Is Amazon Lying About eBooks Outselling Printed Books?

Amazon sales print book vs ebook
It’s been bothering me for a while. My friend Patrick said he didn’t believe ebooks were outselling printed books. In July, Amazon announced they’d sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, but my friend insisted Amazon must’ve been including all the free ebooks they give away every day.

He was wrong about that. I tracked down Amazon’s original press release, where they specifically said they hadn’t used free Kindle books in their figures, and if they had, obviously, their reported number for downloaded ebooks would be much, much higher. But then I discovered a business analyst who’d found an even bigger problem with Amazon’s statistic. According to the Nielsen Bookscan service, hardcover books accounted for just 23% of all books sold in the previous year.

So what happens if you ask how many “printed books” Amazon sold, instead of using the smaller number of “hardcover books”? Following the same ratio, Amazon would be selling approximately 334 paperbacks for every 100 hardcover books — or a total of 434 printed books for every 180 ebooks. That would mean over 70% of the books Amazon sells are still printed books — 180 out of 614 — with ebooks accounting for just 29.3% of all the books that Amazon sells.

And there’s another important statistic to consider. Amazon sells a whopping 90% of all the ebooks that are sold, according to one analysis in February. There’s thousands of other bookstores in America which sell only printed books — and no ebooks, and even major chains like Barnes and Noble are still new to the ebook-selling business. Amazon’s ebook sales are much higher than other retailers in the country. And yet even Amazon seems to be selling far more printed books — hardcovers and paperbacks — than ebooks.

So what happens if you compare Amazon’s ebook sales to that of the entire printed book industry? “Amazon is estimated to have 19% of the book market,” notes Jay Yarrow, an editor at The Business Insider, “which implies the company sold 15.6 million hardcover books so far this year… If we use the ratio from the last quarter, it implies Amazon has sold around 22 million Kindle books so far this year. That’s just the equivalent of 6% of the total print book market, which remains tiny.”

I’m disturbed at this new statistic. Morning talk shows seem to be informing their audiences that the book is already dying — Regis Philbin is talking about it, and even Whoopi Goldberg on The View. Obviously, the general public doesn’t know that hardcover sales represent a tiny portion of the overall number of books sold — though it’s a crucial piece of context — but Amazon must know this already. So it seems almost irresponsible to announce that ebooks are outselling hardcover books, without explaining that that’s an almost meaningless statistic.

This is what motivated my post last week comparing the print sales vs. ebook sales for popular authors. PC World came up with statistics for the ebook sales of five authors, which were tiny when compared to the print sales reported on Wikipedia. For example:

Nora Roberts
Print sales: 280,000,000
eBook sales:       500,000 ( 0.17%)

According to Amazon’s own figures, no ebook has ever sold more than one million copies. (Though Stieg Larsson’s three ebooks, added together, total one million in sales — an average of just 333,333 per book.) PC World reports Stephenie Meyer is close to selling one million ebooks — though she’s sold over 100 million printed books.

To be fair to Amazon, it’s possible that they’re still delivering many more free ebooks — which they aren’t reporting in their figures. So their total ebook downloads could, in fact, outnumber their total printed book sales. But so far, Amazon hasn’t actually made that claim.

And until they do, there’s no evidence that the ebook is actually outselling the printed book.

103 thoughts to “Is Amazon Lying About eBooks Outselling Printed Books?”

  1. I too doubt that Amazon is selling more eBooks than printed ones. It’s just part of the hype to sell more Kindle devices. Especially with more eBook readers competing against it, a little more creative marketing wouldn’t hurt.

  2. I love this blog. I think it needs to be mass distributed. Every article I’ve read about e-Books has been using hardbacks for comparison and completely ignoring paperbacks. Yet paperbacks are the bulk of books sales everywhere. But I’ve also heard of sales staff at books stores really pushing the customers towards the kindle and e-books. More profit than paperbacks. These articles seem to be focused on convincing consumers that they better jump on the e-book bandwagon because publishers may stop printing paperbacks because they aren’t selling. I think it is deliberate mis-information to decieve consumers into switching to e-books.

  3. Excellent information, thank you very much. I work in the technology industry so I will gladly be passing this post on. I personally don’t have an ebook reader, I still prefer printed books myself.

