An Open Letter to Rakuten Kobo

I read, and I write. Recently, I “officially” became a Rakuten Kobo customer by purchasing a Kobo Glo HD. I’ve had my own books listed for sale through Kobo for years (to little effect), but I never felt compelled to use the Kobo reading platform myself. Kindle, yes. Free books to sideload into an e-reading environment, yes. Paperbacks and hardcovers, of course. But not Kobo — not until I decided the Glo HD was the e-ink reader to get.

Part of this decision to become a reader on the Kobo platform was pragmatic. It’s not that the platform became more compelling, but if I buy a book through Kobo, I don’t have to think about adding it to my device. It’s added to my account and onto my device with little thought or effort. I could buy books elsewhere and sideload them onto my Kobo reader, but that takes time, effort, etc. If the price is the same — which I apparently can’t take for granted — then I might as well buy it from Kobo.

Part of the decision, however, was to try to understand why Kobo moves so few copies of my books, and why other, more successful writers also comment on poor or absent sales, and why the Kobo market share is so small. I’d like to reach new readers through Kobo, and I was curious. Is there something about Kobo itself that is hurting Kobo in the marketplace?

Oh, yes. What I’ve discovered in the short time since I ordered my Glo HD has been highly discouraging.

Competition

As I’ve told others, it’s like Rakuten isn’t even trying. Or they’re trying to fail. And I really want there to be healthy competition in the e-book marketplace, which means I really don’t want Kobo to fail. If this letter somehow makes it in front of somebody in Rakuten who can make a difference, we all might benefit from the changes that may result.

As a quick side note, I like Kobo’s system for setting up books for sale as an indie writer. It’s reasonably easy to use, and they allow setting the price to “free” (something Amazon woefully lacks). But competing in the marketplace means satisfying readers first and indie writers a distant second (or third, or…).

To rapidly grow their market presence and give Amazon some real competition, Kobo needs to make a number of changes that I will outline below. Some of them are “low-hanging fruit” — changes that might take less than $500 of developer time and should essentially be done immediately. Others are more fundamental, but potentially higher costs will translate to much greater gains.

The Easy Steps

Stop using Shopify to sell Kobo devices. Rakuten already has an e-commerce platform. I should be able to buy a Rakuten Kobo Glo HD from Rakuten on Rakuten.com… but I can’t. I have to buy it through a separate e-commerce platform that is apparently powered by Shopify (a separate company). This is crazy. List all current devices on Rakuten.com, redirect device links on Kobo.com to Rakuten.com, and get it all in-house! This might need more expensive refinement later, but from a customer’s perspective even a rough integration will be better than the current purchasing process through a disconnected site.

Stop returning irrelevant search results after the relevant ones. It’s informational clutter and potentially confusing. If you click the “my own books” link above, you should go to a listing of my books, i.e., search results for my name in the author field. The first results in the list match, but then other books are included in the results that do not match the search. This does not help me as a reader to find the books I wanted. If I want to search for something else, I will do that. Don’t “guess” what else I might be looking for when I have specified exactly what I want.

Stop wasting screen space on book product pages with huge margins and padding. Right now there is so much empty screen space, it looks like a statement from Kobo that “we don’t have much here.” If you want me to buy more, entice me a little. Blank screen space does not encourage me to look around and find other things to buy.

If you tell the customer that you will send something, deliver it as expected. When I ordered my e-reader, the system told me I would get a shipping confirmation when my order shipped. The reader itself arrived within the originally-estimated timeframe, but I was in the dark about my order until it did, because the shipping confirmation was not sent. Until later. Yes, I finally got word that my order was shipped… almost a week after it was delivered. If this is a problem with your third party vendor (which you shouldn’t be using… see above), make them fix it.

Expand social sharing from the Kobo platform to go beyond Facebook. At the very least, add support for sharing through Twitter. There is more that could be done with this, but having it limited to Facebook prevents the use of this feature for those of us who do not use Facebook at all, or only use it minimally “under protest.”

Don’t force existing customers to enter their date of birth just to add the personalization of their first and last name. My birthdate wasn’t needed to start downloading books, so it shouldn’t be needed just to have the site greet me with my name.

