Wrap You Head Around These Number, Will You?: Amazon's e-Books Outsell Paperbacks

Last week, Amazon announced that its goal of selling more e-books than paperbacks has come early, based on fourth-quarter earning statements from 2010. According to this ComputerWorld report, Amazon reports that in 2010, it sold 15% more e-books than paperbacks, and 3 times as many e-books as hardcovers. As for Kindles themselves, we only know that Amazon has sold "millions," making it the single bestselling product in Amazon history. But no solid numbers have been released.

What I can't wrap my head around is the fact that in the very same article, analyst Allan Weiner is cited as claiming that e-books still make up only 10% of overall book sales. But if e-books are selling more than paperbacks or hardcovers on Amazon, and no one is buying books from Borders (it is out of money, after all), and the independents are struggling to keep up with Amazon... well, where are we buying those 90% paper books?

Furthermore, we know that e-books sold on Amazon are only compatible with the Kindle(s) or with a Kindle app on an Android device, iPod, iPhone or iPad. Can you read Amazon books on a Kobo? Or a Sony Reader? I don't think you can, but if anyone thinks different, please let me know. I'd be interested to know the statistics for where non-Kindle readers buy their e-books.

Note that none of the Amazon figures include free e-books, of which there are plenty.

So, does anyone have any further insight here? If Amazon's e-books are outselling their paperback or hardcover companions, but e-books are still only 10% of the market, I just have a hard time making the logic work. Maybe I'm missing something, or maybe this is just why I wasn't destined to study economics. Thoughts?


  1. I had a whole comment written out and then Blogger went and erased it. Bummer. This probably won't be as eloquent as the first time but here goes:

    I read the linked article as well as your post a couple times and I can't reconcile Amazon's figures against the "e-books only account for 10% of sales" number Weiner gives. Perhaps while independent bookstores are struggling individually to compete against Amazon, collectively their numbers outsell the online giant. And of course there's Barnes & Noble to consider. Without Weiner's numbers though, who knows where he gets that percentage, but you if you figure it out I'm very curious!

  2. Red - Thanks for the comment (and sorry about Blogger! I've considered looking for a different comment system but haven't figured it out yet). I'm glad I'm not the only one that can't reconcile the data... I thought maybe I was just truly not-econ-brained enough. I will be sure to update if I figure any of it out, though!

  3. I think Amazon is using only their sales figures. In other words Amazon e-books are outselling Amazon hardcovers and paperbacks but the in industry as a whole e-books only command 10% of the market. Obviously, in the U.S. that figure doesn't make sense as you pointed out but if you think globally it's a lot a more plausible. All in all I think it's just sloppy journalism. Sounds like they're using Amazon US sales figure for one set of data and global book sales for the other without making the distinction.

  4. I can't really wrap my head around it either, but it sounds like Jurgen is on to something.

  5. I'm going with Jurgen. That's the only logic I can glean from the whole thing.

    For the record, I'm a Nook reader and I download my books from Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Kobo.com, and from B&N. Most of the reason I got a Nook is because it's not exclusive to one company for book downloads.

  6. The math boggles my mind a bit - and the general assertion is disturbing enough to one who still prefers a paper book to an electronic one. I had a sony e-reader, and now have a Nook color, and you cannot read Kindle editions on either of those. You can read Kindle books on iPad and iPhone, so that may account for some of those sales.

  7. I agree with Jurgen, too. I bet Amazon isn't counting its Marketplace sales.

    The whole thing is like one of those annoying word problems we used to have to solve in elementary school math. Thanks for making my head hurt ;)

  8. I read that article, too. In fact, I had to re-read it to make sense of it.

    I believe that the stats you are talking about reflect that on Amazon.com, the e-book version of a book outsells the hard copy of the same book, not that e-books outsell all books.


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