  4. hi i’m a new author on and I actually took the trouble of checking out the titles bought for the Kindle. Sadly none of those titles would be my choice except for some classics which were free.
    I think its pretty difficult to nail down choices for i’d like to believe thatfor every book ever written there will always be millions and millions of readers. That’s what books are meant for… reading.. sometimes again and again.

  5. Thanks for the post, this is great information to know. I don’t have any sort of e-reader, and honestly I prefer it that way. Nothing beats having the physical book. It’s great to know the e-fanaticism hasn’t yet taken over us.

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  6. I do feel good to read ebooks, but I don’t think they can replace printed books. If it does, the generation of ebook readers are sure to go back to printed book reading tradition because reading a printed book is the most comfortable way of concentrating on something you are reading. Whatever it is.

  7. What it sounds like to me- amazon is trying very hard for every single person in America to by themselved a Kindle.. just goes to show, you can get statistics to show almost anything…

  8. Great Post! Thanks for sharing the information and update, I am a fan of Amazon shopping myself and other online shopping shops.

  9. It seems to me that they compare the sales of Kindles to Hardback books because they want to compare the price of their books to Hardbacks books. Go visit Amazon via the horde of adverts to the side of your blog (do you get paid for them?)and you will see that Ebooks for Kindle are at $10 compared to $26 hardbacks when you can buy 2 paperbacks for £7(abut $10) in Tesco.

    I think we’ve a way to go with the paperback yet!!

    Tina Cortina xx
    Tina’s blog

  10. Really good info here. Thanks for pulling all this info together. I am not surprised actually and don’t fear the end of printed books. Electronic devices will continue to emerge, but printed versions will always be around. I’m also not surprised that cookie-cutter media types just spout off whatever info they heard the last person say.

  11. Good analysis and good post. I do believe that printed books in all forms ARE still outselling ebooks, but when you consider how new ebooks are, the sales figures are still very good. Printed books will be around for a long while yet, but I do believe that print books have become dinosaurs in a mammal world. It’s only a matter of time before they go the way of T. rex.

  12. what i would be interested in is also the trend from year to year of printed books AND ebooks from amazon.

    i fully believe that the printed books are still out-selling the ebooks by far. but the whole ebook thing is still new.

    how MUCH has printed books dropped in sales over the past few years? and how much has ebooks sales increased during that same period? is it a slow, gradual climb? or a significant amount?

  13. I love printed books! printed is the only kind I buy (because I love the feel of a good book in my hands and the garantee that, I could keep the book forever, that comes with a paperback). I confess the majority of my book perchases are from amazon because they usually have the lowest prices so can’t really argue with a bargain but I do also buy books form my local book store.

  14. I think amazons statistics are trying to indoctrinate us into thinking that we should all buy the kindle and ditch the paperback or we’ll be tecnologically left behind. But that techinique is not working because the paperback will always come up tops when against the Kindle, as technology is so unreliable. Good article.

  15. People hear the statistics they want to hear! Obviously, if you’re a critical thinker, any type of static propaganda has to be cautiously examined – especially in medicine. Awesome article & very informative.

  16. I don’t think printed books are going to die out. I still haven’t bought a Kindle, and if I did, I’d probably only use it flying or something like that. I adore the feel of a book in my hands to ever give it up. This was a great post. Made me happy!

  17. I think that the novilty of being able to read something that is printed on papper which feels like it has value will never die out either .

    Most interesting read I had to print it out. Ha

  18. The current generation of e-books, including the kindle, go a long ways to solving the past problems of reading books electronically. But the paper book is not going away anytime soon.

    Undoubtedly this is Amazon just trying to generate hype for their e-books (which likely have a largeer margin) and hope that people who have been sitting on the fence will jump to get an e-reader now that Amazon has announced paper is on its way out.

  19. I don’t trust statistics from anyone about anything. They are too easily manipulated for every purpose imaginable. Having retired from the printing and publishing industries, I will go to my grave with printed books in hand. But there’s no denying the decline of print media in this electronic age. Print is dying; enjoy it while you can.

  20. Unfortunately, Amazon does not answer to anybody. They make their own rules. They make the rules for the entire book industry now, and if you don’t play by their rules, they de-activate your “buy button.”

    Another of those “too big to fail” companies.

  21. As an aspiring writer who is fifty-smething years young, I say, of COURSE Amazon is inflating their alledged profits as scurrilous e-companies in the past fifteen years are loath to do with no shame.

