With all of the turmoil in the library ebook market, I wanted to check in on the direct sales front. The companies generally thought of as the three biggest ebook retailers in North America—Amazon’s Kindle product line, Barnes & Noble and its NOOK products, and Rakuten Kobo, which only deals in econtent and devices—have stayed relatively quiet this year as far as big innovations go, but each has released at least one new e-reader, and each has made efforts to connect with authors and readers.
Amazon is near-constantly churning out press releases; with so many businesses to run, it’s inevitable. Among the announcements from Amazon Web Services and Amazon Studios and Amazon Video and Amazon Echo (and so on and so on), the company does manage to do plenty with its ebook-related initiatives. Here is a sampling from the past year.
The Amazon Publishing umbrella of various imprints produces print books, ebooks for Kindle, and audiobooks for Audible (so basically, it sells books on Amazon platforms). On Jan. 25, it launched a new imprint, Amazon Crossing Kids, for English-language translations of global children’s picture books. Amazon promoted another imprint, the digital- and audio-only Amazon Original Stories, when it announced a sci-fi short-story collection from bestselling authors—including Veronica Roth, Amor Towles, and Andy Weir—on April 16.
More good news for Amazon Original Stories: Mindy Kaling will unveil her newest essay collection in summer 2020. Prime members can access the ebook or audiobook for free. (And she’ll narrate the audiobook.) This press release, from May 28, was timed perfectly to promote Kaling’s Amazon Studios movie, Late Night, opening the next week.
On July 22, Dean Koontz signed a five-book deal with Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Koontz got in a bit of a dig at traditional publishing houses in the press release: “Although there were numerous options for the future, it was most natural to sign with the team at Amazon Publishing, which presented a marketing and publicity plan smarter and more ambitious than anything I’d ever seen before. … The times are changing, and it’s invigorating to be where change is understood and embraced.”
Another big get for Amazon was Guillermo del Toro, who signed with Amazon Original Stories to publish his first short-story collection, planned for 2021. The press release, from Sept. 24, notes that it will “introduce a world of strange happenings, otherworldly horror, and dark fantasy.”
Amazon is always touting updates to Kindle devices and services. The following are press releases sharing various enhancements:
- On March 20, Amazon announced preorder availability for a new Kindle, the first one with a front light (that lets readers adjust brightness) and costing less than $100. It has a new design (in black or white) and the latest e-ink technology, and it comes with 3 months of Kindle Unlimited for free.
- On May 15, Kindle Lite launched in Kenya. This free reading app is designed for Android smartphones with limited storage (it’s only 2MB) that run on slower networks (such as 2G or 3G). The app provides a collection of more than 5 million ebooks, with thousands of them free.
- On May 16, the next generation of the Fire 7 tablet went up for preorder. It has a faster processor, 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, and hands-free Alexa access. Available colors are black, sage, plum, or twilight blue. The battery lasts for up to 7 hours of reading, listening to music, watching TV shows or movie Fire 7 Kids Edition.
- On May 23, Amazon introduced support for Traditional Chinese books on Kindle. More than 20,000 Traditional Chinese-language ebooks—including Chinese bestsellers, translated bestsellers from other countries, and classics—became available on the Kindle app and on Kindle devices. Readers can see custom fonts and can search in Traditional Chinese on their devices. The app allows readers to display menu options in Traditional Chinese.
- On Oct. 7, Amazon announced a new Kindle Kids Edition, the Fire HD 10 Kids Edition, and the FreeTime app for the Fire TV Stick. The Kindle Kids Edition is its first dedicated reading experience built for children, with a kid-proof case. The Fire HD 10 Kids Edition has faster performance, a longer battery life, and a faster charging time (and that kid-proof case). FreeTime Unlimited on Fire TV devices provides thousands of children’s TV shows and movies, with parental controls (age filters, bedtime settings, etc.).
- Also on Oct. 7, Amazon launched preorders for the next-generation Fire HD 10. It has a 10.1" 1080p display, a faster processor, 12 hours of mixed-use battery life, 32GB or 64GB of internal storage (plus a microSD slot for the option of additional storage), picture-in-picture capability, and more. Color choices are plum, twilight blue, black, and white. The picture-in-picture option works with various video platforms—including Prime Video, Netflix, STARZ, and Twitch—so readers can watch content while also browsing the web or accessing other apps.
