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Amazon declares game over: E-books outsell hardcovers for the first time

July 20, 2010

Jeff Bezos with another completely redundant device.

Amazon announces a milestone in its campaign to put bookstores out of business, crush the human spirit and reduce humanity to intellectual slavery: The e-tailer now sells more e-books than hardcovers. But expert observers say: Hold on a minute.

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” said Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, laughing maniacally.

Okay, so he wasn’t laughing maniacally — but he should have been. Bezos credited the “tipping point” to Amazon’s decision to slash the price on the Kindle, its e-reader device, from $259 to $189, boosting sales three-fold. In turn, that’s boosted the already fast-rising sale of electronic books.

“While our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format,” Bezos says.  “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books.”

Since January, Amazon reports, it has sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcovers. These numbers do not include public domain titles–classics like Huckleberry Finn— customers can download for free, which would boost the figures even more.

In a quote that must warm Bezos’ heart, an assistant professor at the University of Washington tells NPR the shift to digital books is inevitable, saying the new sales figures “sounds like the beginning of the end.”

“It’s going to be a halting but probably steady forward path toward digital versions of what we used to think of as books,” Joseph Janes adds.

Not so fast. A closer look at these selective numbers is in order. For example, Ian Paul at PC World says, “Amazon’s e-book sales numbers only tell part of the story. E-book growth is strong, but physical book sales are still growing – albeit at a slower pace.”

While e-book sales have grown 207 percent so far this year, Paul reports, adult hardcover sales grew by 43.2 percent. And e-books are still a tiny portion of the market: $29.3 million in May, compared to $138.5 million for adult hardcover and another $58.1 million for children’s hardcover.

Amazon is also touting the news that several peak authors — Stephenie Meyer, Charlayne Harris, James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Stieg Larrson — have all sold 500,000 e-books. But Carolyn Kellogg at the Los Angeles Times wonders how many of these are backlist titles?

“When CDs began to outpace vinyl,” Kellogg writes, “music companies realized that they could sell the same original works to fans a second time, in a new format.” If that’s what’s happening with the Kindle –“readers purchasing much-loved favorites in a new format” — then the sales figures aren’t quite the death knell for the old codex they at first seem to be.

And the Wall Street Journal points out that while Amazon is one of the biggest booksellers in the country, “it still attracts an online audience that is more inclined to be early adopters of new reading technology.”

That means, impressive as the growth in e-book sales may be, that doesn’t necessarily mean its the beginning of a trend that will soon include most book customers. And since Amazon only releases sales figures selectively, as many of these experts observe, it’s impossible to analyze what they really mean.

So while e-books may be the future, that future is not quite here yet, no matter how much Jeff Bezos (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!) wants it t be.

Please join me in delaying that future as long as possible. How? Buy a printed book, and buy it at a local bookstore.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    July 20, 2010 1:19 pm

    People bought more electronic books, but did they read them? A study into how many of these electronic books actually get read interests me.

    ”readers purchasing much-loved favorites in a new format”, makes me ask “Why?”. If they are much-loved then you own a copy, why then do you need an electronic copy.

    My experience with e-books began when I bought an iPhone and immediately loaded it with 5 gigabytes of books. After skimming through a couple of the books which I had read already I decided I did not like the format. Furthermore, I did not like what I was allowing this device to do to me. I HAD TO BE CONNECTED. I became an electronic hoarder and an obsessive checker of email and statuses. I caught sight of myself in the iPhone’s shiny, mesmerizing, deep black void of a screen. I no longer own an iPhone. No Kindles, Pads or Nooks for me. Just regular, precious books, that I read and then lend out and then gain a place of honor on my shelf.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 20, 2010 2:34 pm

    Tommy, your experience validates what I’ve argued all along — we make our tools, then our tools make us. I believe digital media is going to dehumanize us. That’s why I preach against it with the fervor of a Jeremiah. I do not want to become a Borg.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 20, 2010 3:03 pm

    I vow to remain Kindleless and to buy at least six books this weekend. I can not promise, however, to buy them at a locally-owned bookstore because we do not have any where I live. If only your blog had been around when the big box stores took over….