    The want to “generate prospects” via inflated “direct marketing” techniques, and “white lies” are not out of bounds when they have their stategy meetings. My Mum is eighty-seven and not at ALL internet savvy, so my GOAL is for her to physically HOLD one of my two boiler plate books in her loving hands, and read it upon the porch of the house I grew-up in while we are still together in this physical (physical!!) world.

  22. First up, your analysis is incomplete. In trying to estimate total sales of e-books you are assuming that Amazon is the only one selling them. But so is Barnes and Noble. As well as this outfit called Apple (you may have heard of them). But let’s go ahead, work with what you have, and see what you’ve actually proven here:

    1) That e-books are not outselling printed books. . .a claim that Amazon never made in the first place (as is proved by the press release that you linked to). Oh, snap!

    2) That e-books, which have been around for only a few years, are a relatively small percentage of the overall book market. But this shouldn’t be news to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the subject.

    What matters here is not numbers but trends. Are sales of e-books rising? Yes, and accelerating. Are sales of print books declining? Yes. Is the first causing the second? Much too early to say (personally, I think it is because more people are finding it impossible to read anything longer than a tweet).

    3) By your own estimate, almost 30% of Amazon’s sales are e-books, and you try to pass that off as nothing. I don’t know, 30% sounds like a lot to me. 30% unemployment would be really, really bad. A 30% increase in my salary would be really, really good.

    4) Comparison with sales of hardbacks is not a meaningless figure. Hardback is still the first-run format of choice for many publishers (especially those dealing in Robo-Books of the Grisham, Clancy, etc. variety, and vanity political and celeb biographies). It is also the only format for many different genres of books. It is where many publishers make a substantial proportion of their profit (the cost differential to produce one compared with a hardback is not the same as the price differential). So if that format is being outsold, it is significant.

    And for those of you doing the “Hah! Amazon is just trying to sell us Kindles” thing, get over yourselves. It’s not like they are making any secret of that fact. That’s why when you go to their site you are slapped with an enormous photo of a Kindle. (It’s pretty subtle, you might have missed it.) Of course they are trying to sell you something! Just like publishers of comfy old print books are trying to sell you on the idea that print will be around forever. Good Lord, you’d think some of you had just discovered where Hoffa is buried. It is capitalism, people. No one is motivated by altruism.

  23. Thank you so much for this article! I was shocked to hear that Amazon stat – except it was second hand, so I didn’t even hear the hardcover part. I am an avid book reader, and I cannot stand to read a full book on ANY screen, and I don’t see why the majority of people would be any different, so I was confused. I will share this article with my friends if the topic ever comes up. Book lovers need to know that their beloved paper books are not dying.

  24. Wow, great post! Thank you for researching the matter and putting up factual statistics. My literature teacher was just spouting the “fact” that we’re not going to be using printed books for much longer and that Kindle and the Sony (e-reader I think?) are soon to be outselling printed books.

    So many other people have posted great comments about this as well, and I really liked and agreed with so many of them! I personally don’t own an e-reader or Kindle and I don’t ever plan to. I am really tired of EVERYTHING being digital. I love books and I will continue to buy printed books for as long as they are made!

    If you have time, check out my blog – I just started it a couple weeks ago so it’s still under construction, but I have some artwork and photography posted!

  25. A very interesting and revealing read.

    We should bear in mind, however, that if we look at revenue and profit the difference between books and just hardcover books is noticeably smaller than if we count the raw numbers sold.

    In addition, there are many books that are in the public domain and regularly read in digital form without affecting the statistics. Project Gutenberg is likely the best known source.

  26. Yeah, I would think it would be hardcover instead of paperback, because I know I see a heck of a lot of people with paperback books compared to the ereaders, kindles, ect. But, I think it’s just a hype thing to sell more kindles too.

  27. comparative rate of sales growth is meaningful.

    eBooks are like the genesis part of a plant under the soil…

    other books are like the old growth tree.

    time will tell.

    and 6% is not meaningless…

    remember when the internet was only in 5% of world households ten years ago? today it’s in in about 25% of the world’s households.

    look out. here we go.

    heck. I want a Kindle now. (are used ones selling already?)

  28. Not sure about your premise here. I wonder are you setting up a straw man to knock down?
    It was clear when the original story was reported that Amazon were talking about hardbacks, not all printed books.

