This past week has been some week. I’ve been gearing up to write articles with a political bent to them and have hesitated (and thus not put fingers to the keyboard) because this is not supposed to be a political blog.

I was rescued, at least temporarily, by a small notice in today’s New York Times: Key Porter Books, a prominent Canadian book publisher who has been publishing approximately 100 new titles each year, “announced it would temporarily suspend publishing operations.” Another midsize publisher bites the dust. Among its better-known authors are Conrad Black and Margaret Atwood.

Although Key Porter is a Canadian publisher, what I wonder about is why such a previously successful midtier book publisher, especially one whose local competition is minimal compared to the U.S. marketplace, suddenly faced problems sufficiently grave to warrant 100% production stoppage rather than, say, scaling back? Let me state upfront that I have nothing more than personal speculation as to the causes. I also wonder whether this is the first of many major midtier publishers who will bite the dust in 2011, both in Canada and the United States. Now for my speculation, which is more broadly geared to publishing than to Key Porter.

First up is Kobo Books, the worldwide, Canadian-based ebooktailer. Not that Kobo Books isn’t making ebooks available but that it is expanding its geographic reach instead of first addressing the failures of its online ebookstore. To my way of thinking there are two major failures that Kobo needs to address immediately.

Failure one is the inability to order more than 1 ebook at a time. What a pain it is to want to buy 3 books and to have to place 3 separate orders. Neither Amazon nor Sony nor Barnes & Noble work this way. With these ebooktailers, you load up your cart and pay once. Considering that many of the more popular ebooks are agency priced, there is no advantage to buying from Kobo over buying from, for example, Sony.

Failure two is the way one gets the ebooks one has purchased. Kobo (and in this Kobo is not alone) first downloads a file that is a link to the real ebook file. I know this is an Adobe-induced problem, but Kobo (and others like Books On Board) need to gang up on Adobe and say this is unacceptable. I should be able to download directly the ePub file.

As the primary purveyor of Canadian ebooks, Kobo needs to do a significantly better job of obtaining and retaining customers. As probably the most geographically diverse ebooktailer (along with Amazon), Kobo needs to pay more attention to the shopping experience — I would think that every ebooktailer would want a customer to buy many ebooks, not just 1 ebook, so why is Kobo discouraging multiple purchases?

Second up is the erroneous belief that self-publishing is the way to succeed in today’s changing book marketplace. We are repeatedly told of the success that authors like J.A. Konrath are having by self-publishing — Konrath boasts (and provides the statistics to support the boasts) on his blog and in interviews about how much more money he is making than when he was represented by a traditional publishing house — but the one thing missing in the telling of these stories, or if not missing simply mentioned but not emphasized, is that these highly successful authors built a following through the traditional process so that when they decided to go the self-publishing route, they had a fan base to drag along. Konrath and the other former-traditionally-published-but-now-self-published-who-are-financially-succeeding authors do not come to grips with having to start with a zero fan base. It is easier to succeed if you are already successful.

images.jpgThose who promote self-publishing as the way to go ignore several salient factors, not least of which is that ebooks constitute only 9% of the current market (although that percentage is growing yearly) and that a significant portion of that 9% are romance, erotica, and sci-fi/fantasy books. I don’t know this for fact, but I would bet that if you remove those 3 genres from the calculation that the market share for all other genres is less than 4% — a tiny portion of the overall book market.

Combine the relatively small market share with the high volume of self-publishing that is occurring (Smashwords, e.g., notes that it has “published” more than 1 billion words as of November 2010; I say “published” because Smashwords is really a distributor of self-published and small press ebooks, not a traditional publisher in the sense of “published”) and how do you find financial success? It’s not impossible, but it is mighty difficult. And how do you reach the rest of the market so you can build a fan base?

Kobo Books is important because it is currently the only major ebooktailer with global reach other than Amazon. But unless Kobo Books improves the shopping experience, it is more of a drag than anything else on ebook sales for midtier and small publishing houses, sales that could be the difference between being in business and biting the dust. And if small and midtier publishers do not find a way to combat the rush by better authors to self-publishing, what currently is just a small cloud of dust will become a dust storm of publishers going out of business. That will not be good for anyone — authors will have increased difficulty earning a living from their writing and readers will have increased difficulty in finding good books to read.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. I agree with you on the Kobo ebookstore. While selling books one at a time allows them to restrict the use of coupons – and I hope encourages them to give more coupons – I like to buy all my books and check out once.
    The other thing that bugs me is that I can’t seem to search by ISBN. That’s the only unique identifier for ebooks. Searching on title or author seems to return a standard 500 responses.
    I would like to see the same as Amazon – a one click buy that allows me to quickly buy one book at a time – and an ability to put books in my cart and buy once.


