Kobos and Indies - the untapped frontier

Two adjacent news items on today's The Bookseller caught my eye: Ebook distributor and e-reader maker Kobo has signed up with WH Smith to sell a WHS-branded version of the Kobo e-reader.

I had wondered if Kobo was in danger of being sidelined in the e-reader space while Kindle, Nook and iPad readers gain all the headlines and market share. Even Waterstones is clamouring to launch their own e-reader device. However the Kobo/WHS deal could bring the innovative Kobo deservedly right back to the forefront.

Judging by the WHS website, the online buying and Kobo e-delivery experience won't be as integrated as, say, browsing and buying on the Kindle store:

"Once you have found the book you want to buy on WHSmith.co.uk click "Buy eBook". This will open the product page on Kobo's website in a new window. Click "Buy Now" on the Kobo website - you will now be asked to create an account with Kobo or, if you already have one, to log in to your existing account. Once you have created or logged in to your account, simply accept the order and the eBook will be downloaded to your Kobo eBook library."

As any ecommerce student will tell you, you lose sales for every step you add to the buying process (hence Amazon's controversial 1-Click patent). Hopefully the two sites will become more integrated as time goes on though.

The second headline which caught my eye - chiefly because of its relevance to the first headline - was a call from Bloomsbury executive director Richard Charkin, speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair: "Bricks and mortar shops need their own e-readers."

It would be unreasonable to expect indie booksellers to individually build their own e-reader devices and online ecommerce portals. Clearly a "middle man" is needed with a ready product that the booksellers can sign up to and co-brand: in other words, exactly what Kobo is doing for WH Smith.

Unless Kobo has signed up exclusively with the giant high-street chain, they would do well to build a similar offering that allows indie bookshops to sign up. The economics may be similar to the Long Tail: tiny individual sales per item, but lots of of items. In this case, individual booksellers' co-branded e-sales may be small, but if enough booksellers sign up, Kobo (or whichever e-service provider leaps in first with a viable middle-man service) stand to clean up. And the indie booksellers have a way to get on board the e-reader market.

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