Alert! Kobo, one of the world’s largest ebook companies, has launched in South Africa with retail partner Pick ‘n Pay, and will be bringing its touch-screen, black-and-white Kobo Touch eReader to a supermarket near you within weeks.
The Kobo Touch was unveiled at a press conference at Pick ‘n Pay’s flagship William Nicol store in Johannesburg today. “Although ebooks have been here for a while now, we believe this marks the dawn of e-reading in South Africa,” said Kobo’s business development vice-president, Todd Humphrey, who made the trip from North America for the launch.
His is a valid distinction: the Kobo device, backed by a catalogue of some three million ebooks – one million of them free – and synced to a suite of apps available for every smartphone and tablet, offers the first world-class e-reading experience to South Africans for a startup price of less than R1000. Five rand less, to be precise, as was recently advertised in the Sunday newspapers.
Pick ‘n Pay’s general merchandise manager Paula Vieira said that the Kobo Touch would be available in 41 stores within a few days, expanding to 71 within a few weeks. The plan is to offer the device in the majority of the chain’s 600-plus stores within months.
As an eReader, the Kobo Touch is as good as, if not better than, Amazon’s Kindle Keyboard and “baby” Kindle, which currently dominate the SA market (along with Kalahari.com’s Gobii eReader, which, however, is in a lower class of device). Wired magazine rated it the best e-Ink reader of its kind when it was launched in 2011. It’s light, easy to hold, has an attractive “pillow”-textured rear panel that comes in a variety of colours, and only two buttons: the “home” button and the on/off switch. The touchscreen is quite responsive: it’s easy to read with one hand, using one’s thumb to swipe and turn pages, and typing and making notes isn’t too much of a trial.
The device connects to the Kobo eBookstore directly via wi-fi, and connects to a computer, where ebooks can be transferred to and from the device, via USB. Crucially, the Touch is a product of Kobo’s “open platform” philosophy, meaning that it also accepts ebooks from non-Kobo ebook stores – practically every ebook store except Amazon, in fact, including Exclusive Books, Kalahari and Little White Bakkie.
One potential drawback in data-hungry South Africa is the device’s lack of an onboard 3G connection: unlike with the Kindle Keyboard, you can’t connect directly to the ebook store if you’re out of wi-fi range (and 3G on the Kindle is free). It’s also somewhat disappointing that the latest set of Kobo devices – including the marvelous Kobo Mini, which is about the size of a compact mirror – won’t be available in South Africa anytime soon. I had a peek at the latter at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair:
But Kobo is ambitious – Humphrey said the company wants to own 50% of the SA ebook market within one year, directly taking on Amazon, which is the current dominant player – so it’s possible that the next-generation Kobos will land on Pick ‘n Pay shelves earlier than expected. With our eBook market estimated to be approaching some R200 million per year, there’s every incentive for adding new devices to the mix.
(Kobo also has a tablet forthcoming; it will be launched in Canada, the company’s home country, later this year.)
For its part, Pick ‘n Pay receives income not only from sales of devices and accessories (which range in price between R250 and R500), but also from content: for every ebook you purchase via a Kobo device in South Africa, Pick ‘n Pay receives a cut. Critically, ebook prices on the device are shown in rands, so it’s easy to compare across the various retailers.
From an author’s point of view, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the launch of Kobo in our territory – apart from increased sales of local content, of which Kobo has plenty (including over 1000 Afrikaans titles) – is the accompanying Writing Life platform, Kobo’s answer to Apple’s iBooks Author and Amazon’s Kindle Direct self-publishing programmes. If the takeup of devices among local readers is as robust as Kobo hopes it will be, local scribes will see a walking, talking market for local self-published ebooks flourish on a scale like never before.
Back to the topic of local content: Kobo has partnered both with On the Dot and New Holland Publishing SA – respectively, South Africa’s largest local ebook aggregator and our largest local ebook publisher – to bring an ever-expanding range of SA Lit to the platform. In other words, authors, if you’re not on Kobo like Deon Meyer is, it’s time to have a chat with your publisher.
Kobo is owned by Rakuten, the Japanese company known as the “Amazon of the rest of the world”, which acquired it from Canada’s Chapters Indigo books and entertainment chain this time last year. In Japan, the device had a less-than-smooth launch – largely owing, apparently, to the conversions required to adapt it to Japanese content. South Africa presents different challenges to Kobo, but, in this correspondent’s opinion, it’s great to see one of the Big Three ebook retailers taking our market and our content seriously. Perhaps we are, indeed, about to witness a new dawn of e-reading.
Have you got a Kobo Touch eReader? Please tell us about your experience – from picking one up near the juice aisle in Pick ‘n Pay (or online at PnP.co.za) to downloading and reading your first ebook on the device – in the comments section below.