Not too long ago, Amazon(NASDAQ:AMZN) announced that they were finally officially selling more Kindle Edition eBooks than they were print books, even discounting free book downloads. It was a big deal and, I think, still is. It indicates changing perceptions of what a book is to a reader at the conceptual level. I’m not saying that the battle is won or anything, but milestones matter.
Since that time, people have reacted in a number of ways. Publishers have expressed skepticism, which makes perfect sense given their level of investment in keeping eBook prices as high as possible. People like me who are fans of the Kindle, its associated platform, and the community building up around it have expressed the obvious enthusiasm. I’m not claiming a lack of bias on this point. At least one analyst, a Michael Norris, has publicly called the claim “obnoxious” and expressed the opinion that the whole announcement was a publicity stunt made possible by taking things completely out of context.
Context is indeed what matters here. Norris goes on to express the opinion that Amazon must be padding their numbers with some apparently astounding sales from the popular Kindle Singles program. While I’m skeptical of the claim that the Singles are where Amazon is making most of their sales, having looked through the selection more than once, it doesn’t really matter. The fact that the Kindle Singles are shorter doesn’t make them “not books” in my eyes. Really, I don’t think it does for this guy either. I believe what he is objecting to is the fact that a product selling for $0.99 can hold as much weight as a product going for $12.99 when it comes time to compare sales. He comes out and says “Obviously, when you’re selling units so inexpensively, you’re going to sell more of those than, for example, a $14 paperback print book” and thinks he’s making a point against eBooks.
This gets to the heart of the matter, and I think it explains the difference between what customers want to know and what publishers would like them to know. As a reader and buyer of books, both electronic and otherwise, I am more interested in the number of copies being sold than I am in how much profit somebody is making off of them. I’m not a stockholder. If somebody tells me that in spite of 20% of all book sales in a year being eBooks only 5% of a specific publisher’s income came from them, I wonder what that publisher was doing wrong, not what is wrong with eBook loving customers.
What I’m trying to get at is that saying that the numbers are misleading just because they address an aspect of the transition to a new medium that you don’t like is not cool. Yes, this is a different context from what you may be used to, but it is not out of context. If anything, it highlights a more relevant piece of information about the new publishing business than most other things I have seen. Is the announcement a bit self-serving on Amazon’s part? Of course, or why would they have made it? It wouldn’t be useful, though if it didn’t tell people something they wanted to know. The Kindle is doing well, possibly better than anybody could have expected at this point, and whether or not that had to do with Kindle Singles it seems that people were interested enough to take notice.