Prime Day Deals
In addition to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Amazon’s own shopping holiday, Prime Day, is held in the summer (this year, July 15–16). It had no less than four press releases dedicated to it in 2019. On June 25, Amazon called it “a two-day parade of epic deals” (more than 1 million globally). On July 2, Amazon advertised the deals available in collaboration with celebrities, including Kristen Bell, Kobe Bryant, Zac Brown, and Will and Jaden Smith. But neither announcement mentioned any deals for ebooks, e-readers, or audiobooks. In the midst of Prime Day(s), on July 16, Amazon shared a list of discounts, which did include $20 off the new Fire 7 tablet, $40 off the new Fire 7 Kids Edition tablet, and a savings of up to $50 on the Kindle Paperwhite.
When the dust settled, Amazon announced on July 17 that Prime members from around the world had bought more than 175 million items. And Amazon sold more than the previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. It shared the following summary relating to ebooks:
- This was the best Prime Day ever for Fire tablets, with Fire 7 tablet as the top-seller. This was also the best Prime Day ever for Kindle devices.
- Customers purchased hundreds of thousands of Amazon kids’ devices this Prime Day, such as Echo Dot Kids Edition, Fire 7 Kids Edition tablet, and Fire HD 8 Kids Edition tablet.
Prime Day was started to celebrate Amazon’s anniversary. And yet, the company that began as an online bookstore didn’t really have any good deals on books or ebooks (or at least, it didn’t promote them) during its celebration. Go figure.
Barnes & Noble
B&N’s biggest news this year was its acquisition by Elliott Advisors (UK) Ltd. on Aug. 7. Curiously, there was no mention of the NOOK business in the press release; it was focused solely on physical bookselling, stating that Elliott will address “the significant challenges facing the bricks and mortar book retail space in the United States, applying a model that successfully turned around Waterstones over the past decade.” In fact, the lack of attention to the NOOK was a common occurrence.
The Barnes & Noble Book Club
The Barnes & Noble Book Club moved from quarterly to monthly meetings in 2019. The company selects a new title each month for a book discussion designed to bring readers into stores across the U.S. at a prearranged time, with 2019 slots going to books such as The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Exclusive Book Club Editions of each title are for sale. These books are also available to purchase from the NOOK platform, but the press releases don’t mention that—they only mention the print books’ availability in-store.
More news that lacks promotion for the NOOK was the introduction of the 28th Annual Discover Awards for emerging authors. Six finalists were announced on Jan. 29, competing in the categories of fiction and nonfiction and judged by a panel of selected authors. However, the press release announcing the winners does make a point to say that “[b]ooks by the finalists and judges can be … downloaded on any NOOK eReader or tablet.” The first-place winners—Paul Howarth (for the fictional Only Killers and Thieves) and Kiese Laymon (for the memoir Heavy)—each got a $30,000 prize and a full year of marketing and merchandizing support from B&N.
The company did release one new e-reader, on May 23: the NOOK GlowLight Plus, which has its largest e-ink screen yet and is waterproof, with a 7.8" screen. It features 8GB of storage, B&N’s “glowlight” technology for nighttime reading, page-turn buttons, and a soft-touch finish for easy gripping.
Educator Appreciation Days
B&N had Educator Appreciation Days several times this year, with NOOK discounts as part of the special offers. On weekends in January, pre-K–12 public, private, and homeschool teachers and administrators could get 10% off select NOOK products, including certain tablets. On April weekends, B&N offered 10% off several NOOK tablets (after an instant rebate) and the NOOK GlowLight 3. Back-to-School Educator Appreciation Days ran weekends from July 20 to Sept. 15, with 10% off a list of tablets (after instant rebate) in addition to NOOK GlowLight 3 and NOOK GlowLight Plus.
B&N announced various other promotions throughout the year focused on print books. For example, the second national #bookhaul Blowout from Feb. 27 to March 4, took 50% off select new releases, bestsellers, paperbacks, and children’s books in stores and online. No discounts for ebooks in sight.
