Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 21 October 2011

E-Reader War Steps Up

Hot on the tail of Amazon's announcements regarding the Kindle light and the Kindle Fire, Kobo are positioning for a major slice of the UK market.  They've teamed up with WH Smith to launch two models aggressively priced just before the Christmas rush and critically ahead of Amazon's release.  In the US they've also announced a tablet that will go head to head with the Fire, and again they're beating Amazon to the starting post.

Those of you from the UK will understand the importance of the WH Smith link up, but I appreciate that a significant number of the readers of this blog are from outside of the UK, so I'll try to put them into perspective (although apologies to my Russian, Far Eastern and Indian readers, amongst others, for not finding local stores to compare them with).

WH Smith are a UK institution, much in the same way as Woolworths used to be.  Their core day-to-day business is ostensibly as a newsagent, selling newspapers and magazines.  However it's many years since they've restricted themselves to those products and as long as I can remember they've been a popular port of call for the sale of books - not to the scale of, say, Waterstones but for popular titles -absolutely a safe bet.  Add to that paper, printing supplies, CDs, calendars, pens, games, toys, small electronic devices (my first pocket calculator, in 1976, was bought in Smiths, as they are affectionately known) and you will get the idea.

The main thing about WH Smiths, though, is that they are a safe bet in the eyes of the British public, a place you know you can do all your Christmas shopping in if you've reached Christmas Eve, haven't got a clue what to buy, have a flexible credit balance and don't expect to buy extra special presents.  The closest I can get to WH Smiths to US retailers is to cross Target with Barnes & Noble.

Trust me, WH Smith is an institution in the UK and it's significant that they have aligned with Kobo, effectively shunning Amazon, possibly to differentiate itself from the bulk of e-reader sellers in the UK now who are plumping for the Kindle.

They are currently offfering two e-readers.  There is the Wireless eReader, aggressively priced at £90 to compete directly with Amazon's cut down device.  The specification looks similar to Amazon's in size and capabilty with one notable exception - it has an expandable memory (up to 32 GB SD cards can be  used with it)

 The 6" screen and small factor body makes it suitable to slip into a pocket and take anywhere, is the claim being made for this device.  But for not a lot more cash they are offering a more advanced device, the Kobo touch, priced at £110.

This comes in four different colours and has what Kobo are claiming to be an intuitive touch screen with three different ways of viewing the book covers.  Anyone who uses a Kindle will be used the frustration of searching through the book titles to find a specific book - there's a place for everything and book covers are meant to be seen in the e-reader, not just in the sales pitch.  Admittedly the screen is still monochrome but it looks like Smiths are sweetening that pill by making the price so affordable.

But they still have an uphill struggle to take on Amazon.  For one, Amazon have established themselves pretty much as the de-facto e-reader in the public imagination.  I never get asked which e-reader I'm usiing, just 'is that one of them Kindles?'  The relentless advertising campaign all year long coupled with Amazon's superb whispersync and backed up by their canny free distribution of Kindle apps for PC, Mac, iPhone, Android, etc has firmly established their product front and centre of the public imagination.

However, WH Smith have two main weapons, outside of their aggressive pricing.  First, they're Smiths, right?  Remember what I said about a safe pair of hands above?  Second, they claim they've invested a huge amount in training staff to demonstrate the Kobo in their 750 stores across the country, backed up by a planned advertising and media blitz.  This shouldn't be underestimated - the potential e-reader market in the UK are currently sat firmly on the fence or stood resolutely on the wrong side, swearing blind they'd never trade their tree books for e-ink.  This could be the push that knocks the fence sitters onto the e-book side and lifts the naysayers onto the fence.  Amazon can't compete on the shop floor with Smiths approach as they are essentially a distance seller.

There's actually a third advantage.  Kobo have access to 2.2 million eBooks in its catalogue.  That's a stunning amount.  They've linked up with Smashwords and are in the process of transferring the Smashwords premium catalogue across - I have Parallel Lives listed there right now and expect my other three books to be ported in a week or so.  For British authors, this is the equivelant of how being listed on Barnes & Noble should be to US authors.  It's a deal, a big deal.  I for one will be trawling back through my old blogs to add the WH Smith link, just because I know for many readers it will be the port of first choice.

Over in the US, Kobo (a Canadian company, BTW) is about to launch a tablet, the Vox.

It's full colour, runs on Android (but doesn't have access to Android market, so some limitations) and is looking at giving the Fire a run for its money.  Because it is an Android device I can't see any reason why users couldn't run the Kindle app to read existing Kindle books in their library as well as accessing the Kobo archives.  It is being pitched at just under $200 in the US, which in a sane world would equate to about £130 this side of the pond, but I'll reserve judgement until I see it released over here.  Exchange rates seem to have a habit of becoming less relevant in this industry.  A 1:1 ratio seems to predominate!

I'm sure Amazon won't sit back and watch its market share stolen from under its nose, so I'm expecting a bit of a price war any time soon.  How many shopping days to Christmas?

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Now on WH Smith!

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