eBook vs. Hardcover: Beyond the Headlines

Amazon KindleBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books–astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon.com

Depending on where you get your news, and how far beyond the tweets and catchy headlines you tend to read, yesterday’s well-timed press release from Amazon (they release their 2Q report on Thursday) either came as a shocker (TIPPING POINT!) or an interesting soft data point in need of further clarification.

Amazon Says

“We’ve reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle–the growth rate of Kindle device unit sales has tripled since we lowered the price from $259 to $189,” said Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon.com. “In addition, even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books–astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Recent milestones for Kindle books include:

  • Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books. Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books. This is across Amazon.com’s entire U.S. book business and includes sales of hardcover books where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books in the first half of 2010 as in the first half of 2009.
  • The Association of American Publishers’ latest data reports that e-book sales grew 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May. Kindle book sales in May and year-to-date through May exceeded those growth rates.
  • On July 6, Hachette announced that James Patterson had sold 1.14 million e-books to date. Of those, 867,881 were Kindle books.
  • Five authors–Charlaine Harris, Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts–have each sold more than 500,000 Kindle books.

Reading Beyond the Headlines

Publishers Lunch attempts to put the numbers in context:

  • Amazon Inches Closer to Releasing Kindle Stats That Actually Mean Something: So let’s start with the data: jumping on last week’s announcement that James Patterson had sold 1.14 million e-books to date worldwide, Amazon says Kindle books account for 867,881 of those sales. (Of course, with print sales totalling more than 205 million copies, that Kindle figure accounts for roughly 0.4% of overall sales.) By the same token, four other blockbuster authors – Nora Roberts, Stieg Larsson, Charlaine Harris, and  Stephenie Meyer – have also sold more than half a million copies each of Kindle books, which is still a blip compared to print sales but clearly significant enough, especially compared to this time last year, as Amazon reports a tripling of Kindle book sales from 12 months ago.

At Daily Finance, Sarah Weinman adds further perspective:

  • E-book Sales Surpass Hardcovers at Amazon: The caveat? Each of these authors sell tens to hundreds of millions of print books around the world, so total e-book sales don’t even approach 1% of print sales, and Amazon won’t break down e-sales by specific title. Consider, too, that 630,000 books in the Kindle Store is but a fraction of the millions of copies of print books Amazon offers for sale. It’s clear e-book market share continues to climb, but the medium still has a long way to go to catch print — even for the company with the most dominant digital share of all. Still, today’s news made Wall Street happy: Amazon shares rose 0.9% to $120.99.

At Jacket Copy, Carolyn Kellogg makes the music industry connection most tend to miss:

  • What does Amazon.com’s rosy ebook news mean? But what isn’t being said is that these aren’t necessarily new books; most of these authors have an impressive backlist… When CDs began to outpace vinyl, music companies realized that they could sell the same original works to fans a second time, in a new format. How much of Amazon.com’s Kindle sales are an echo of this —  readers purchasing much-loved favorites in a new format — is impossible to say without seeing sales figures based on specific titles. And that’s something that no companies, neither publishers nor Amazon.com, seems interested in releasing.

And finally, the Wall Street Journal digs into the real question (albeit buried at the end of their article):

  • Amazon Says E-Book Sales Outpace Hardcovers: Still, the hardback comparison figure doesn’t necessarily mean the end is near for paper books. Amazon said its hardback book unit sales also continued to increase. Moreover, while Amazon has become one of the largest booksellers in the U.S., it still attracts an online audience that is more inclined to be early adopters of new reading technology. As for the effect on paperbacks, Madeline McIntosh, president, sales, operations and digital at Bertelsmann AG’s Random House Inc., said: “Our conclusion is that there’s no data to prove any connection—good or bad—between growth in e-books and the growth or decline, in trade paperback sales. … If anything, we may be seeing a positive effect in which the steady pace of e-book sales helps to keep a book in front-of-mind for a growing number of consumers after hardcover momentum slows.”

The Takeaways

Beyond the obvious — “eBooks are an increasingly popular format for reading books!” — three interesting takeaways stand out for me.