  2. For me the Kobo shopping experience needs to be improved in 2 main areas. The shopping cart is obviously one. If there are multiple books that I want to purchase, and they are available for me to purchase elsewhere the I will do so. As a purchaser from New Zealand, the other improvement required is Kobo actually having content available for me to purchase. Geographical restrictions mean that content available for purchase from New Zealand is extremely limited. Having said that there have been previously restricted ebooks become available that I have been able to purchase elsewhere and which are still unavailable at Kobo’s New Zealand shopfront. Having bought over 100 books from Kobo since April 2010, Kobo have missed out on just as many sales due to a lack of shopping cart and ebooks being available elsewhere but not at Kobo. Geographical restrictions have meant an additional 100+ sales being lost as I have borrowed the library books and won’t bother purchasing the eBook if it eventually becomes available.

  3. I’ve never seen a post anywhere, by anyone, pointing out that Kobo’s ebooks are a second-rate product. Amazing! Everyone is praising their expansion and market potential, but I am amazed at the fact that none of the Kobo free titles (or samples of $$ books) have justified margins. If I’m going to pay the price of a book, the product should at least look like one ! Colour me an unimpressed Canadian Kindler…

  4. I read this site pretty much every day and it would be a bad idea to bring politics into it. This is one of the few apolitical sites I visit and since I generally don’t visit those that profess politics I disagree with (yes I like my bias) I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll lose me as a reader.

    That said, I really don’t see what there is to gain by going that route.

  5. “Neither Amazon nor Sony nor Barnes & Noble work this way. With these ebooktailers, you load up your cart and pay once.”

    Wrong. Both Amazon & B&N work the same way as Kobo. Sony’s the only one mentioned that has a cart, unfortunately you have to go through their software to buy anything instead of just using a website.

    Kobo’s biggest problem is their customer service (or lack there of). We bought six books from them in September and all of them have some words run together and all italics missing among other things. Emails to the publisher resulted in them sending Kobo updated files twice, even though the books are fine on their end, which Kobo still has not changed out on their servers. Kobo support, and also their VP of content, has known about this issue for months with promises to ‘look into it’ and get things fixed yet they still haven’t and further more are still offering these titles for sale. The only resolution I’ve been offered so far is a refund, which is all well and good, but I’m more interested in having them fix the problem (and hopefully get themselves better at fixing things for the future) than getting a refund for a few books that didn’t cost much. Samples of these titles from other retailers show that the problem is specific to Kobo.

  6. “these highly successful authors built a following through the traditional process so that when they decided to go the self-publishing route, they had a fan base to drag along”

    Not all of them, not even close. Just this week, Konrath tackles this very myth. He highlights more than 20 successful self-published writers, only 5 of whom were ever tradtionally published.

  7. The good news about ePublishing is that anyone can be bought. The bad news is that, in many ways, it’s even harder to be discovered. With the major eBook vendors, success breeds success. Making the best-seller’s list ensures high visibility. A few years ago, my books regularly hit the Fictionwise and Mobipocket lists, but it’s harder now, with the big boys playing hardball.

    As far as self-publishing goes, I think it’s like a lot of things…the guys who staked out the early position as leaders have a huge advantage. Consider Konrath. He’s better known for self-publishing than for what he self-publishes. I think that says a lot…not that it hasn’t been working for him.

    Publishers have always gone under and eBook invasion or not, this is a tough time for the business. I would not be surprised if we see more losses from the list of those without deep pockets. Especially those who try to compete with the big boys directly (which is one reason the erotica publishers tend to do better–they go where the big boys are afraid to go for fear they’ll be booted from Wal-Mart).

    Rob Preece

  8. As the article on 7th January “A new kind of hello, by Brian O’Leary” said in it’s header, one of the biggest challenges facing eBook titles as the eBook market matures is how to be found by readers. How will titles get found and how will readers find them.
    Clearly Amazon will remain an enormous vault of titles and only a tiny number of chosen titles, mainly chosen by Amazon, will be visible to the vast majority of site visitors. The same applies to all of the other major eBook sellers.
    What the solution might be has been discussed at length here previously and will definitely involve a lot more work by authors in communicating with readers and will also involve social reading communities, specialist genres eBook sellers and recommendation sites of varied styles. I can see a near future where readers have MAJOr problems finding the right books and real opportunities for new ventures aimed at solving that problem.

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