Why Some People Are Annoyed By Kindle Book Sales Numbers

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.

5 thoughts on “Why Some People Are Annoyed By Kindle Book Sales Numbers”

  1. Exactly.

    That Kindle has changed the market doesn’t make their claim to the market any less valid. If anything, it makes it more valid. People are reading those $0.99-$2.99 books even if the big publishers don’t want to believe that.

    It’s like realtors and travel agents claiming that homes and vacations sold over the internet don’t count because it wasn’t done under the same conditions that they were used to.

    The market for books has changed forever and the publishers, just like the realtors, travel agents, music and movie industry titans are terrified because they didn’t see it coming.

    Face it. If you had a job as a middleman for content that can be digitized, your job is in jeopardy. Period.

  2. I would be surprised if Kindle Singles have anything to do with it. Are there numbers available as to how well they sell? I for one have never bothered with them. I haven’t really looked at them very thoroughly, but my gut reaction to the concept was, “Why pay for short books when you can get other, average-length books for free or just as cheap?”

    I know the issue of whether the singles are driving the numbers isn’t really your point, but Norris’ claim about them seems a little hard to believe. It made me wonder, do a lot of people actually buy Singles?

  3. Great article, and it sounds like it’s time for Mr. Norris to take off the blinders. Did he conveniently forget that Amazon reported eBooks were outselling paperback books 115:100 as of January 1st, 2011? That was nearly a month before Kindle Singles even became available, so how does he explain that (which directly contradicts his example)? Sales were moving quickly in that direction, Singles or not.

  4. given the vastly lower production cost of e-books (avoiding the printing, warehousing, shipping, return processing, etc steps) it’s very possible for an inexpensive e-book to generate _more_ profit than a paper book at a significantly higher price point.

    I do think it’s fair to consider the profits of the e-books vs print books and I look forward to the day when a publisher like amazon can announce that not only were more units sold, but more royalties paid for e-books. given that that the royalties that amazon would be paying would include printing costs, that would be a very clear statement.

    But I do have one question about the Amazon announcement. was the e-book to paper comparison only on titles that are available in both formats? or was it for all titles, including those only available in paper?

  5. David,

    This comparison involved all books in both formats including format-exclusive items and things that wouldn’t adapt well to eBook format at this time.

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