By Tim Cavanaugh
Amazon had announced last July that they were selling more ebooks than hardcovers. But at the time, I’d complained that was misleading, since hardcovers make up a small percent of total book sales at any store. One analyst had calculated that there’s usually three paperback books sold for every one hardcover book. With that information, it seemed like in July Amazon’s ebook sales were only 60% of their paperback sales.
But not any more. In fact, Amazon explained today that for every 100 paperback books they’ve sold this January, they’re selling 115 ebooks...
Of course, that still means that Amazon is selling fewer ebooks than they are printed books — if you combine the paperback and hardcover sales. But ebooks now represent more than 45% of all the books that Amazon is selling. If ebooks can just increase their share by 5%, Amazon will finally be able to announce that they’re selling more ebooks than all print books combined...
And to achieve this milestone, Amazon didn’t even count any of the free ebooks that people are downloading, which is presumably an enormous number.
In fact, if just one user downloads a free ebook for every nine paid ebook purchases — then Amazon is already delivering more digital ebooks than they are print editions!
Some perspective: While Amazon is the largest book retailer in the United States, its $6 billion in annual book sales is still less than half the U.S. total, which the Census Bureau estimates will come in just shy of $15 billion for 2010. (From 1992 through 2008, the size of the U.S. book market about doubled [pdf] in non-adjusted dollars.) Amazon is not the only purveyor of e-books, nor is its .azw format the only one available. E-readers are increasingly moving toward platform independence, and I understand one of these days you'll even be able to send telexes through your phone.
Still, that's pretty rapid growth, and it suggests the venerable book format -- despite centuries of quasi-religious respect -- will not prove any more durable than film, classified advertising or 8-track cassette turned out to be when faced with digital alternatives. (In a clear milestone for English usage, my kids refer to the Sony Reader as "the phone book.") That has implications for your wallet and for your culture.
Back in the more innocent time of 2009, Brian Doherty noted one problem with e-books: the rent is too damn high. But it's not clear what would be a reasonable price for something that has effectively no physical production or delivery costs and that you will only keep until you upgrade to another device.
But I'm sticking by my assertion that e-readers themselves are way stations that will soon go the way of the Pong console. You can see that with every new generation of e-reader, which adds new writability and interactivity that make the devices behave more and more like those electronic brains our ancestors used to call "laptops." An electronic book is a metaphor for a book that you start reading on page 1 and keep turning the pages of until you’re through. As people get more accustomed to the e-book, I think they'll realize that they don't need the metaphor. What format will take its place I don’t know, but I’m betting it will be Smell-O-Vision.