CEO Michael Tamblyn on How Kobo Made E-Reading Accessible and the Future of Reading

Welcome to Impact in the 21st Century, from Simbi Foundation. In this episode, CEO of Kobo books Michael Tamblyn discusses how Kobo turned to older adults to create an e-reading experience that was accessible for all and the future of reading in the 21st Century.

Michael Tamblyn is a reading enthusiast, podcast host, and CEO of Rakuten Kobo, one of Canada’s great startup success stories. Kobo now operates in 24 countries as one of the world’s largest ebook retailers and device manufacturers. Michael speaks internationally on innovation in Canada, digital media, and surviving the transition from startup to scale-up. He has been featured in The New Yorker, Wired, Canadian Business, National Post, Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. Learn more about Michael’s work here!

Michael: It’s funny because the assumption of furthering the cause of reading is almost always immediately relocated to children. And when we looked around and said, “okay, where can we actually do the most good right now when it comes to reading?”, we found that children are very well-served in terms of the number of organizations that are working on literacy, access to books, and reading. We do some great partnerships with organizations, like ‘First Book’ to make sure that children develop reading habits early. But then we went to the other end of the life course and we said, “So what’s happening to reading as people get older and what happens to reading when you’re getting towards the end of life?”.

We thought that was a really interesting place so we tried to find an organization working on that to see if we can help them. Then we found out that there wasn’t one like there is literally no organization focused on helping with access to reading for older adults, zero. Which is fascinating because as people get older as readers, you have this collision of economic factors of health and accessibility issues. You know, the ability to read becomes more difficult. Macular degeneration becomes a factor, the ability to lift and hold things becomes an issue, mobility’s a factor when you can’t get to bookstores and libraries anymore. And then as you go into retirement homes, as you go into long-term care, people are having to let books go and leave libraries that they’ve accumulated behind and then find themselves in these kinds of literary deserts.

So we started to do work with older adults and we’re looking particularly at where eBooks and e-reading help with aging populations to preserve access to reading. And that’s been just a fascinating field for us to dive into, because not only does it have us putting our designers and our industrial designers into contact with older adults and getting a sense of what some of those barriers to usability are, but it then forces us to raise our game across areas of accessibility generally. If you’re serving an older adult population you have to deal with vision impairment, you have to deal with issues of tactility and physical usability. You’re looking at readability and legibility. All of that just forces us to up our game generally as designers, as people who are putting products together, and that helps all of our readers.

Aaron: With Elon Musk and Neuralink, and the short form book summaries, but also mostly just the technological advances that we’re seeing, where do you see the future of reading going and what is Kobo doing in terms of five-year planning to be thinking about where the industry and downloading information could be moving?

We’ve got this one form of a novel which is X number of hundred pages, X number of chapters, and because somewhere back in time, they couldn’t make book spines any fatter than that and people wouldn’t buy a book that was bigger than that, because it looks scary on the shelf. But you know, how can serialization be different? How can stories be delivered differently and not so much turn them into games or packed with animation, but just the different ways that you can structure a string of words so that you can tell a different kind of story? That’s for the people that we have working at Kobo who come from the publishing world, that’s what gets them interested in the morning. Like wow, I don’t actually have to worry about how we’re going to wrap covers around this thing. And some people are going to find that really interesting.

We’ve got a way to distribute that on the hardware side and it’s the constant search for the even better, even more compelling reading experience. How do you make the perfect reading machine? What’s the best way to do that? From a retail perspective, it’s how we get even better at both that role of the curator on one side and creating a bookstore that’s really just for you. On the other, it’s how we get away from this notion that there’s kind of a universal bestseller list that everything has to slot into and we make it better and easier to uncover and bring to light those authors that wouldn’t otherwise find an audience. How do we categorize books differently so that you can have more different ways to slice through a collection of millions of titles we have and find things that you wouldn’t have otherwise found? So the to-do list is endless while being in the service of the same idea that everyone has a reading life, and we want to make them better.

…Aaron and Michael’s conversation continues in the podcast. Listen here!

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