27 October 10 | Chad W. Post

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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