Case study: Working with Kobo to merchandise ebooks

Kobo store logoKobo provides an interesting contrast to Amazon. While it has a relatively small presence in the US market, it is a key player in many international markets and sells into almost every country. It differs from most of its major competitors in another respect: It focuses solely on ebooks.

Kobo’s approach is typically to partner with booksellers and retailers, and to put local merchandising and support teams into key markets to service publishers. So while its algorithms and online tools are often less sophisticated or accessible than Amazon’s, it does a better job in many respects providing direct publisher access.

Indeed, Kobo’s own roots were in traditional bookselling with Canada’s leading chain, Indigo, and its approach to online merchandising borrows a lot from traditional bookselling. (Kobo is now owned by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten.)

How Kobo works with publishers to merchandise their titles

The following Q&A with Kobo’s Australian-based merchandiser Elizabeth Hilborn gives a glimpse of the way Kobo works at a local and regional level with publishers and authors.

In what ways does Kobo help publishers to make their ebooks more visible in the Kobo store?

Here are some examples:

Kobobooks home screen

Kobobooks home screen showing some promotional positions (click to enlarge image)

  • Free services: Kobo helps publishers make their books more visible by positioning them in our curated lists on site or featuring them in our category stores and emails to our customers. This is based on the discretion of the merchandiser for that territory.
  • Paid services: On a rotating basis, Kobo runs publisher supported discount offers. Publishers can also pay for certain placement (akin to co-op in a bookstore), though the options are limited to what we can provide or build on site.

We receive many new books every month, so it’s difficult to feature them all prominently. If a publisher has a specific book they want featured, they can contact a merchandiser and we can have a discussion as to where it would best fit on site. If the publisher is interested in doing a price promotion, for example a hot price on a title for a week or so, that can usually get a book good placement on site or in an email and can help generate sales.

Our emails often coincide with the rotators you see on site and are planned three weeks in advance, so the more notice about a price promotion, the better. If a publisher is also willing to develop a strong marketing campaign around a title (this is usually found in larger publishers), that can also help to get the book good placement on site.

Another important and often forgotten aspect is cover design. Books with good covers have an easier time being featured because customers respond more favorably to them. I find that often publishers forget the importance of a good cover, especially in e-format.

Pricing (outside of promo pricing) is also very important. It’s difficult to feature books that are very expensive, as well as books that are very cheap. Competitive pricing is best.

In Australia, for instance, the best range for cheap is $2.99-4.99. A price of $6.99 is still considered by some to be cheap, but I see better performance from the $4.99 and under titles. For the high priced books, I like to see a price point cap at $16.99. I often see books at $19.99 which is higher than I’d like. Anything above (and including that) can be very expensive for an eBook.

If the author is unknown, then the cheaper the price, the more accessible your book is. But if you go too cheap, you run the risk of devaluing your product (and not making any money).

How do Kobo’s services differ for publishers based on size?

At Kobo, we keep relationships with all publishers, and do what we can for each, no matter the size. That being said, we have closer relationships with larger publishers and are in more frequent contact with the larger scale publishers solely because their catalogs are more extensive and they have more books released each month. Those relationships require more communication because there are more books and more promotions to keep track of.

In a typical week I speak to several publishers on the phone, but in certain territories these is even more communication. I do also remain in contact with smaller scale publishers and independents, whether it be through monthly meetings or email correspondence. It’s not so much that publishers are treated differently based on their size, but more so that there are more books for us to sell. I personally try to give space to the best books, no matter where they come from.

At any point a publisher can contact me with a query or request and I’ll do my very best to tend to their needs. Usually I am able to act quickly, but there are monthly tasks that need to be taken care of that concern larger scale publishers, so at times those responsibilities take priority. Also, we tend to base placement of books on author recognition or popularity, as well as the marketing actions of the publisher, and unfortunately recognizable authors with strong marketing campaigns can usually only be found with larger publishers.

As for self-publishers, Kobo currently has our own self-publishing platform called Kobo Writing Life, and most of our self-publishers are filtered through that platform.

What options are there for authors to support their publishers on Kobo, eg Author pages, Pulse, links to Goodreads author pages?

Though Kobo does not currently support author pages, if an author or publisher should choose, when uploading a title (and this is certainly popular for self-pubs), there is an option to link the title to the book’s Goodreads page. That way all the reviews filter through onto our site. Books are also currently searchable by publisher on our site as well. On a given product page, the publisher name will be a highlighted link that you can click through for more search results.

How are Bestseller lists calculated?

Unfortunately I’m not at liberty to divulge that information. How we calculate our bestsellers and where we get our information that populates our lists on site isn’t something we openly discuss.

Now that you have self-publishing platform Kobo Writing Life, how large would a publisher typically be to benefit from a direct relationship with Kobo’s merchandising team?

It depends on what your opinion of large is. I would say that our relationship with self-published authors has deepened since Kobo Writing Life was introduced. We’ve met with a few users of the platform to discuss strategy and their titles since the launch, and now have a dedicated merchandiser in charge of KWL titles, whereas before the launch we did not.

If you’re going to be using the KWL platform, I would suggesting forming a direct relationship with the KWL merchandiser, because they will be best able to help you get your books placement. If you won’t be using the KWL platform, then there’s no harm in reaching out to the merchandising team.

The larger the publisher, the more options we have and the more we can do for you, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a place to put your book. We’re in the business of selling books and though we will prominently feature the ones that sell the best. We are booklovers too, and want your book to find its readers. Besides, you never know where the next hit might come from.

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