Kobo has exhibited remarkable stability for a major ebook retailer.
First launched in early 2009 by Canadian bookstore chain Indigo under the name Shortcovers, Kobo survived the demise of American bookstore partner Borders, and was bought by Japanese company Rakuten in 2012. As of 2014, it had expanded to 190 countries and accounted for 20% of international e-reader shipments–second only to Amazon with 55%.
Perhaps more importantly, Kobo has made a habit of scooping up the leftovers when other ebook vendors throw in the towel. In 2014, it acquired Sony’s customers when the electronics chain exited the consumer e-reader business. In January, 2015, it took over UK chain Tesco’s Blinkbox Books subsidiary. In December, 2015 Flipkart ceded its Indian ebook store to Kobo. In May, 2016, Kobo took over UK chain Waterstones’s ebook store. Now it’s set to do the same for UK chain Sainsbury’s, which itself had previously acquired Barnes & Noble’s UK Nook division. Kobo’s customer base has grown with each new company that’s given up.
Whether this strategy came about by design or chance, it seems to have served Kobo well. The company has cemented its position as a solid, if low-key, competitor to Amazon, particularly in its home country of Canada and the international market. More importantly, it hasn’t shown any signs of the shakiness afflicting Barnes & Noble’s Nook business, where the best news to emerge recently was that it lost less money this year.
If Barnes & Noble should finally decide to exit the ebook business altogether, will it cede its Nook customers to Kobo as well? As shaky as it is, Barnes & Noble is nonetheless still one of Amazon’s two biggest competitors. A recent Author Earnings report gave Amazon 74% of the US ebook market, Apple 11%, Barnes & Noble 8%, and Kobo 3%. If Kobo were to absorb B&N’s ebook business, it would nearly quadruple its business, and move up into a tie with Apple for second place. (Though even with such a boost, it would still have only 1/7 the business of Amazon.)
I don’t expect Apple to exit the ebook business any time soon, but on the other hand Apple doesn’t seem to have paid a whole lot of attention to it since it got its hand slapped for the masterminding the agency pricing conspiracy when the iPad launched. It probably just keeps it around because it doesn’t cost all that much, and helps to make Apple’s phone and tablet hardware more attractive for reading.
Kobo seems to be the only major non-Amazon ebook vendor that’s strictly an ebook vendor left. And as long as it keeps plugging along and gobbling up the leftovers when others go under, it seems as though it has good long-term survival prospects. If nothing else, it’s proof that it is still possible to compete with Amazon. It might very well be that given ten or twenty years, Kobo will still be there, a model of longevity and survivability.