Rise of the Machine Books?

The New York Times reported yesterday that Amazon.com has announced that for the last three months, sales of books for its e-reader, the Kindle, outnumbered the sales of hardcover books through their website.

In that time, Amazon said, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition.

The pace of change is quickening, too, Amazon said. In the last four weeks sales rose to 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies.

The figures released by Amazon.com do not include free Kindle books, of which there are 1.8 million originally published before 1923 (they are in the public domain because their copyright has expired), nor did Amazon give figures for how paperback sales compare with e-book sales (paperback sales are thought to still outnumber e-books).

One expert in the Times article goes so far as to predict that within a decade, fewer than 25 percent of all books sold will be print versions.

Hmm… That seems a bit extreme to me. After all, the dead-tree version of the book still has its appeals (not least of which is never running out of batteries or crashing and losing your e-book just as you’re about to find out what happens to Ahab and the Whale*)

But it seems clear that the e-book is, at last, here to stay. And I certainly see the appeal of buying the e-book version rather than the hardcover version: hardcovers are heavy, not usually bus- or subway-friendly reading, and they are usually $30+ dollars, whereas you can get the e-book version for your preferred reader for somewhere in the neighborhood of $12.99 most time. Sometimes less.

So what does this mean for publishers and authors? Well, that’s a bit harder to say. It may end up being a good thing for everyone: working in publishing I can tell you that one of the biggest first costs for a printed book is the paper, print, and bind (PP&B) costs.

We routinely send our books to the printer as hi-res PDF files. If we didn’t have to actually bother printing the physical books…

And (at least so far) publishers look to be paying authors a much higher percentage royalty on the e-copies of their books (anywhere from 25-50% of net) than they get currently on paperbacks (around 40 cents) or hardcovers (maybe $2 from every hardcover sold)

So what does the future hold? Difficult to say. Always in motion is the future. But I, for one, welcome our e-book overlords…

– S.

* PS: I peaked at the end of Moby Dick–Ahab and the Whale sort out their differences and become friends. Who knew?

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