Amazon is now selling more electronic books than hardcover versions, and the online retailer says even it's surprised by how fast things have changed.
Amazon has been selling hardback books for 15 years; it began selling its Kindle reader and the e-books to go with it less than three years ago. Yet this past spring and early summer, Amazon sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.
"I think the thing that's compelling to most people is it sounds like the beginning of the end," says Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington.
Janes says the shift toward e-books is inevitable as we move from an analog world to a digital one.
"It's going to be a halting but probably steady forward path toward digital versions of what we used to think of as books," Janes says. "For a lot of people, if you can bump up the font and adjust the lighting, for people with reading impairments or just old eyes, some of these digital readers are a godsend."
Amazon says consumers love the convenience of e-books; they probably like the price, too. The vast majority of Amazon's e-books cost less than $10. Hardcover books average about $25.
What's more -- Amazon slashed the price of the Kindle last month in response to competitive pressures from Barnes & Noble and, more notably, from Apple's iPad. The Kindle's price fell from $259 to $189.
"In the last 30 or so days, we have seen a tripling in the growth in that business -- meaning we have reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle," says Steve Kessel, senior vice president for Amazon Kindle.
Rising E-Book Sales
Aaron Kessler, an analyst with ThinkEquity, says some people initially thought the iPad, which can be used as a book reader but does other things, too, would hurt Amazon dearly. But he doesn't see it turning out that way.
"To a certain degree, it probably has cannibalized the Kindle device," Kessler says, "although we think it probably accelerated the sale of the digital books, which ultimately is where Amazon should be making more of the money is on the book side and not the hardware sales."
The total number of books sold by Amazon is rising, and paperbacks remain the most popular. The online retailing giant won't say how many books of any type it sells, and it wont say how many Kindle devices have been bought.
But based on survey data, analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research says the number of e-book readers sold is now well into the millions.
"There are probably 6 million of these in the market right now, most of which are Amazon Kindles; Sony and Barnes & Noble make up the biggest part of the rest of them.
"By the end of the year, though, we will be close to 11 million."
And with 11 million e-book readers, many more e-books are likely to be sold.