  29. I hope printed books never die out. E-books really do not appeal to me but as a writer, I am keeping track on developments as these things around bound to have an effect on publishing. Great post. Congrats for being on Freshly Pressed.

  30. Hmmmmm. I may be hopelessly behind the times, but I see no evidence anywhere that the printed book is dying. I see no bookstores going out of business, in fact all the used bookstores in my area are doing an especially booming business.

    I have a few ebooks on my desktop computer, all free ones. I doubt that I will ever buy a kindle or similar device. Why? Well first, a standard size paperback (7″x4″) will fit very comfortably in my purse- not a backpack, bookbag, etc, but my purse. A standard paperback will even fit neatly in some of my jacket pockets. Then, well, will a Kindle survive being dropped into a mud puddle? Will a Kindle survive being dropped onto concrete?
    I rather doubt it. Maybe I’m clumsy, but I drop books all the time and they survive just fine. And finally I would rather wait until the ebook technology becomes more common (i.e. less expensive) and is widely available, and less proprietary- as in can be used with cell phones, which is already starting to happen.

    I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade, but I’m older – late middle age – and I’ve seen a lot of technology come and go, and I just don’t think the Kindle and similar devices are going to survive.

  31. What do they say? There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. You can cook the number to say anything you want and Amazon is just using this latest tactic to do the “everyone is doing it” ploy. I would love to know what percentage of the population has downloaded one book to and e-reader in the last year. Or what percentage even owns an e-reader?

    Thank you for doing the leg work on this! What a great post!

  32. Just playing devils advocate, here, but the lure of a Kindle is to get first run (read: hardcovers) books cheap, so that is the relevant statistic. If I had one, sure, I’d buy paperback and hardcover, but the prize would be the hardcovers which I don’t currently buy because of the expense. In that respect, a Kindle can pay for itself with a dozen books.

  33. As a book lover, I’ve been distressed at the reports of the End of the Book. Yet, as a fiction writer I’ve begun to consider what was unthinkable for me a few months ago–self publishing my novel as an ebook because traditional publishers rejected it, though with lots of compliments.

    This is a very eye-opening post. Perhaps it was naive of me, but I never considered that the numbers for ebook sales were being reported inaccurately. Lots to think about. Thanks!

  34. There are two parts to this thing. One. Amazon is harping a Milestone. There is no problem with that but when the average person does not know how relevant the milestone is then we need to ask what was the purpose. I think it can go either way. I don’t blame Amazon. I knew the figure for hardcover sales were low, like an impulse buy, so the claim doesn’t bother me.

    However, what they are implying has an agenda. People all follow the same patterns if you think print is dead you need to get an ebook reader. Now if we could find someone who was selling them…

  35. However you look at it, the trend is moving toward e-books.

    I’m sure hardcopy books will be around for a long time, but you may only be able to buy them in boutique type stores or print-on-demand. Good news for independents. Not so good for the big chains.

    Writers and readers are also moving toward e-books for two reasons having to do with money:
    for the reader, e-books are cheaper
    for the writer, even at a lower unit price, you make more money than on a hardcopy book.

    It’s all just a matter of time.

    Suzanne Tyrpak

  36. I enjoyed this post. But I don’t think Anazon is lying in their press release. Didn’t they qualify it as “when an ebook and a physical book both exist.”. Although many titles have corresponding ebooks, done do not and are not part of the number.

    Plus although Amazon is 19% of the overall physical book market, they are way behind on paperbacks -esp. mass market where their share is probably less than 3%. So, the assumption of their paperback sales us probably overstated.

    In 2008, ebooks were 1% overall.
    In 2009, ebooks were 3-4% overall.
    In 2010, ebooks are at 10% overall.
    Steig Larssen and Jonathan Franzen’s latest books both are at 33% ebooks.

    Amazon is definitely hyping their numbers and ebook sales. No doubt. But I would think they are telling the truth (a shade of it but still).

    I do appreciate your analysis and think we definitely need more like this. Thanks.

    One last thing, the authors you quote at the end have been selling print books for many more years than ebooks have even existed.

  37. I agree that this post should be made known to more people.

    I love e-books, convenient way to own a selection of books. The downside is that you cannot really share your device around the family. You tend to have your own kindle or ipad which you wouldn’t want to share with anyone else. So when you buy an e-book, it is most likely for yourself.

