Twenty years ago, few outside the industry could have predicted that the chaotic culture of technology start-ups would meld with the seasons-driven structure of traditional book publishing and retail.
As president and chief content officer of Kobo – and in his previous positions as CEO of BookNet Canada and co-founder of Bookshelf.ca, the country’s first online bookstore – Michael Tamblyn has been at the forefront of digital reading and technology since its scrappy beginnings.
How would you describe Kobo’s early culture? Kobo was really born out of traditional bookselling. It began very much as a skunkworks project buried inside Indigo with a small number of people who came together to answer the question, “What would happen if digital reading became a reality?” At the time, there wasn’t a clear sense of whether it would or not.
It was a small startup, with 15 or 20 people in a disused office space. We were hiring for positions that book people had never hired for before, like iOS developers. It made a fantastic place with incredible, energetic, passionate people, all trying to figure out what e-reading was going to look like next.
Were there a few late nights? There were a lot of late nights. Almost monthly, things we thought would be true ended up not being so. The whole business has reinvented itself four or five times.
Were there any constants? We knew there was a market segment that was going to read digitally, and that those people would be coming from traditional bookstores. We also knew the only way we would be successful is if we thought of ourselves as an international bookseller from the time the first lines of code were written.
Has the panic eased around digital reading replacing print? At the beginning I took a lot of meetings with senior publishing executives who said, “Oh, this is probably going to happen after I retire.” In truth, it was already happening around them.
The rapidity of that change was something we didn’t expect. What we thought would take five or 10 years really happened in two or three. But it became normal when people realized that the constant was really good stories and great ideas: digital just became another method of delivery. I don’t know if it was reassuring that it happened so quickly, but it did allow people to make the transition more easily.
How has e-reading affected the general culture of the book industry? It’s allowed a new generation of leadership within both publishing and retail to come to the fore. Some of those new digital director and sales positions are going to people who will probably be heading up publishing companies in 10 or 15 years.
This story appeared in Q&Q’s 80th anniversary feature in the April 2015 print issue.