As the eReader battle intensifies, ebook publishers are getting a glimpse into their own future.
Jumping ahead of its biggest competitor, Toronto-based Kobo announced yesterday that it will ship its new color eReader, the Vox, on October 28.
Retailing at $199 and running on Google’s Android 2.3 software, the Vox will be available to consumers over two weeks before the Amazon Fire, which is scheduled to ship on November 15. The Vox was leaked on the Kobo website in late September and was reportedly set to retail at $249.
Like the Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Vox will be seven inches with a color touch-screen. The device will roll out first in the U.S. and Canada but the company recently announced deals with UK publisher W.H. Smith and French book retailing giant FNAC to sell its eReaders; Kobo was not clear about when the Vox would be available outside of the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s our intent to get them there as soon as possible,” said Michael Serbinis, CEO of Kobo, in an interview with Digital Book World.
With 5 million customers, Kobo has fewer users than Amazon’s Kindle, the Nook and Apple’s iPad, yet the arrival of the Vox signals several important trends for publishers.
Books Lead the Way
Books will continue to drive the development of tablets.
Three out of the four major tablets – the Fire, Nook and Vox – were all initially conceived as eReaders, as opposed to the iPad, which is a multi-purpose device, said Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, a Naperville, Ill.-based independent book publisher.
“From a device standpoint, you’re watching devices being driven by book readership,” she said. “Books are so much at the heart of the digital transformation of media – it’s really quite heartening.”
While most iPad users do not use the device exclusively for reading books, each of the other three devices are primarily used as readers with other capabilities “augmenting what is functionally a book environment,” said Raccah.
Kobo developed the Vox with the customer at the center of the process. “We started with that core reader,” said Serbinis.
Raccah also points to the fact that the Vox, like the Fire and Nook, has a seven-inch screen, which is better suited for reading and less well-suited for other tablet capabilities, like Web-browsing.
Color Takes Over
All four tablets are color devices, giving publishers the ability to produce livelier ebooks with images.
“The fact that those three [Amazon, Kobo and Barnes & Noble] have decided that they need to come out with a color version is a testament to the impact the iPad has had on the market,” said Eric Freese, who helps publishers make decisions about how to publish electronically as a solutions architect at Aptara, the Fall Church, Va. digital-content production firm.
While many digital books are already in color and for trade publishers with text-heavy products, color is an afterthought, publishers should keep in mind the ability to use color when developing new products, said Freese.
For publishers of graphic novels, comic books and other color-heavy products, the Vox introduces a new market, added Freese.
“We’ve got the technology that makes that larger page really work within seven inch form factor,” said Serbinis of how comic books would render on the Vox.
Unlike the Fire, which is set to launch in the U.S. in November, the Vox will be launching internationally – in the U.S. and in Canada. Kobo has also inked deals with major retailers in the UK and France to sell its ebooks, and presumably eReaders in the near future. The reach of Kobo and Vox should give publishers the ability to easily develop new readers in other countries.
“If Kobo delivers on the promise of W.H. Smith and FNAC, it’s going to be a valuable addition to the ecosystem,” said Raccah. “This is a vibrant development.”
Kobo, which powered the now-defunct Borders e-bookstore, was able to survive the bankruptcy of the retail chain in part because of its international focus, said Freese.
The social experience is at the center of the Vox. Kobo’s Reading Life allows users to share their reading experience with their friends on Facebook.
“If you look at the amount of time people spend with physical books – shopping for them and reading them – it’s only a small fraction of time people spend on books,” Serbinis said. “They spend more time recommending, sharing and gifting them.”
Since the expansion of Reading Life in September with the launch of Kobo Pulse, an application that tracks engagement of every page of a book by its readers, people are reading 50% more on Kobo’s devices, said Serbinis.
“There have been all sorts of stories written about the future of discovery; it’s changed from the reviews to the social map and we’re right on top of it,” said Serbinis.
The Future Is…Soon
While the Vox is a step toward the future of eReaders (away from e-ink and toward color, touch-screens), it doesn’t support EPUB 3.0, the latest ebook publishing language. No company has yet announced a device that will support the new language, which makes embedding multimedia and other features into ebooks much easier, according to Freese. Still, it’s a step into the future.
“The new tablet-based devices are laying the groundwork to move toward an EPUB 3.0 world,” said Freese. “Not today, but soon you’ll be able to take advantage of multimedia opportunities. We’re still in the first generation of color reading tablet devices. By this time next year there will be some new versions of these readers that will support EPUB 3.0 and other bells and whistles.”
EPUB 3.0 will be available on a Kobo device within three-to-six months, according to Serbinis.
For those few publishers that have not yet entered the digital realm, Freese said that the Vox is only the beginning and that decreases in eReader prices will soon make them as ubiquitous in households as mp3 players.
“EReaders are here, and if you don’t have plans to be doing ebooks, you really need to be thinking about it,” said Freese.