Remember when book-bundling service Shelfie shut down in January, and Kobo stepped in to continue providing access to Shelfie ebooks until the end of February? At the time, I wondered if that might be a precursor to Kobo snapping up Shelfie as it had snapped up the assets of a number of other defunct ebook store operations (including those of Sony, Blinkbox, Flipkart, Waterstones, and Sainsbury’s). Now, as it turns out, the answer is yes.
Publishing Perspectives and The Digital Reader, among others, report that Kobo and Shelfie have officially tied the knot. Kobo will be incorporating Shelfie’s paper-and-ebook bundling and collaborative-filtering recommender technology into its own services, and also hiring on Shelfie’s current staff. It’s not clear whether that includes co-founder and CEO Peter Hudson, though I’ve emailed him to ask about that. But I wouldn’t be surprised—Hudson is extremely knowledgeable about the ebook sales and subscription industry, and would be a fantastic asset to a company like Kobo.
Shelfie allowed print book owners to get a discount on ebook or audiobook editions of those books, so buying favorite works in new formats didn’t feel quite so much like throwing money away on something you already owned. Having tried it myself, I can report that it worked fantastically—so much so, in fact, that I hastened to buy several more bundled ebooks that way before Shelfie finally shut down altogether.
But another feature the company added might have been even more attractive—a way to gain listings of all the titles customers had on their bookshelves, whether they had ebook bundle deals available or not. This meant that the company could use the same sort of collaborative filtering technology Amazon uses to recommend purchases to customers based on other things they already owned—but base those recommendations on books that customers had bought ages ago, from everywhere, not just from Amazon. And all customers had to do to take advantage of it was snap a few pictures of their bookshelves—unlike prior user-fed collaborative filtering services, such as AlexLit, that required their users to enter ratings for dozens or hundreds of books in order to get accurate recommendations for new ones.
The process of proving you owned a print book to qualify for a discount could be a little unwieldy, and required writing your name in the print copy—something some book owners might be loath to do. By contrast, Amazon’s whole domination of the ebook industry is based on making things super-simple for customers—which could well be one of the reasons Shelfie couldn’t stay in business on its own.
But as Nate Hoffelder notes in his The Digital Reader piece, if Kobo is able to broker a deal with its partner print bookstores to provide an automatic free or discounted Kobo ebook when a customer buys a new print book, that could be a fantastic way of competing in areas where Amazon is weak—and giving customers an incentive to go buy that print book somewhere other than Amazon.
In any event, Kobo seems intent on proving that you don’t have to be big and flashy like Amazon to stay in business in the ebook world—you just have to be canny enough to scoop up the right assets when they go on fire sale, and know how to put them together into something greater than the sum of its parts. If it’s able to keep up its low-key pattern of snapping up leftovers when others go under, who knows where Kobo might go from here?