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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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eBooks outsell inky pulp - or not

21 July 2010

The newswires are running hot this morning with what should be earth-shattering news.

According to Amazon.com, sales of e-books have eclipsed those of inky-pulp.

Well that's the headline however, looking a little closer it becomes apparent that this may be little more than some clever self-promotion by the online retailers.

The official line is that Amazon "is now selling more Kindle books than hardcovers".

Sounds pretty impressive doesn't it?

But let's look a little closer at the facts shall we?

Firstly, note that this is eBooks versus "hardcover" print editions.

Looking at my own library, I notice that the vast majority of titles are in paperback form, not hardcover.

I would wager that most other book-owners will notice a similarly low ratio of hardcover to paperback.

So although the implications in Amazon's press release are that ebooks are outselling print versions, that's not really the case.

In fact, Amazon wouldn't be drawn on the ratio of ebook to total hardcopy (as opposed to hardcover) books, perhaps because that wouldn't be such a newsworthy story -- in fact it probably wouldn't have even rated a mention.

However there is a trend there which can't be denied.

According to Amazon's figures, ebooks are outselling hardcovers by 1.8 to 1 which is a significant margin.

The fact that it's hardcovers that have first fallen to the ebook in terms of unit-sales is also rather telling. Generally, I only buy a hardcover when the book either isn't available in paperback or when I consider it to be a volume that I will treasure over time.

Many hardcover books are also published in a cheaper paperback form so I would have expected ebooks to have had less effect on these spendy volumes than on their cheaper more bendy equivalents. Hardcovers are also more likely to be glossy picture-books than are paperbacks. Somehow I don't see the coffee-table tome filled with glorious photographic images of art works or landscapes being something that would translate at all well to the ebook format.

Whether you consider Amazon's release to be just a clever bit of marketing spin rather than real news, it has to be acknowledged that ebooks are now starting to make significant inroads into the publishing world. Just as we've probably passed the halfway mark in the transition from disk-media to electronic downloads in the music industry, I suspect we're closer than many people think in the transition from inky pulp to ebooks.

What next from Amazon's spinmeisters I wonder

Well here's a suggestion...

Why not publish the carbon footprint of an average ink-pulp book compared to an ebook?

I'm picking that once you factor in the energy costs associated with the felling, transportation, pulping, processing, printing, binding and delivery, the ebook will be far better at reducing climate change.

There you go Amazon... give that a spin!

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