Despite Amazon Fanfare Kindle Not the Final Chapter on Paperbacks

Recently Amazon announced that it has sold more copies of e-books for its Kindle e-book reader compared to hardcover books. While cynics might dismiss the announcement as a counter to Apple’s attempts to position its iPad tablet computer as the de facto reading device; the announcement does signal a shift in consumer habits and perhaps a tipping point in how we read.

With recent moves such as slashing the Kindle’s price from $259 to $189 it’s clear that Amazon believes such a tipping point has happened and is banking on digital editions of books to drive its growth.

Everyone’s happy right?

Maybe not. Cost is a big factor. The $189 cost of the hardware is a fixed investment and a barrier to entry given that walking down to your local used bookstore and picking up a book is going to set you back around $10. Plus, there is always the library. If I were to buy the Kindle or iPad, I’d expect to buy enough books to at least equal the cost of the reader, to make the device purchase worthwhile.

In its press release, Amazon’s claim that “Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books in the first half of 2010 as in the first half of 2009“ is not a useful statistic given that its base number of sales in the first half of 2009 isn’t given. Look a little closer at Amazon’s announcement and you’ll see that e-books have outsold hardcover books. There’s no mention of paperback books. As The New York Times points out: “Amazon does not specify how paperback sales compare with e-book sales, but paperback sales are thought to still outnumber e-books.”

Going by my personal buying habits, I’d say that I’m typical of the average book reader, about 10 percent of my books are hardcover editions and the other 90 percent are paperbacks. If that’s a similar stat for Amazon’s sales figures, Kindle sales would have to grow another 800 percent to be anywhere near knocking physical books off their pedestal.

A Reading Paradigm shift?

One thing I’ve noticed is that major shifts in technology seem to sneak up on you – the changes are gradual and are usually only noticeable in retrospect after you’ve already converted to it. Whether it’s the shift from DVDs to blu-ray discs, buying music from iTunes instead of a CD or streaming videos over your Internet connection from Netflix, instead of renting Blockbuster, these changes can be sneaky.

In the broad scheme of things e-books might eventually win out over their physical counterparts and if they’re able to solve some of these challenges:

●     E-book readers will have to drop below the $100 price point, preferably $50 or below.

●     Mass availability of book titles: It’s not enough to have only 630,000 titles in the Kindle store. I want to have the choice to buy the digital equivalent of any physical book or magazine, even if I might only buy 100 such titles.

●     With fiascoes like the fallout around 1984, Amazon and others still have to resolve the question of ownership in Digital Rights Management (DRM).

●     How will e-books deal with such issues as censorship, whether through hacking or through the manufacturer?

●     Battery life: charging your Kindle every 2 weeks might be nice for some. The killer app might be battery life of 6 months or once a year.

This wishlist might take Amazon or Apple sometime to fulfill and it’s unlikely I’ll buy an e-book reader until this happens although I might end up eating my words at some point. Until that point is reached, the Kindle e-books still need to make up some of that 800 percent gap with their paperback counterparts before there is a true paradigm shift.

About Andrew Wee

You can find Andrew Wee on Twitter @andrewwee

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