A Mother’s Day gift guide from April 10 does devote space to the NOOK GlowLight 3, saying, “Get Mom a new NOOK to read her favorite books at any time, anywhere, with seamless day-to-night reading with Night Mode.” On May 1, B&N launched a national monthly YA book club to complement the adult version, with special editions and discounts on debut YA print titles. On May 14, it announced its Summer Reading Program, with discounts on what are most likely print titles, since ebooks aren’t mentioned.
This press release is a missed opportunity to plug or offer sales on its line of e-readers, which do not cause the same types of issues after extended reading periods that tablets and phones do: “Put Down the Phone, Pick Up a Book: Most Readers Plan to Break the Electronics Habit and Focus on Reading This Summer, New Survey Shows.” It even shares that 34% of summer readers use e-readers.
Canadian company Rakuten Kobo didn’t have too much to share this year. Its press releases revolved around three topics: the Emerging Writer Prize, personnel matters, and new initiatives.
The Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
On Jan. 22, submissions opened for the fifth annual Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, which aims to help raise the profile of first-time Canadian authors by identifying exceptional books in the categories of Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction (a different genre each year; for 2019, it was Romance), and Non-Fiction. The winners receive CA$10,000 (about $7,500) in cash as well as marketing and communications support through the end of the contest year. The judges for 2019 were authors Craig Davidson (Literary Fiction), Dale Mayer (Romance), and Michael Harris (Non-Fiction).
On May 1, Rakuten Kobo announced the shortlist: 18 books (six from each category) selected by Rakuten Kobo’s team of booksellers and bibliophiles. Criteria included ebook completion rates, customer ratings, and reviews. The shortlist in the press release linked to each book’s record in the company’s ebookstore.
The winners were unveiled on June 27, with Nora Decter winning for Literary Fiction (with How Far We Go and How Fast), Julie Evelyn Joyce for Romance (Steeped in Love), and Kate Harris for Non-Fiction (Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road).
Rakuten Kobo issued press releases for two new leaders in 2019: On Jan. 30, Pieter Swinkels became chief content officer, and Marianne Hamilton was named CMO.
Swinkels, formerly Rakuten Kobo’s EVP of publisher relations and content, is tasked with growing Kobo’s worldwide content catalog, driving its business relationships, and expanding the Kobo Writing Life self-publishing platform, the Kobo Plus subscription service, and the Kobo Originals program of exclusive content.
Hamilton is responsible for the entire customer journey, from acquisition to sales. Her role encompasses ebooks, audiobooks, and e-readers. Previously Rakuten Kobo’s VP of marketing, she had overseen all marketing functions around the world.
On Sept. 4, Rakuten Kobo launched the Kobo Libra H2O, which features one-handed page-turn buttons; is waterproof; has a 7" HD, e-ink, glare-free screen; comes in black or white; and more. Covers are available in black, gray, rose, and aqua. The device stores 6,000 books, and it displays Rakuten Kobo’s latest reading interface, with enhanced in-text navigation.
In conjunction with the launch, Rakuten Kobo partnered with the Annex Hotel in Toronto to create a Reader in Residence program—Kobo Libra H2Os are permanently installed in all of the rooms, giving guests the option of taking a “reading vacation.”
Rakuten Kobo introduced audiobooks to its Kobo Writing Life platform on Sept. 26. Independent authors can use it to upload ebooks and, in beta, audiobooks, for sale. The new functionality will be an option for all accounts after the beta testing is complete. The initial rollout only included books in English, but additional languages should be available by the end of 2019. Swinkels says, “Our self-publishing platform is now a one-stop shop for authors selling digital content anywhere in the world—no other global service has one dashboard for the easy management of both eBook and audiobook uploads and sales.” He notes that one in four ebooks in North America sold by Rakuten Kobo is self-published.
On Nov. 21, Rakuten Kobo expanded its line of e-readers and accessories into Singapore thanks to a strategic partnership with Ingram Micro, a technology solutions distributor. Singapore residents can purchase them from Rakuten Kobo’s website or at retailers such as Challenger, Courts, and Sprint-Cass.