Tricia Duryee

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Kobo Turns One

The e-book service that’s going head to head with Amazon, Apple and–as of last week–Google, has not just survived its first year in business, it’s around to celebrate it.

We caught up with Kobo’s CEO Michael Serbinis yesterday to hear the Toronto company’s tales from the past 365 days.

“It’s been a whirlwind. When we started the company last year, the e-book space was 1 percent of market, and by March it was 9 percent of the physical market.

“The market has been growing faster than anyone anticipated. When you look specifically at the consumer part of the market, separate from academic, it could hit 50 percent by 2014.”

Here’s his short list of growth figures to support the page-turner of a story:

  • Since Kobo launched on Dec. 15, 2009, it has sold millions of e-books to customers in more than 100 countries.
  • Millions of free e-books have been downloaded by more than 1.3 million registered users and millions of free users.
  • Devices sold remains undisclosed. However, Serbinis adds this: “We assume it took Amazon two years to hit one million. We have been selling [an e-reader] since May, and we’ll hit it a lot faster.”
  • A catalog of 2.2 million e-books, popular newspapers and magazines, from thousands of leading publishers.
  • Kobo has grown from 10 employees to 170.
  • Revenues are also undisclosed. However, Serbinis says that in the past year, the e-book market has hit $1 billion in sales. “If you are a player, you are in the hundreds of millions. Otherwise the space has gotten away from you.” [On Monday, Amazon disclosed that it has sold “millions” of Kindles this holiday season.]
  • Serbinis said Kobo’s growth will continue in the new year as it expands internationally and adds new features that connect the reading experience to social networks or keep track of reading stats, such as hours read and pages turned. In January, it will be moving into a new space that could support two to three times as many employees in 2011.

    Overall, Kobo’s goal is to allow its users to read its books on any device, PC, etc., by using open standards. That sets itself apart from Amazon, which encodes the books with its own proprietary standards. Still, both companies are taking the approach of making apps for all the multitude of smartphone platforms, tablets, etc. In the strictest sense, Google is a more comparable model because it is also using open standards.

    Kobo’s focus is not on the hardware, although it found it necessary early on to launch an e-reader in order to promote the space, much like razors being necessary to sell razorblades. The device is sold at Wal-Mart and seven book chains around the world. A tethered version is as cheap as $99, and a Wi-Fi version costs around $129.

    The company is backed by Indigo Books & Music–a Canadian bookseller–Borders Group, REDgroup Retail and Cheung Kong Holdings. It disclosed that it raised $16 million in venture capital, but has since raised an undisclosed round from existing investors. It has hired Morgan Stanley as an advisor to raise “a lot more than that” in the new year, Serbinis said.