Kobo Takes A Plunge Into the UK E-Book Market

Borders may have gone up in a fire-sale flame in London last year, but it may live on in the form of e-books. Kobo, the e-book shop backed by the retailer, launched today in the UK.

This is the company’s first “region-specific” launch outside of North America — although it also claims that it’s been downloaded more than one million times by users in 200 countries since its launch in early 2009.

The launch pits Kobo against other e-book services on offer already in the UK. These include device-centric services like the Kindle from Amazon (although the Kindle reader can also be used on selected mobile devices), which launched in the UK last year, as well as more general e-book catalogues that work on multiple devices, such as the service from Waterstone’s.

So far, numbers of actual e-book downloads in the UK are hard to come by. They are likely to still be tiny compared to physical sales: Waterstone’s owner HMV (LSE: HMV) says the retailer saw 80,000 e-book downloads over the five-week Christmas period just passed.

Kobo’s unique selling point (unique, that is, against players like the Kindle) is that it is platform-agnostic: it works on handsets from Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), Blackberry, Android and Palm (NSDQ: PALM), and devices that use the Android platform. Kobo also supports the EPUB standard, which means people can use Kobo books on the many e-Ink-based readers, laptops, netbooks and tablet computers that are hitting the market.

Kobo is starting its UK library with 2 million titles from the big publishers–eg, Random House UK, Penguin Group UK, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster UK and Faber & Faber and says that it will also be working with the Independent Publishers Guild to cover smaller presses too. Bestsellers will retail for £8.99 “and less.” It also says it has “thousands” of free books on offer as well through its free app.

Kobo says it plans to launch more region-specific stores in other markets later this year.

Kobo originally was a spin-off from the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo Books & Music, which is still an investor, along with Borders Group, the Australian/NZ/Singapore bookseller REDgroup Retail, and Cheung Kong Holdings. It has raised $16 million in funding to date.