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Amazon (news, site) has trumpeted the fact that, less than four years after introducing Kindle books, its customers are now purchasing more Kindle books than all print books -- hardcover and paperback -- combined. However, it's important not to take this announcement at face value.

How Many eBooks Exactly?

Ever since Amazon first released its Kindle e-book reader, it has made a series of announcements breathlessly talking about how so very popular it is. Whether it's January 2010's "Most Gifted Item Ever!" or July 2010's "More E-Books Than Hardbacks!" or, now, "More E-Books Than Print Books!" there's one cogent fact that's always missing, and that is, how many of the damn things did they actually sell?

As it has been with previous announcements of this ilk, Amazon is a master (or should we say mistress, considering the name's mythological history?) of the relative comparison -- that is, instead of giving us an actual number, giving it to us only in the context of some other (unknown) number.

  • "More Kindle books than print books." Okay, but how many is that?
  • "For every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books." Okay, but how many?
  • "Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010." Okay, but how many?

Amazon uses another dodge, which it's also used before -- that of measuring "growth rate." 

So far in 2011, the tremendous growth of Kindle book sales, combined with the continued growth in Amazon's print book sales, have resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon's U.S. books business, in both units and dollars, in over 10 years."

The problem is, this is a meaningless statistic unless we know the starting number. It's particularly meaningless if you're starting from zero. For example, if Amazon sold one e-book one year and two the next, it has a growth rate of 100%. Wow!

How Much Money Exactly? 

The other issue that comes up is that of price. Amazon makes a point of noting that free e-books aren't counted in these statistics. However, there are a plethora of low-cost Kindle books, including the new Kindle Singles and self-published titles, which start at as little as 99 cents -- making it easy for someone so inclined to acquire a whole fistful for the price of a single print book. CNET did a good analysis of sales numbers when Amazon made its "more Kindle books than hardbacks!" announcement. As Amazon itself points out, the U.S. Kindle Store now has more than 950,000 books -- more than 790,000 of which are US$ 9.99 or less,

(If you look at the Kindle Store, it actually says it has 1,012,018 books. It isn't clear whether the 790,000 books under $9.99 also include the free ones, but if not, then we're talking about more than 62,000 free books. That could keep someone busy for quite a while.)

Moreover, Amazon typically prices Kindle books more cheaply than print books. Take The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks, #1 on the Amazon Editors Picks list: $15.09 in hardback, and $9.99 for Kindle.

Yes, Amazon has discovered a new tactic in marketing: Given the choice between two items, people will pick the less expensive one. Think it'll catch on?

E-book buyers have also complained when Amazon has attempted to raise e-book prices, according to an article in the New York Times:

Over the last year, the most voracious readers of e-books have shown a reflexive hostility to prices higher than the $9.99 set by Amazon.com and other online retailers for popular titles."

Finally, while Amazon doesn't say so specifically, it appears from context that its print sales figures are only for new books. Many people I know, including myself, use Amazon to buy used books, which are available at a fraction of the price of new ones, or even Kindle ones. This is especially relevant in the context of passing books on. I can buy a book, read it and sell it, give it or lend it to someone else. I can't do that with a Kindle book. 

The bottom line is, yes, e-books are increasing in popularity. But does that spell the end of the print book? Not so fast.