and 1920 x 1200 on the premium 7-inch model; and include a lower resolution, less expensive 7-inch model at $149 for an 8GB model. The bigger unit starts at a big $399; the high-resolution 7-inch model starts at $249. (Last year, the Nook HD models launched at $269 for the 9-inch/16GB and $199/$229 for their 7-inch models.)

Kobo eReaders, as announced.

Kobo eReaders, as announced.

Never one to let a “discerning reader” in the congregation miss a point, Cader writes:

Here, Kobo looked to pick up the mantel of “a tablet experience designed for readers” that was Barnes & Noble’s starting point with the Nook Color units.

And he’s too good not to bring his sermon home, too. Having listed more good Kobo moves such as a partnership with Pocket (Cader calls this “another smart content twist”) and “curated ‘collections’ of recommended books,” he rolls into his benediction, putting that Nook Amen! into context:

Where Kobo hopes to outreach Nook is through their global network of stores and partners. [CEO Michael] Serbinis noted that “Kobo has leading share in 10 of our 13 markets” internationally, and they are up to 16 million users. Their self-publishing program Writing Life accounts for 10 percent of units (not dollars) sold worldwide.

Michael Tamblyn

Michael Tamblyn

I’m doubly glad now that we’ll have Brother Tamblyn in our Frankfurt Academy CONTEC session October 8 about the implications of self-publishing on the industry. (More about it in Conferences below.)

Because even with the good-sounding elements of all those glad tidings in Kobo’s announcements (including a font response for dyslexic readers), many folks were left wondering whether it’s possible for a crop duster to fly too close to the sun.

Come on, Kobo, a $399 tablet? Really?

Laura Hazard Owen

Laura Hazard Owen

That was Laura Hazard Owen’s perfectly accurate reflection of the tweeterie on the matter. In the kind of neat nutshell she provides so consistently for GigaOM:

Okay, so let’s say you have $400 to spend on a new tablet this fall or holiday shopping season. Why would you buy it from Kobo, a company whose products you’ve likely never used and a company that doesn’t have its own content ecosystem (it offers access to Google Play) when you could just get an iPad instead? And if $400 is more than you want to spend, you have a wide range of lower-priced options, including several models of the Kindle Fire, Google’s Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini. You also, of course, could choose a lower-priced tablet from Kobo, but if customers didn’t buy the sub-$300 Nook HDs it’s unclear why they’d buy sub-$300 Kobo Arcs.

And Owen, too, has Nook on the mind when it comes to sorting out what’s up. She writes:

The Nook HD and HD+, ranging in price from $199 to $299, were designed to be reader-centric devices. They included features like children’s accounts and curated “channels” to help readers discover new books…You’d think that Canadian e-reader company Kobo, whose share of the U.S. ebook market is far below Barnes & Noble’s, might have learned something from this. Apparently, it hasn’t.

Kobo, she wrote, “has not justified why it’s making a big bet on tablets.” She concedes that “an earlier version of the Kobo Arc, which sold for $199.99, got pretty good reviews based on specs and design, but all of those reviews noted there wasn’t a compelling reason to buy it over the competition.”

The international play, writes Owen, may not be a big enough lift to keep this load of devices and amenities aloft:

Kobo, which is owned by the Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, touts its international reach and partnerships with local bookstores worldwide as its strategy for success. It’s true that Barnes & Noble has been slow to expand internationally, but it doesn’t follow that a lack of international availability was the reason for the Nook tablets’ failure. At any rate, international customers in developed countries are still probably more likely to choose tablets from big names — Apple, Amazon, Google — over tablets from Kobo. Customers in developing countries probably can’t afford a $399 tablet.

Kobo tablets, as announced

Kobo tablets, as announced

Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World tries to look for new fields to fly over, in his write, Taking Another Look At Ebook Upstart Kobo:

While I’m not sure this new fleet of devices is a game-changer, spending time yesterday talking to senior executives as well as other Kobo employees, I get the sense that Kobo is picking up momentum in the U.S., where it is thought to have about 3% market share, and, especially, around the world, where it is either the No. 1 or No. 2 ebook retailer in many countries, including Canada and Japan. Kobo now has 16 million readers, up 4 million from the end of last year, a year in which it saw its sales double.

Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield

He gets in an important question to ask about the new devices: are they enough to prompt a come-to-Kobo conversion in a customer who reads on another company’s device?

I didn’t notice anything about the devices that might make a consumer already invested in the ecosystem of one of the other ebook retailers switch. For those few serious readers who have not yet tried ebooks, the reader-focused features of the Kobo devices might push some of them in Kobo’s direction (specifically “Reading Mode” on the tablets, which turns off outside notifications, adjusts the back-lighting and turns off non-reading-essential processor functions to save power).

He also quotes Tamblyn in an interesting line of thinking about the kind of focus on selling ebooks that Kobo can bring to the table—something the more diversified Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble can’t do. Here’s Tamblyn:

“We have the advantage of being a company that focuses only on one thing, which is how to sell ebooks and sell them well — on devices, through apps and on the Web. It’s a clarity of purpose that none of our competitors really have. We don’t have to worry about a legacy retail business, or selling ebooks in the context in many things, or as one small adjunct of a great, big hardware business. We succeed if we make readers happy and that’s where we compete.”

Judith Rosen

Judith Rosen

And we can thank Judith Rosen at Publishers Weekly for a timely update on a key element of the Kobo story in the States, its ebook partnership with the American Booksellers Association (ABA)—the independent bookstores. Her piece is The ABA-Kobo Partnership, a Year Later:

Almost exactly one year ago [she writes on August 30], the American Booksellers Association announced that it would replace its e-book partnership with Google for one with Kobo, in time for the 2012 holiday season. While the resulting relationship has been much more successful for booksellers than the previous one, it points up the fact that for indies, selling e-books has never been just about the money. Although independents make only pennies in commissions on ereaders and shared profits on e-books, most booksellers are satisfied. What makes the Kobo partnership work is that it enables indies to retain their customers by offering e-books and print books.

American Booksellers Association @ABABook ABAThe association’s Oren Teicher is quoted by Rosen, in fact, in respect to that generally heard 3-percent figure in the US market. Teicher:

“We know that the program is not perfect and that Kobo has a long way to go to establish its brand in the highly competitive U.S. market.”

Oren Teicher

Oren Teicher

Nonetheless, Teicher says his association hopes Kobo “will emerge over time as the best global solution for all booksellers to sell digital content” and he compliments Kobo for being “absolutely committed” to the program’s success in the long haul. Rosen’s write is well worth your attention. She does a good job of balancing bookseller responses. Urban stores seem to be more upbeat. One of them, for example, has a “six-member ‘e-team’ of frontline booksellers to work with customers on ebooks and ereaders. And a matching comment from that store’s management: “We’re a store in a community that wants this kind of service.” In other, more rural settings, Rosen finds, the sell may be harder. “Kobos are so unknown,” one rural bookseller tells her, “…we haven’t seen a lot of return.”

Tamblyn reiterates to Rosen what he has said in the past: In North America, he tells her, “the customers we get through ABA spend twice as much as other customers. They’re our best average customers in North America.”

So. It’s probably safe to say that few reactions to Kobo’s announcement of its new and more expensive devices were big rebel shouts of congratulations. I haven’t come across too many, “You go, Kobo!” cheers.

Instead, the industry! the industry! is, I think, cordially perplexed. And so we stand by the runway and watch for the takeoff of these new efforts.

Get your goggles on. I’m just mentionin’.

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Libiro the Liberator

Libiro is a brand new eBookstore dedicated to selling indie eBooks by indie authors, and nothing but.

Ben Galley

Ben Galley

UK author Ben Galley has worked with Web designer Teague Fullick to create Libiro, this new bookstore online, just opened as September descended upon us.

In his Q&A with The FutureBook on it, Indie ebookstore Libiro launches, he explains some of his rationale.

The market lacks a dedicated indie eBook store, especially one that is author-centric, and focused on promoting indie fiction…Indies can be drowned out in the busy ranks of enormous stores such as Amazon or iBooks. The focus at these stores is largely on traditionally published books – books that have the punch and weight of the publishing houses behind them. With a platform like Libiro, indie authors have a better chance to stand out, and therefore to make a living. That’s one of our primary priorities – to help keep writers writing.

