Coronavirus Worklife: Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn: Lessons from the Contagion

In News by Porter Anderson

A major producer of e-readers, Rakuten Kobo discovered that its biggest hurdle was that most of its manufacturing was in China and Taiwan. And e-readers suddenly were selling fast.

During the pandemic, Rakuten Kobo sold more e-readers with its 10,000 physical stores closed than it does in a comparable normal period, CEO Michael Tamblyn says. Retailers had adapted quickly to an upturn in e-reading interest. Image: The Kobo Libra H2O

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

What Happens When Your Manufacturers Stop?
A crisis like the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is like a crucible for an industry like publishing—which already has had its share of disruptions, of course.

In a talk delivered to the Digital Publishing Summit and Readmagine 2020 conference that continues this week, Tamblyn expanded on many of the issues and challenges he and his team based in Toronto were just starting to look at when his Kobo Italy staff and Grupo Mondadori worked together in mid-March to deliver free ebooks to quarantined Italians as one of Europe’s most fearful virus outbreaks was taking hold.

At the time Publishing Perspectives spoke to him for our story on March 11 on that move, Tamblyn mentioned that he and his employees were working from home voluntarily—to find out where the pitfalls might lie “on our own terms.”

What he would learn, he says now, was much more and fell into three categories:

  • What was learned about how Kobo works as a company during this (and implications forward)
  • What was learned about readers and relationship to reading
  • What was learned about the industry as a whole

For example, he says, Kobo was accustomed to its factories in China and Taiwan coming to a halt in production during the annual Chinese new year celebrations in January. That, Black Friday in November, and the week leading up to Christmas, he says, are the key tech-industry “high holidays” that normally can affect production and operations.

But of course, this year, the Chinese new year—which he calls “doubly important” because factories close completely in China and Taiwan—was different. “Because everybody who left for new year to go home and visit their families, Tamblyn says, “didn’t come back. For the first time in living memory, the new year holiday at the end of January was extended by a week.” As Wuhan and other zones would become locked down and factory production halted, companies like Kobo were faced with new difficulties in supply.

“How long would it be before we could make new e-readers?” was the question, Tamblyn says.

By February’s end, the company’s manufacturers were back to about 50 percent of capacity. But they had to think about what would happen if Canada, where Kobo is situated, also came under lockdown. Tamblyn had made a trip to Milan to visit Italian partners and left only shortly before the shutdown of northern Italy had begun.

Working From Home: ‘Some Will Stay Remote’

Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn speaks from Toronto to the Digital Publishing Summit / Readmagine conference. Image: Readmagine

“The least interesting question was the remote work question.” Kobo had had staffers working remotely for five years or longer. “We’re spread across offices in Toronto, Taipei, Dublin, and Darmstadt. And we have a Japanese parent company that has prioritized video conferences as necessary for good communication ever since we were acquired in 2012.”

Being as accustomed as they are to remote working, Kobo has given all its employees the option of working this way until at least January 2021, Tamblyn says. “If we can start to open up, we don’t expect to be able to bring back more than 25 percent of our employees at one time until a vaccine is found. And some will probably stay remote permanently. And that’s okay.”

“It turns out it’s never been about the office. It’s always been about the people. With the right tools and habits and rituals, culture can be strengthened and maintained without people being in one building.”Michael Tamblyn, Rakuten Kobo

“Big things” that Tamblyn says they’ve learned from this element of the experience will be part of “the new normal for us” will involve the fact that, “the hard parts of working from home turn out to be child care, roommates, bad connectivity, lack of home-office space.” The most common reasons employees ask to come back to work are just such difficult conditions at home.

“The joke we’ve had is that people want the office to reopen so they can send their children there,” not go back to work, themselves, he says with a laugh.

And this is where Tamblyn brings his commentary in line with conversations being held all over publishing now, as many executives discover that having the staff work from home is much more feasible than they may have expected.

“It turns out,” Tamblyn says, “it’s never been about the office. It’s always been about the people. And that with the right tools and habits and rituals, culture can be strengthened and maintained without people being in one building.’

As services unlock, he says, “Our headcount will get bigger but it will get more spread out.”

And, of course, publishing companies now looking at their financial situations after the pandemic will be reviewing what may be saved in rent if they can institute more remote working scenarios as an ongoing feature of how they work.

What Kobo would eventually discover, Tamblyn says, is that the more difficult challenge for his company was the manufacturing halt. “We were able to sell more e-readers with all of our 10,000 stores closed than we had forecasted to sell with them open,” he says.

With “agility and speed,” the company’s international retailers had “decided to put their promotional focus” on e-reading as the pandemic descended on them.

And what the company had learned in this part of the experience, he says, was that it’s important to diversify vendors beyond one geographical area. It’s not enough to have multiple vendors in the same market, he says. “And the same is true of any children’s book publisher doing all their color printing work in China.”

The fact that one event could stop entire sectors of production?–means diversification of supply chain positioning is ahead.

Remaining Readmagine 2020 Events

In Rakuten Kobo’s home base in Toronto:, the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada signage on May 16 refers visitors to the attraction’s ‘at home’ offering. Image – iStockphoto: JHVE Photo

Sessions in the Readmagine and ERDLab programming continue this week on the schedule below, today with Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks and Roanie Levy of the Prescient program and Access Copyright in Canada.

Below is the rest of the week’s programming.

Date and Time Time Event Speaker
June 8 11 a.m. CEST / 0900 GMT / 5 a.m. ET Reading in the Cloud Andrew Rhomberg, Jellybooks
June 8 5:30 p.m. CEST / 1530 GMT / 11:30 a.m. ET The Attribution Ledger Project: Regain Control of Your Works in a Web 3.0 Environment Roanie Levy, Access Copyright and Prescient, Canada
June 9 11 a.m. CEST / 0900 GMT / 5 a.m. ET Thorium Reader Evolves, Keeps Accessibility in Focus Daniel Weck, EDRLab, DAISY, and Richard Orme, DAISY
June 9 5:30 p.m. CEST / 1530 GMT / 11:30 a.m. ET Leveraging OPDS 2.0 and Its Ecosystem To Improve the Distribution of Ebooks and Audiobooks Hadrien Gardeur, De Marque
June 10 11 a.m. CEST / 0900 GMT / 5 a.m. ET Accessibility Metadata: How To Ensure That Your Readers Discover That Your Digital Publications Have Great Accessibility Features Avneesh Singh, DAISY Consortium
June 10 5:30 p.m. CEST / 1530 GMT / 11:30 a.m. ET Seizing the Potential of Visual Narrations Patrick Mueller, Studio Dacmine
June 11 10 a.m. CEST / 0800 GMT / 4 a.m. ET Toward Automating Accessible Ebooks (and More) Ella Caulfield, Bookalope
June 11 5:30 p.m. CEST / 1530 GMT / 11:30 a.m. ET Accessibility of Schoolbooks Marion Berthaut, Mobidys
June 12 11 a.m. CEST / 0900 GMT / 5 a.m. ET Bookeen & LCP: building a user-friendly and interoperable ecosystem Michael Dahan, Bookeen
June 12 6 p.m. CEST / 1600 GMT / 12 p.m. ET Accessible Audiobooks Farrah Littel and Danny Farris, NNELS

More from Publishing Perspectives on digital publishing is here, more from us on Rakuten Kobo is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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.