Kobo_LBF_stand_2013Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn says success in the ebook world is about mutually beneficial relationships with readers, retailers and publishers.

At last year’s London Book Fair Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn discussed with me the benefits of having a “large, well funded and highly profitable parent” in Rakuten, the Japanese internet giant which bought Kobo just a few months earlier.

I caught up with Michael, now Kobo’s Chief Content Officer, at this year’s LBF where the company dominated the digital section thanks to a spectacularly plush stand and very low-key appearances from Amazon (promoting its self-publishing platform) and NOOK owners Barnes & Noble.

Asked about the impact of Ratuken’s cash twelve months on, Tamblyn said: “The acquisition has generally given us scale, and has allowed us to move more quickly across a variety of fronts.”

However he denied any suggestion that the “limited edition” 6.8” Kobo Aura was an early result of Rakuten’s investment, insisting it ”has been in the making for a long time” and was “the result of an ongoing research and engagement we’ve had with our user-base to figure out what the next great reading device can be.”

He also declined to be drawn on just how “limited” the limited edition Aura really is.

Tamblyn was a lot more forthcoming about Kobo’s retail partnerships with independent booksellers and WHSmith and happy to contrast that relationship with B&N’s UK launch.

On his rival’s late entry into the UK, he said: “What their launch in December showed was that it’s never just about getting devices on shelves, the real challenge is ‘are you attracting the kind of consumer who is excited about books and wants to engage with them digitally?’”.

“The success we’ve had here in the UK has been through that relationship with traditional booksellers, that is where those customers live, that is where the passionate book buyers can be found. They’re much more likely to be found there then in the electronics section of a store.”

By partnering with independent booksellers, Tamblyn says Kobo is allowing them to “be relevant and competitive in the digital space.”

“For the customer that comes through their door and says ‘I’m interested in digital, I’d like to start reading on a device”, that retailer no longer has to say ‘then I can’t help you’ they have something not only point to, they have something where they can participate in the ongoing sales to that customer.”

Its partnership with WHSmith has seen Kobo build branded presences within 100 WHS branches, these Tamblyn says “performed as well or better than we expected” and confirmed that another 100 will come during 2013.

On the appeal of these Kobo stores he told me: “We certainly like to have people in an environment that allows them to engage fully with Kobo from a brand experience but also to have people there who are trained and can answer all of those first questions that someone has when they’re asking ‘do I want to take that leap into digital?’

“To have someone who comes from a book-selling background or spends their time in a book-selling environment but can also very clearly answer those questions and concerns that people have about that move to digital is incredibly powerful.”

In response to my challenge that these in-store presences help shift hardware but not books, Michael hinted that more was to come on this front, saying: “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what that in-store content selling experience can be. There’s a lot of work to be done there and a lot of experimentation that’s going on internally around how best to drive that.”

One of the challenges, he told me, is “how do we best co-ordinate the promotion of new titles across print and digital, how do we work with publishers so that they’re looking across formats when they’re considering how to launch new titles or new authors.”

Under the Agency pricing arrangements in place when we spoke last year, it was almost impossible for retailers such as Kobo to offer price promotions and loyalty deals to readers on the very latest big books.

However in recent months Apple and the publishers have had to give ground to EU and US regulators, allowing more flexibility in how books are priced and sold.

On the subject of enticing readers to part with their money, Tamblyn said: “Loyalty cards start to become more possible as Agency 2.0 comes into being but we’re looking at a lot of different ways that you can motivate people to make that next purchase.”

He added that “the most powerful thing we can do to initiate the next purchase is be really good at figuring out what the next best book to read is after you’ve finished your last one, and timing that recommendation just right so that as you’re coming off a great reading experience the next book is in front of you ready to go.”

“There’s the easy stuff which is the next book in a series or another book by that author, but how do we get you to authors that are like the author you’ve just read? Or within a similar genre?

“In many ways, the most powerful thing we can do as an ebook retailer is introduce you to a new author you’ve never heard of but who we believe you’re gong to like, who has a large collection of titles you haven’t look at yet. That’s kind of the most powerful economic act we can do as a retailer.

“And the data and recommendation technology that sits behind Kobo is unlike anything you could ever find in a physical book store.”

When I met Michael last year, the LBF digital zone was awash with cheap OEM readers looking for retailers to sell them. This year the number of stalls selling small-brand e-ink readers had fallen to just one.

Does he think we’ve arrived at a point where the choice is really just between a NOOK, a Kindle, an iPad and a Kobo?

“The best way to answer that question is say that the companies that stay in this market and continue to be competitive in this market have to have a number of different qualities.

“They have to have more than just a device, it has to be devices that are integrated with an incredible reading experience, best in class e-commerce solution, it’s about the integration of reading and Social, it’s about the ability to support many different kinds of content across both colour and black and white.

“I would say it’s also about being international, being in more than one or two markets, the players who remain competitive in this get to leverage the growth and marketshare they have across a number of different countries to continue to sustain investment and innovation.

“If you don’t have that, it gets harder and harder for you.”