LibiroGalley’s hook for authors is an 80-percent royalty, “regardless of price, genre, or where an author’s based. It’s what underpins Libiro’s offering. We wanted to take the hit, so that authors could make more on each and every sale.”

Unlike some other format-agnostic outfits (O’Reilly Media and others), an author’s .mobi files (for Amazon Kindle) can’t be sold at Libiro currently — but in an update, Galley tells me they hope to be able to accept .mobi files within a week or so, he calls it “a must-have format.”

Libiro home pageGalley’s FAQs on the Libiro site explain what PDF and EPUB files are. And they include this note:

We accept all genres, but we do ask that your book is a produced to a high professional standard, both in terms of editing and its cover. Whatever it is — a short story, a 3000-page epic, or a graphic novel, all we ask is that it’s professional and worth its price tag.

Uploading a book for sale and setting a price (you change it by sending in an email) looks straightforward and quick.

Galley makes a point to say he’s open to suggestion from authors and that he’s had a lot of feedback from them. I don’t doubt that.

We’ll wish Galley well and leave it to him:

The next few months will be key for Libiro, and we need to establish what we can do on our own, and build a strong foundation with just us founders and a handful of staff. However, we will be looking at forging partnerships in the future, as part of our expansion plans.

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Reach­ing Read­ers Where They Read

Just to be a little different from my partners in the panel, I want to focus on not just how startups can collaborate with publishers but how bigger partnerships that were seldom known or typically rejected as science-fiction start to make a lot of sense.

Justo Hidalgo

Justo Hidalgo

This is Madrid’s Justo Hidalgo, founder of 24Symbols, the Internet-based digital books platform. 24Symbols lets readers subscribe to read ebooks in the cloud, on mobile devices from an international catalog of many publishers. On October 8, he joins Javier Celaya of Dosdoce and the irrepressible Richard Nash of Small Demons at Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC Conference at the Frankfurt Marriott.

24SymbolsIn their discussion, “Publishing Partnerships—Publishers, Startups, and Technology Companies Working Together”—Hidalgo will be referring, in part, to the experience he has had in partnering with Zed, the mobile services and content company. (Zed has acquired a 32-percent share of 24Symbols.) Hidalgo says he’ll talk about that investment partnership at CONTEC and how his company and Zed are “reaching deals with mobile carriers in different countries worldwide to provide high-quality cloud reading services that reach new readers who want to read digital but were in many cases unable to do so.”

ZedHe goes on:

For instance, in Latin American, there’s a huge percentage of people who don’t use credit cards but have Android or even iPhone smartphones. Forming a partnership between the carrier, 24symbols as the technology and reading experience provider, and the publishers who provide high quality content, we believe creates a win-win opportunity for everyone.

There are many stories, of course, about cases in which startups’ partnerships with publishers (let alone investors) haven’t gone as was wanted. I asked Hidalgo where the challenges lie. He tells me:

The biggest obstacle is for all partners involved to fully understand the business models proposed beyond what we have typically had in our minds before. And I’m not just talking about the publishers, but everyone must make an effort to get the implications, the challenges, but also the opportunities that lie just there. There’s been lots of public and private discussions about how startups don’t understand publishers, and vice versa. I think what it’s still lacking is a clear conversation about not just today’s needs (which typically mean product or service evolutions where startups would not provide a huge value) but about where the industry is going and how much its players are willing to risk in order to get there quicker, or in a more efficient manner.

The guiding effort in how 24Symbols develops its partnerships with publishers, he says, is clarity.

We have done a huge effort to simplify our message to publishers and embrace what mobile carriers can bring to the equation, without forgetting what our own strengths are —product quality, design and close relationship with the readers.

For more on the CONTEC Conference, check our Conferences section below.

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A who's who in world publishing convenes October 8 at the CONTEC Conference produced by the Frankfurt Academy.

A who’s who in world publishing convenes October 8 at the CONTEC Conference produced by the Frankfurt Academy.

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). (Hashtag: #DBWMP) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout. Register by September 8 and get a Digital Book World community membership free.