Rewrite the FAQ for buying e-readers to focus on realistic questions. I doubt there are frequent questions about what PayPal is, and circular statements like “PayPal account is an email address which is associated with your PayPal account” add no value.

Clarify the “getting started” documentation provided with the device. The computer will not recognize that the reader has been connected if the setup process has not been completed, but this is not obvious. At first I was concerned that there was something wrong. After completing the setup process, I disconnected the device and connected it again, and Windows finally “saw” it. This uncertainty could have been avoided with one added sentence in the printed documentation.

In the Pocket integration, allow users to set a default that “delete” includes “delete from account.” That extra step to check the “account” checkbox is not bad once or twice, but after many repetitions it becomes annoying and time-wasting.

Add a label to the UI for writing a book review that specifies the maximum length of the Review Title. Users posting reviews are doing you a huge favor. Don’t add friction by allowing someone to enter a review and only find out they’ve gone over the limit when they try to submit it and get an error message.

Please don’t use “on-ramp to the information superhighway” to describe the browser on the device. Please. That’s so outdated it’s almost embarrassing to see.

The Harder Steps

The hardest but most important step of all is simply this: Stop using Kobo-branded Web sites and integrate sales of e-books into Rakuten.com. The Kobo brand can live on to identify the device line and the e-book “ecosystem,” but it should not be a destination on the Web. When you go to kindle.com you’re redirected to Amazon. When you go to kobo.com (or kobobooks.com) you should be — but currently are not — redirected to Rakuten.com, ideally to a landing page introducing the device/e-book ecosystem.

This is fundamental to competing with Amazon. At the same time that you buy an e-book from Amazon, you might buy a pair of shoes, or a computer, or toys, or food, or other things. When you buy an e-book from Rakuten Kobo, you can only buy more e-books. But, Rakuten.com sells shoes and computers and toys and food and so forth. By not having retail shopping integrated in one site, Rakuten is throwing away the ability to sell shoes and more to e-book buyers, and to sell e-books to those shopping for shoes and more.

If Kobo ceases to exist as its own destination on the Web, Rakuten can also solve a major branding problem. Right now, if I say “I bought a Kindle” people will understand that I bought a Kindle from Amazon, and they might ask which model I chose. But if I say “I bought a Kobo” it sounds odd, like I could be referring to the company/service rather than a device, or maybe a book. Ambiguity is not good for branding. I end up with awkward phrasing that erodes word-of-mouth promotion. Look at how many times in this letter I refer to my “device” or “e-reader” or “Glo HD” instead of “my Kobo.” It makes a difference. I’d like to be able to say “I bought a Kobo” and have people understand that I bought a Kobo from Rakuten, after which they might ask which model I chose. Right now it’s clumsy, and clumsy word-of-mouth hurts the platform.

If the above step is not taken, integrate Kobo device sales into the Kobo e-book site, so that a customer’s Kobo account shows all of their Kobo purchases. Currently when you order a device, it is not associated with any account and there is no self-service way to check on your order status; you must contact Kobo support, which is a time-wasting approach for all concerned. This feels like Web commerce in the 1990s.

Develop a better affiliate program. Rakuten LinkShare is… awful. I tried to use it, but having been an Amazon Associate for years I just couldn’t tolerate the primitive interface, poor usability, and weak linking options in LinkShare. I gave up. There are things I dislike about Amazon’s program, but it outclasses Rakuten in this area so much that it’s hard to even make a comparison. (I can’t get into specific details because of confidentiality requirements.) The one good thing I can say is that the Kobo affiliate program is at least in-house with Rakuten. But if LinkShare is where that program needs to be, the LinkShare team needs to get down to brass tacks and build something competitive.

Summary

Rakuten acquired Kobo years ago. It has had time to make solid improvements and to position the Kobo platform to compete more strongly against the Kindle platform. To the detriment of Rakuten and authors alike, fundamental concerns still plague Rakuten Kobo.

This letter is not meant to bash Rakuten Kobo. It is meant to highlight areas where Rakuten can and should improve the Kobo platform. I wrote above that I don’t want Kobo to fail. I want Kobo to succeed. I don’t want it to race the NOOK platform for a distant second place, but to strive for first place, even if it never gets there. But I’m not in power; I’m on the outside. It’s up to Rakuten to make it happen.