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:
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.