Bookseller Children's ConferenceSeptember 26 London (Southbank Centre): The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference. “Building an international children’s publishing company in an internet age…current and future technologies that are driving change in children’s market…a whistle-stop overview of the market using Nielsen BookScan sales data. Are the biggest writers continuing to dominate? Are sticker books still selling? And what’s up with YA?” (Hashtag: #kidsconf13Registration is open.

September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 with dateOctober 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” (Hashtag: #CONTEC) Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.

Frankfurt Academy All Access TicketAnd consider the Frankfurt Academy’s All-Access Ticket, which includes unlimited access to events including CONTEC Frankfurt 2013, Publishers Launch Frankfurt, Rights Directors Meeting (RDM) 2013, First Timer Seminar, Rights Express, Digital Resume, Frankfurt StoryDrive, Experience the Exquisite, Business Breakfasts and more.

Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt: Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013: “Publishers Launch returns to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the third year in a row, now moving to the natural pre-Fair “conference day,” Tuesday, to make it easier for you to attend. This packed event will continue and expand upon today’s key themes of scale and consolidation across the publishing world, while also looking at scaling strategies for vertical publishing – a natural way to prosper in the shadows of publishing and retailing giants. We’ll also look at the implications (and opportunities) of the explosion of digital publishing from non-traditional players and authors and agents publishing directly.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial  and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and more. (Hashtag: #bib13) General registration now is open.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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Last Gas: Every­body Has a Price

99-cents books are the foundation for the tragically forgotten book pile.

Jane Litte

Jane Litte

That’s the painful conclusion arrived at in one of several useful and instructive narrative clarifications created by Jane Litte at Dear Author.

In her article What’s the right price of a book for you? Litte mentions the emails many of us have received in recent days from Amazon, laying out some points about the coming refunds that fulfill elements of the settlements reached with publishers in their cases of alleged price-fixing. Those refunds are expected to come in at about $3.07 for a bestseller and 97 cents for another ebook bought by a customer between April 1, 2010 and May 21, 2012, and published by Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, or Macmillan.

Here are Amazon’s FAQs on the matter for more details.

Dear AuthorLitte takes the chance here to look at ebook pricing, easily one of the most vexing issues facing authors and publishers.

Taking each key price point in turn, she creates a message it might send.

First, that 99-cents price we opened with. It means, she writes, “I’ll buy you but I’m in no hurry to read you.”

Books at this price, in other words, are books readers may collect on their ereaders with little or no compunction to actually read them. At the $1.99 price, Litte sees “a dead zone”:

There are very few books priced at $1.99 unless that is a sale price, ordinarily by mainstream publishers. I have a couple of theories on this.  $1.99 generates the same lower royalty to authors (30% versus 70%) but it doesn’t move as many books as 99c and therefore it isn’t as as an attractive discount rate.

Then $2.99 to $4.99. Litte thinks this may be a good range at which to get someone to try something:

“I’ll try you even though I’m unsure whether I’ll love it.”  I think this is the discovery price range.  In this price range, most people won’t flinch at trying a new book or a new to them author, particularly when it is recommended to them by another source, but not necessarily a trusted one.  At this price, a cover or blurb can move you to buy or a marginally good review.

At $5 to $7.99?

“I’ve read you before and enjoyed what I’ve read.”  This price range is reserved for authors you’ve enjoyed in the past and figure you’ll be entertained for a few hours. At this point, though, you aren’t taking much risk.

And $8.99 and up: this is a sweet spot for pricing if you can pull it off, writes Litte:

“I’ve read you before and I love you.” At this price, you are forgoing purchasing at least one other book, if not more…This is the price at which the dedicated fan group buys…Publishers know this, which is why some authors are moved to hardcover after several books selling through at a solid rate in mass market.

While there should be a new update for this week today (Tuesday), coinciding with the Ether’s publication, Digital Book World’s average ebook bestseller price last week reached its lowest point since the tracking began last fall. Litte notes that best-selling ebook price came in at $6.33. Jeremy Greenfield’s discussion of that average price is here, in Average Price of Best-Selling Ebooks Drops to All-Time Low.

Crop dusters never were much for altitude.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image: Brian Brown Images

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.