Courtesy of old college friend Naomi Firestone of the awesome Jewish Book Council, here’s an insane blog post that seems too insane/amazing to be true from a fellow North Carolinian on the blog Ocracoke Island Journal:
Some weeks ago I decided that I wanted to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lou Ann loaned me her copy. At more than 1100 pages, reading it in bed required as much strength as balancing a box of bricks in my hands. In my senior years I have developed arthritis in my thumbs, which made the effort not only difficult, but painful.
I had read about half of the novel when I was given the gift of a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes and Noble. Although I am committed to supporting my neighborhood independent book store (Books to be Red), and enjoying honest-to-goodness books, the .99 Nook edition was so lightweight that it has made reading War and Peace a genuine pleasure. For those of you who have not tackled this tome as yet, it is a page-turner.
As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….” Thinking this was simply a glitch in the software, I ignored the intrusive word and continued reading. Some pages later I encountered the rogue word again. With my third encounter I decided to retrieve my hard cover book and find the original (well, the translated) text.
For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern….”
Someone at Barnes and Noble (a twenty year old employee? or maybe the CEO?) had substituted every incidence of “kindled” with “Nookd!”
If this story of intrepid word replacement is true, it’s another remarkable example of the. It’s a form of censorship, plain and simple, that takes advantage of EVERYONE . . . it takes advantage of the meaning of the word in a text, the role of the translator, the role of the publisher, the role of the reader, and the role of Barnes & Noble to keep their dirty money-lovin’ fingers out of the e-readers they are providing to the reading public. Want to compete with Amazon? Go for it, I’m all about it. But this isn’t the way to do it, and if Barnes & Noble keeps it up, they will most certainly hear of it with mass market rejection far beyond what they and their peer big-box retailing institutions have suffered. Dammit, I hate any example of anybody making Jeff Bezos look better by comparison.
Now, it’s nothing new for Amazon.com to release sales information without any actual hard numbers (how many Kindles have been sold?), but this announcement in The Bookseller begs a explanation:
Amazon.com customers have bought more Kindle e-books than both hardback and paperback books combined for the top 10, 25, 100 and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com over the last 30 days. [. . .]
Steve Kessel, senior vice-president of Amazon Kindle, said: “For the top 10 bestselling books on Amazon.com, customers are choosing Kindle books over hardcover and paperback books combined at a rate of greater than 2 to 1. Kindle books are also outselling print books for the top 25, 100, and 1,000 bestsellers—it’s across the board.”
As a good friend pointed out last night, with ebook sales making up less than 20% of a publisher’s total sales (probably much less than 20%), this seems not just inaccurate, but basically impossible. And to be honest, it just doesn’t feel right.
Which raises a few questions: Is there any mathematical explanation that could make these statements make sense? And if not, why release something like this?
My math skills are less than amazing, but these two perspectives (Amazon sold more ebooks than print one; Publishers sell four times more print books than e-versions) could be reconciled, if the great majority of print books were being sold by outlets other than Amazon, whereas almost all ebooks are going to the Kindle.
This does make some degree of sense. Since we’re talking about just bestsellers here (Kessel’s 2:1 statement only applies to the top 1,000 bestselling titles), Barnes & Noble, independents, and most crucially, non-bookstores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, etc.), will make up a much larger percentage of total print book sales than they would for a typical midlist title.
So, if we pretend for a moment that Amazon’s numbers aren’t bullshit, and that they control approx. 80% of the ebook market, this would mean that their market share for print book sales of bestsellers is less than 10%. (I think. Again, though I like math in theory, that theory is very abstract and far away from my life.)
To make this as concrete as possible, let’s pretend there’s a book that sells 1,000,000 copies total—both print and ebook version. Assuming ebook sales make up 20% of the total, this book sold 800,000 print versions, 200,000 ebook versions. And if Amazon controls 80% of the ebook market, then 160,000 of these ebooks were Kindle editions. And if the ebooks sold at a rate of 2:1 over print versions on Amazon, Amazon only sold 80,000 print editions, which is a pretty small portion of the print book market.
And if publishers are overestimating e-sales, and the real figure is closer to 10%, then Amazon accounts for even less of the print market.
Again, totally pulling these numbers out of my ass, and I’m probably miscalculating all over the place, but in trying to do whatever necessary to reconcile these two statements (ebooks 2:1 over print, ebooks are only 20% of a book’s total sales), Amazon looks a bit weaker than I would’ve expected.
So what does this mean? Well, one possible crack-pot interpretation is that Amazon is cannibalizing its own sales. That it would so much rather people buy the Kindle version (even at a loss), making money off of the device itself. (Digression: I was going to put “making money off of the device itself and complementary sales of other products,” but that’s a weird flaw in the Kindle-as-selling-tool argument. Amazon makes tons of cash off of spontaneous additional purchases: “I want Freedom . . . and a toaster!” But the Kindle is wedded to book purchases only. Interesting.)
And maybe this is a reflection on society itself. We’re so driving by instant satisfaction (I feel frustrated and delayed simply having to sign in to the U of R’s wifi every morning. Can’t this process be automatic so that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds to check my email?) that if we want a book, we want it now, meaning that we’ll buy it on our Kindle if we prefer the e-version, or in the checkout line of Wegmans if we’re print bound. Why wait for Amazon to ship it?
All this scares me deeply. For a Bulgarian novel contest that I’m judging (more on that later), I put a few of the pieces on our office Kindle and read them at home last night. It was fine, but to be honest, I mainly just wanted to check out what other books I could buy for the Kindle. (Especially since our Kindle is tied to Nate’s checking account.) I thought it sucked when the lines in the text were all jacked up, crankily complained via text messages about how this minor flaw made the sample feel even more ephemeral than it already did, etc., etc. In some ways, I feel like I’m all over this digital revolution or whatever, but in others I’m just as cranky and myopic as fricking Andy Rooney and think we should all slow down and spend more time actually reading rather than seeking out our next purchase.
As to the why of Amazon’s timing, that’s pretty obvious. Yesterday B&N announced the new version of the Nook which has a color touchscreen and is being positioned as a “reading tablet.” (Which is somewhere between a Kindle e-reader and an iPad tablet.) It does look pretty cool, and might actually satisfy the needs of a particular group of customers. Rather than compete on products, it does make more sense for Amazon to come out with a bad-ass statement about how many ebooks they’re selling.
Basically, I think they were scared of this super-lame chart from B&N’s presentation:
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