  4. July 20, 2010 4:11 pm

    These numbers are meaningless. There are 1000s upon 1000s of $0.99 and lower-priced ebooks, mostly self-published, and for Amazon to give anything meaningful they needed to give revenue numbers (which they conveniently didn’t do).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 20, 2010 5:40 pm

      I know! You’d almost think Amazon is a weasley, manipulative, underhanded character willing to destroy anything or anyone to corner the market on books — wow! It could be a character in one of your books!

  5. July 20, 2010 6:07 pm

    Now I’m really, really depressed. News like this is why I rarely come out of my cave to take part in this game of having to have the latest techno toy created by the likes of Amazon, Apple and other Borgs. Save yourself save your eyes – hunker down with a real book. Chauncey, I’m reading Wolf Hall, which you recommended. Whoa, what a great story, what great writing. Thanks!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 20, 2010 6:19 pm

      Duff — you are very welcome. This is what I live for — bringing books together with the people who will love them. I’m kind of a literary matchmaker.

      • July 20, 2010 9:11 pm

        Sounds kinky, Chauncey. But bless you, I’m glad you’re there and doing your thing. Do you know anything about Lauren B. Davis? I’m ordering her books because she wrote me and said she had ordered THE HOLY BOOK OF THE BEARD. Tit for tat, right?

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 20, 2010 10:44 pm

    I don’t know her, either personally or by familiarity with her books. But I like her titles, and she’s published by a distinguished Canadian press. Let me know what you think, please.

  7. Connie permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:31 pm

    I think I hate that Segway more than I hate the Kindle, though.

  8. July 22, 2010 12:13 am

    Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your site. I like having something interesting to check out.

  9. July 22, 2010 2:43 am

    But wait a minute Chauncye, this “news” story on the wires and blogs were mere PR hype, not truth in adverting. Amazon “announces” a milestone ..BUT ANYONE CAN ANNOUNCE ANYTHING. WHERE ARE THE RAW DATA?

    PARSE THIS:

    “While our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format,” Bezos CLAIMS. PROOF SIR? AND “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books.”OF COURSE, THEY ARE AMAZON CUSTOMERS WHOSE CREDIT CARDS YOU NOW OWN, JEFF! — the news did not say ebooks go ahead of print books among general population, just among A customers and it’s just a CLAIM, an inhouse secret CLAIM, not a public record document. PLEASE TAKE BACK THAT ENTIRE STORY.

  10. Notwerk permalink
    July 26, 2010 4:58 pm

    I don’t see why we should be cheerleading for physical books. Who cares what form they’re in, the good news here is that more people are reading, no?

    The truth is that the younger generations, they don’t view physical media with the same nostalgia we do. They see it for what it is: bulky and inefficient. When CDs came out, I was glad to throw away mountains of tapes. CDs sounded better, occupied less shelf space and didn’t get eaten up by the tape player. When MP3s emerged, I was even happier. Now, I could stuff my entire musical collection into a device that fits in the palm of my hand.

    Books take up a lot of space. They’re also damned heavy. I’m not sure what a box of rocks weighs relative to a box of books, but every time I help someone move, moving books is just about the worst part. I’ve had friends literally give away their collections rather than pack them.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have your entire collection — thousands of books, if you so desired — readily accessible in a device that also included a dictionary, notepad and highlighter? Wouldn’t it be even better if you could buy a book anytime you liked, even from a park bench under a shady tree?

    You can now.

    Now, if you’re trying to read on an iPad (or any LCD device), well, that’s your fault. I’ve contended all along that the iPad is a solution looking for a problem. It is an awful reader (and it’s not good at anything else, really).

    The Kindle (and it’s e-Ink brethren) is a different animal, and quite easy to read on.

    “But don’t you love the feel of a book in your hand!?”
    No, no I don’t. I have to hold the pages down and they don’t cooperate when it’s windy. They can be heavy. And let’s face it, sometimes the book we brought isn’t the one we end up wanting to read. It’s nice to have them all there.

    I can see how bookstores might not be so happy about this, especially the independents. But that’s another matter for another conversation.

  11. August 24, 2010 1:48 am

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    Books Nora Roberts

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