Amazon's e-Book Sales Outpace Hardcovers; Tipping Point for Digital Reading?

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Photo by Horia Varlan via Flickr CC

According to Amazon, e-books are outpacing hardcover books by around 50%, with about 143 e-books sold for every 100 hardcovers on average over the past three months, and 180 e-books sold for every 100 hardcovers last month. The company pins it on the lower price point for Kindle devices, saying it has reached a tipping point and e-books are set to take over. But there's an important element to the numbers that keep old-fashioned books in the game. "We've reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle--the growth rate of Kindle device unit sales has tripled since we lowered the price from $259 to $189," said Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of "In addition, even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books--astonishing when you consider that we've been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months."

Amazon notes some impressive milestones for the Kindle:

  • Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books. Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books. This is across's entire U.S. book business and includes sales of hardcover books where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.

  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books in the first half of 2010 as in the first half of 2009.

  • The Association of American Publishers' latest data reports that e-book sales grew 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May. Kindle book sales in May and year-to-date through May exceeded those growth rates.

  • On July 6, Hachette announced that James Patterson had sold 1.14 million e-books to date. Of those, 867,881 were Kindle books.

  • Five authors--Charlaine Harris, Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson, and Nora Roberts--have each sold more than 500,000 Kindle books.

Wired writes, "While the "growth rate of unit sales" is far too cryptic a metric to go by (note that the actual sales have not tripled) it shows that people are ready for e-books and e-readers, if they are priced right. It also shows that they completely disregard the big advantage of the paper book: buy it and it is yours. Whereas a Kindle book is pretty much still the property of Amazon, and can be deleted from afar whenever it likes, a paper book can be lent, resold and used to prop up a wobbly table."

People are ready for e-books, it seems, but we have to note that Amazon's amazing figure is only counting hardcovers and not paperback books. Many readers wait for new favorites to come out in paperback version before buying, since hardcovers are more expensive. With e-books, readers don't have to wait -- the digital version is usually cheaper than the hardcover version anyway. But that doesn't mean people aren't still buying paperback books when they come out as often as in the past. So the announcement from Amazon isn't showing the real story behind where e-books stand in relation to the printed word. For that, as well as the arguably more important point of the overall environmental impact of switching to digital, the market is still fleshing itself out and it's too early to tell.

Still, it looks like e-books are indeed making space for themselves among readers.

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