Last week, rushing past a bookstore in London's Victoria Station on my way to catch a train, I felt a pang of what can only be described as true patriot love. No, it wasn't the outdated Shania Twain hit warbling over the sound system or the tourism pamphlets for the Group of Seven exhibition (currently on in London's Dulwich Picture Gallery) or even the (frankly, a bit neglected-looking) Man Booker Prize short-list table with Canadian titles on it. Instead it was the sign above WH Smith, Britain's most ubiquitous and antiseptically mainstream retailer of books and periodicals. The billboard was advertising the new Kobo Wi-Fi eReader, which is, of course, a Canadian product – Kobo Inc. (now set to become a publisher too) having been seeded by Canada's biggest book retailer Indigo Books & Music and now an independent company, headquartered in Toronto, with Indigo as the major shareholder.
I went into the shop and checked out the new Kobo. A few days later I acquired my own, which was probably a silly thing to do considering the fact I already have a Kindle and the whole point of going digital is surely the streamlining of content, that is to say, the consolidation of one's library onto a single, handy device.
As a Canadian abroad, I couldn't resist the Kobo. For one thing, it's a welcome bit of good news in the wake of the digital disaster that is RIM. I have a BlackBerry too, of course, but take absolutely no pride in it these days. When the system went down a couple of weeks back, I was publicly shamed – my European friends brandished their useless mobile devices in my face, as if it were my fault as a Canadian, and not some crossed wires in Slough.
But those of us in the maple diaspora are nothing if not optimistic. RIM aside, I choose to take the rise of Kobo as yet another sign of what I believe to be Canada's subtle, encroaching cultural dominance outside our home and native land. It's not the big statements that count in this regard (while the Group of Seven show and the Booker nominations are obviously a good thing, we've always held our own on the international stage when it comes to magisterial northern landscape paintings and literary prizes) but the more stealthy stuff. A show by the Saskatchewan abstract painter William Perehudoff currently at the tiny Poussin Gallery in deep southeast London; the incongruous, and oddly soothing, sound of Leslie Feist's new single being played at a dinner party on a recent holiday in France; the British press hailing Ryan Gosling as "the thinking woman's crumpet" – a title previously held by Michael Ignatieff. ("Whatever happened to him?" people often ask me over here. I tell them it's a heartbreaking story, and I'd rather not talk about it.)
It's not easy being a colonial in the Old World. Britons, in my experience, can be just as woefully ignorant of Canadian culture as our brash neighbours to the south – they just tend to be more polite about it. ("How many guns did you have in your house growing up?" a well-meaning one asked me recently.) Without question, the biggest thing working against us internationally is what I have come to think of as the Dullness Factor. There is a perception in the larger world (albeit a ridiculous one) that we Canadians are incapable of inventiveness or irony. While a shiny new e-reader may not inspire a barrel of laughs, it is evidence of Canadian ingenuity and our growing dominance in the international marketplace. Like I said, I already have a Kindle, but it's not Canadian. Here's hoping that reading a book on my Kobo it won't feel so much like scanning text on a plastic dinner tray but reading a little piece of home.
While Canada is still the only territory in which Kobo dominates the e-reader market, it is fast gaining ground in the international marketplace. The company claims five million users worldwide and has set up digital shop in six different countries, including Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany. In most cases, Kobo came to the market after Amazon's device, but with an important edge: Unlike the Kindle, Kobo offers an open-platform service, meaning you can move the books on it around to any other device you like.
The company has changed rapidly. Two and a half years ago, Kobo CEO Mike Serbinis met me for a coffee on a Saturday morning in Starbucks in Toronto to discuss his new venture. As his wife and children sipped hot chocolate at the adjacent table, he lent me an iPhone to try out the e-book format (the reader was not yet available) and talked up the future of online publishing. This time around, he didn't even bother responding to my e-mails. (Now that's success – congrats, Mike.) Instead, I had to go through the U.K. head of marketing who put me in touch with a fellow named Todd Humphrey, the Seattle-based executive vice-president of business development.
Humphrey explained that Kobo's biggest challenge when it comes to the international marketplace is finding the right retail partner and "localizing" content to suit that country. In Germany, for instance, you can only buy the Kobo device at a tech store called Media Markt (not unlike BestBuy), and the company has invested in tens of thousands of German language titles as well. But the main strategy, he explained, "is going in where we have a high propensity of people who read books, and that definitely means the U.K. and Europe."
Kobo will soon be launching additional digital content stores in Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (where they are currently seeking retail partners) and will be introducing local language apps to customize its service to those countries as well.
As for me and my new Kobo, let's just say we're getting to know each other. With its open-platform approach and thousands of free downloads, it's as accessible, quietly intelligent and easy-going as, well, your average born and bred Canadian. But will the rest of the e-reading world trade in their Kindles for one? Don't ask me, I'm just a biased, mildly homesick compulsive Canadian reader abroad.