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How We Read (Is Just as Important as What We Read)

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PUBLISHED MAY 2016

by Michael Tamblyn, President & CEO, Rakuten Kobo


Michael Tamblyn

Is it possible that we—as an industry in 2016—are not in an unusual state of crisis?

Since maybe 2008 or 2009, we have been in a digital great leap forward, a nearly perpetual state of disruption. For years, all kinds of cataclysmic predictions were being made, and we had to adjust to massive changes, with predictions for even more change to come, along with reinventing, remaking, and becoming more agile (and so on).

It all became exhausting, didn’t it? It got to the point where someone would say, “This will mean a total remaking of the book industry as we know it.”

This time, news is about the plateauing of e-books, or as some booksellers might call it, the glorious second coming of print that will cast e-books down into a lake of fire.

Of course, it isn’t actually as bad as that, but we aren’t seeing digital jump 100 percent a year anymore. We are sort of cruising nicely between 20 and 30 percent—more depending on the category you’re in—such as mystery, romance, or erotica featuring shapeshifting wombats—less if you publish children’s books, pop-up books, or books made entirely of artisanal leather and pressed wildflowers.

And being in a bit of a steady state lets us take a breath, doesn’t it? I can tell you what we’re thinking about as a digital retailer. And especially as a digital retailer that isn’t known for plotting the downfall of publishers. And even more as a digital retailer that spends its time thinking about readers and what they want.

"If I take off my retail hat, e-book hat, and device manufacturer hat, and just think of myself as a read, a few ideas come to mind about how we read." - Michael Tamblyn, President & CEO of Rakuten Kobo, Inc.

“If I take off my retail hat, e-book hat, and device manufacturer hat, and just think of myself as a read, a few ideas come to mind about how we read.” – Michael Tamblyn, President & CEO of Rakuten Kobo, Inc.

We think a lot about readers because we have a lot of them. Over 26 million, coming up on 27 million last time we looked. We run stores in 18 countries, sell books in any number of languages, and are the second largest manufacturer of e-readers after You-Know-Who. (Yes, just like Voldemort, even saying its name gives it power). So it means we spend a huge amount of time as booksellers trying to figure out what the reader wants.

We know that there is no one reader; there are lots of different kinds in all shapes and sizes. We segment them and study them. Collect all kinds of data about them. Who they are, how old they are, how they decide to buy, what motivates them—whether it be a voucher, a new book by a favorite author, a multi-buy, an event, a review, the time of year. Every once in a while, we capture one in the wild and bring it back to the lab and study it. We stand around like scientists saying, “Hmm. What does it eat? Why isn’t it moving?”

Kobo is a hardware company and a software company. We sell through our own devices, but also on mobile, tablets, and web. We are a reading, bookselling, and culture business wrapped in a technology business. We transact all of our business through e-commerce, but find our best customers through partnerships with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. We do a huge amount of business with traditional publishers, but also have a thriving self-publishing business.

So when we look at the reader, we have to balance two very different viewpoints. I look at the reader in a completely different way with a customer acquisition hat on than I do with my bookseller hat on or with my e-reader hardware designer hat on.

When I’m thinking about finding new customers, I am trying to fish where the fish are—finding those people who are most excited about reading, most interested in reading, most likely to buy the things they want to read. The same with devices—I have to build a reading device that will be usable, appealing, and interesting to the broadest number of readers.

So we think a lot about what readers want. What is the next book? The next author? The recommendation, acquisition, new category, price point, cover? These questions are the essence of bookselling (and the essence of publishing too).

But stepping back a bit, our real fight right now is not to find the next book. Now books compete against everything else. There are more and more things trying to answer the question: What else could you be doing now? So I suggest that we need to ask a different question: How do we read? What is the quality of that experience, the need that it satisfies? Asking what someone reads determines what fills the time. Asking how determines whether we—those who work in the book publishing industry—are given any time to fill at all.

If I take off my retail hat, e-book hat, and device manufacturer hat, and just think of myself as a reader, a few ideas come to mind about how we read. Here are the five most important ways we want to read:

  1. Easily. We want everything related to reading to be easy, frictionless, even relaxing. What you’re reading doesn’t have to be easy; the book itself can be challenging or not, but whether it’s escape or information, reading is an enjoyable act. Being in a bookstore is a soothing thing. Being in an online bookstore or [using] an e-reader should be as well. Everything that surrounds a book should be easy.
  2. Shamelessly. We want to feel good about what we read. We are finished with guilty pleasures. The great gift of digital reading is the liberation from people being able to judge your book by its cover, no matter whether it’s covered in rocket ships, exploding aircraft carriers, or low-cut bodices. We love what we love and that should be the end of it. And we want to feel good about what we don’t read. Or half-read. Or read three chapters of and then give up on. We’re grown-ups. We want to read shamelessly.
  3. Freely. And I don’t mean in terms of cost. We want time to read. We fight for time. Finding time to read in the midst of this distracting world of work, kids, social media, smartphones, and TV is like trying to wash your hair while sharing a bathtub with live octopi. It can be done, but requires persistence, agility, and great effort. (Did I mention we sell a waterproof e-reader?) We watch our reading time contract when we’re busy with work and kids, suddenly expand on holidays, then shrink back into the slices and bits of time we struggle to find. We want more time to read freely.
  4. + 5. Publicly and Privately. We want to talk about what we are reading, unless we really don’t want to talk about what we are reading. Sometimes you’ll run into someone who says, I’m a social reader. I post everything to Goodreads to enrich my social connections and society as a whole. That person is a liar. It’s like Facebook. You post the photo of the beautiful handmade Christmas card that your five-year-old made you out of glitter and pasta. You don’t post any photos of the same child drawing on your wall with a permanent marker. Books are the same. You post the books that make you look like this intoxicating mix of smart and awesome and sexy. You don’t post that every time your boss gives you an especially hard time at work, you re-read Bridget Jones Diary, which means you have read it 72 times. Or that you alternate one Booker prize winner with 24 paranormal romance novels. (It is not true that either of those are drawn from personal experience.) We want to share and hold back.

Easily, shamelessly, freely, publicly, and privately. Five ways to start answering the question about how we want to read.

We now have four ways to sell a book: brick-and-mortar, print online, audiobook, e-book. And each of them gives us a nearly infinite list of options to answer the question, What should I read next? But as much as all of my retailer instincts are pushing me to focus on what someone wants to read next, I want to spend as much time thinking about how readers want to read. The readers’ wants are so fundamental, so basic, that they sometimes get lost in that drive to sell them the next thing. They are hard to quantify and obstinately resistant to analysis. But if we answer that well, we earn the right to readers’ attention, we elbow out all of the other media that are crowding in, and we get to keep doing what we love to do. And so do readers.


Michael Tamblyn is president and CEO of Rakuten Kobo, Inc. Tamblyn combines a passion for reading with a focus on the hardware and software experiences that impact a customer’s reading life. He speaks internationally on digital media, publishing, and mobile technology.

This article was re-purposed from a digital landscape speech Tamblyn delivered at the Independent Publishers Guild Annual Spring Conference 2016 in the United Kingdom.

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