It’s not very often that I write a sceptical blog post about ebooks, so brace yourself, I am about to break a habit of a lifetime (well, maybe not a lifetime….it’s not like ebooks have been around for ever…where was I..). As you may be aware from the flood of tweets and media stories, on the 26th December, Amazon announced the following:
SEATTLE, Dec 26, 2009 (BUSINESS WIRE) — Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) today announced that Kindle has become the most gifted item in Amazon’s history. On Christmas Day, for the first time ever, customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books. The Kindle Store now includes over 390,000 books and the largest selection of the most popular books people want to read, including New York Times Bestsellers and New Releases.
Now, normally when reading such a press release I would be filled with optimism about what this means for the future of ebooks. However, in this instance, I greeted the statistics with a healthy dose of scepticism. I could not believe that with the sight of ebook reader owners still a rarity, it would be even remotely conceivable that ebooks could have overtaken their paper companions. Of course, as is very often the case, the statistics are a little misleading.
The problem with Kindle books is that they are quite unlike any other product on their website (or websites). Although the Kindle is now available to customers outside the US (including the UK), ebooks can only be purchased via the US site (ie Amazon.com) and not via a local Amazon site (ie Amazon.co.uk). Consequently, as all sales are routed through the .com site, it will produce higher than expected results. For example, sales of The Lost Symbol in hardback on Amazon.com would reflect only sales to US consumers. Likewise, sales on Amazon.co.uk would only reflect sales to UK consumers. However, sales of the ebook version of the same title on Amazon.com would actually include buyers from around 100 countries, including both the UK and the US, as Amazon.com is the only Amazon site that offers ebooks. Consequently, if sales only reflect those on Amazon.com, it seems fairly likely that ebook sales will outstrip those of paperbooks. In short, the statistics are a little misleading. This is not the tipping point that the industry has been waiting for. It is merely an attempt by Amazon to big itself and its products up. Sad as it is for me to admit…I so wanted it to be true.
Anyway, in truth, the only way we will really get to the bottom of the strength of the current ebook market would be for all ebook reader manufacturers to come clean about how many readers they have sold as well as for retailers to detail the sales of ebooks. It is only through transparent statistics such as this that we will really know where the ebook market is. As Bobbie Johnson points out on his Guardian blog, transparency is not only essential for Amazon, but potentially the whole ebook industry.