First, as The New York Times reports, “Amazon’s latest sales figures are ‘clearly an indication that the iPad is complementary to the Kindle, not a replacement,’ said Youssef H. Squali, managing director at Jefferies & Company in charge of Internet and new media research.” Despite 3 million iPads and 5 million iBooks downloads, Amazon’s significantly larger inventory of eBooks (paid and free), their full embrace of “Buy Once, Read Everywhere” (including the iPad), and their long-standing relationship with book buyers is a tough combination to compete with. For Amazon, it’s not about the device and never has been; the long game was always about leveraging their existing customer base and becoming the dominant seller of eBooks.

Second, eBooks fit perfectly into Amazon’s long tail strategy, and only Barnes & Noble comes close to having the kind of built-in advantage they do to capitalize on a CD/MP3-style digital transition as many readers re-purchase their favorites in eBook format from the path of least resistance: the retailer they currently buy their print books from, who already has their credit card information and the ability to make targeted recommendations based on their purchase history.

And finally, Amazon chooses its words carefully; in the midst of the Kindle hype, Bezos made a point of noting that “our hardcover sales continue to grow.”

A significant percentage of the eBooks Amazon offers for sale were NEVER published in hardcover format; many more are from independent publishers and authors taking advantage of the lower barriers to entry. The room to grow is exponential. Genres and niches that get limited shelf space in the brick and mortar book world are perfectly suited for the digital book world. New authors can be bundled with popular authors in digital-only anthologies and samplers to expose them to a wider audience.

With a bit of creativity, strategic print + eBook bundles can even lead to the holy grail: publishers having direct contact with their readers via email.

eBooks undoubtedly offer the opportunity to expand overall book sales and direct engagement with readers, but only if publishers can get above the trees and take a look at the forest.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, and a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.

17 thoughts on “eBook vs. Hardcover: Beyond the Headlines

  1. Thad McIlroy, The Future of Publishing

    Great post, Guy. If only your thorough analysis was the norm rather than the exception. You point out that “Depending on where you get your news, and how far beyond the tweets and catchy headlines you tend to read, yesterday’s well-timed press release from Amazon…either came as a shocker…or an interesting soft data point in need of further clarification.”

    Of course 95% of media outlets treated the press release with shock and awe, rather than the shrug it merited.

    Bezos has become a master of hyperbole, tossing out a few disconnected data points and then drawing a line between them that should never be drawn. The press regurgitates this twaddle, the public gorges, and before you can say “case-bound” Aunt Betty in Boise thinks she’s missing the boat.

    Amazon persists in its refusal to offer real data on sales and eventually the press capitulates and accepts the burnt offerings instead.

    Jeff Bezos is a pioneer and Amazon’s a great company. There’s a lot to be said for e-books and e-reading devices. So why does he choose to sully things with this clumsy manipulation? I find it all so disheartening.

  2. Miha Kovač

    It would be interesting to see how much of kindle e-books are sold in Europe. Namely, kindle is very usefull device also for Europeans, especially because due to variety of fiscal, technological and linguistic reasons, European booksellers and publishers are lagging behind in developing European e-book markets. Consequently, European book markets are widely opened to Amazon – and on the long run this means a lot, having in mind the fact that English is the most important European second language, read and spoken by almost anyone who sucessfully finishes tertiary education. In other words, when I buy an e-book on kindle on a Greek island, in London or in my office in South-East Europe, I get it in a minute – and that’s something that not a single European bookseller or publisher achieved up till now!

    1. Thomas Sharkey

      Amazon would do better to promote their authors instead the mountains of e-books in their limited categories.

      This would be less confusing for the reader who is looking for something new.

      The list, in alphabetical blocks, would much smaller than the titles of books and allow easy access to genres and titles.

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  6. Didy Ward

    Thank you for the insight behind the headlines.

    Would it be OK to quote you regarding the ebook sales that were not first published in hardback in a report I am writing on bookselling on the inernet for Key Note?

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