  38. The only lie here is your title, and you deliberately trying to confuse the issue by substituting “printed books” for “hardcover books.” You are trying to Amazon to task for something they didn’t say. It’s fun to make up lies about people so you can express righteous indignation about how awful they are, isn’t it!

    1. “The only lie here is your title, and you deliberately trying to confuse the issue by substituting ‘printed books’ for ‘hardcover books.'”

      I agree with Tim. Misquoting makes your entire premise false. I think most readers know the difference between ‘hard cover’ and ‘printed’ (or hard-copy) books. And even old-fashioned publishers agree the market is changing with the new technology.

    2. “The only lie here is your title, and you deliberately trying to confuse the issue by substituting ‘printed books’ for ‘hardcover books.'”

      I agree with Tim. Misquoting makes your entire premise false. I think most readers know the difference between ‘hard cover’ and ‘printed’ (or hard-copy) books. And even old-fashioned publishers agree the market is changing with the new technology.

  39. Just adding my thumbs up of support for your skepticism. My own totally unscientific survey of the situation conducted on buses and trains while commuting shows a decline in visibility of e-books in the last 2-3 months.
    I wonder if this is seasonal however. Your summer is our winter and maybe an e-book’s screen is harder to read with reduced natural light.

  40. I have to say that as soon as I saw the comparison I understood their motivation for using it. Anybody who actually buys books knows that hardcovers are more expensive. Therefore fewer people buy them and they account for a lower percentage of books sold. Amazon wanted to skew the perception without actually lying, but it should’ve been pretty obvious to most readers.

  41. I’m deeply grateful to Amazon for enabling me to reach many people, BUT, at the same time they take 55% of the full list price of any book in print. Then when Kindle came out, they were giving publishers a whopping 30% of the Kindle book sales.

    This really upset me b/c with no delivery, processing, or warehouse expenses on DIGITAL books it’s hurting publishers.

    NOW they have the “free” e-book reader download for Kindle books. (Isn’t that what ADOBE is all about?) And they are now giving publishers 70% ONLY ON Kindle BOOKS with a LIST PRICE OF $9.99 or lower. But, I digress, they are entitled to set their sales policy so they make a decent profit – it’s just a LOT more than what the publishers receive.

  42. Thanks for the insight. As an author who has an e-book being released soon on, your comments give pause.

    Kit Herring
    “Descending the Cairo Side – a novel of the traveling life”

  43. Perhaps as the younger generations become a stronger customer base, ebooks may overtake hard/soft cover books, but I still believe there will be a market for the “old fashion”. For years now we have been hearing how the electronic news will replace newspapers\magazines! Yet the printed versions remain, albeit at smaller market rates, they remain. Except, perhaps, those from mid-thirties down will embrace the ebook over others,I believe that the feel, look and smell of the printed word will continue to be the perferred matter in which the reader enjoys books/magazines!

  44. It is possible because,ebooks are easy to store and read at your convenience.And with the reputation Amazon holds,it would not take risk involved in giving any wrong figures.

  45. Reading things on a computer screen of any size is not enjoyable; just reading relatively short blogs gets old pretty quickly. It hurts my eyes and is totally without…soul. Reading books is more than simply reading text. It includes all the tactile experiences inherent therein, such as the sound of the pages turning, the weight of the book in your hand, the texture of the paper, and even the smell of the book itself. Plus buying books is about more than reading books, it’s about owning books, having books, displaying books, experiencing them. No matter how cheap or technologically cool the iPad or Kindle are, e-books will never come close to actual books, though they may unfortunately eclipse them in sales…

  46. It’s not at all comfortable to read ebooks because it strains the eye.Secondly you can’t touch-and-feel your book.Nothing’s the same with ebooks though we might be living in the internet age and all

  47. Not to mention the secondhand book market, which is dominated by physical books, by the margin of… um… lots, to ZERO.

    This is because Amazon does not SELL ebooks at all. It licenses them, and prohibits transfer of the licenses.

    It’s already absurd that Amazon charges almost as much, or more, for an ebook than for a physical book when the expenses involved are vastly lower. But I can’t resell it, I can’t loan it to a friend… they’re charging me more and giving me less!

    I’d love to ditch dead trees, but to hell with that.

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