The big news this week in eBookland was Amazon’s announcement that ebooks outsold hardcovers 1.8:1 in the last quarter. That set tongues awaggin’ and has prompted hundreds of articles, blog posts, and comments, now including this one. So that raises the question: Who’s on first?

One of the best comedy routines of all-time was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine and Amazon’s announcement brought the routine to mind after many years of having been forgotten. For those of you unfamiliar with the routine, here it is:

Isn’t this really the story — and value — of Amazon’s announcement?

As many other commentators have noted, there is a lot of information missing from the announcement. Perhaps the most important missing tidbits are these:

* Were fewer hardcovers sold or just more ebooks?
* Why compare to hardcovers when the natural competitor to ebooks is paperbacks?
* How did paperback sales compare?
* Do the numbers represent unit sales or dollar volume?
* What was the average hardcover price? Average ebook price?

And the list goes on of unanswered questions, a typical Amazon ploy.

Ultimately, the most important unanswered question is this: Are pbooks being forsaken for ebooks or are ebook sales complementary to pbook sales — that is, who’s on first?

This question is particularly important in light of other recent data disclosures by others in publishing that indicate that pbook sales increased in the last quarter. It is also important in trying to determine whether ebooks are bring new readers to the table or simply shifting existing readers from one format to another. And it is also important for discovering whether the actual pool of readers hasn’t changed but that members of the pool are buying more. All of this brings us back to where we were months ago: publishers need to understand who their customers are and know more about them (see A Modest Proposal IV: A Radical Notion — Learn About Your Readers).

Amazon’s announcement doesn’t surprise me because it reflects (somewhat) my own buying habits. In my personal book world, I buy more ebooks than hardcovers by a significant margin, but to compare my ebook purchases with my hardcover purchases is to compare apples with oranges. An unscientific survey of a few friends and colleagues who buy both pbooks and ebooks illustrates that their habits mirror my habits.

In my case, I buy 4 times as many ebooks as I do hardcovers and I probably read 2 to 3 times as many ebooks as hardcovers. But none of that is meaningful. The ebooks I buy are rarely more expensive than $2.99 and are always throwaway fiction — read it once and delete, sometimes read it never and delete, often read a few pages and delete in disgust. In contrast, the average cost of a hardcover is $25 and it is almost always nonfiction (there are a few fiction authors whose books I only buy in hardcover) that I intend to keep and add to my library for future rereading or research. It takes 9 ebooks to match what I spend on 1 hardcover.

The economic implications are significant for publishers and for authors, yet they are not well understood by anyone in the publishing industry, pundits aside. Just as publishers and authors are learning that there is a downside to the new 70-30 split given by Apple and Amazon, so there is a downside to pricing stratagems — largely because no one really understands the bookbuying consumer. For too long the emphasis has been on the middleperson rather than the end consumer, and ebooks are now forcing a change.

Until a rigorous analysis is performed on the book market and on bookbuying habits, the question — Who’s on first? — will remain unanswered. This question needs to be answered because the true answer will have significant ramifications for everyone involved in books, from the author through the publisher and bookseller all the way to the bookbuying consumer.

Although Abbott and Costello parodied baseball, it doesn’t take much turn that parody into one about publishing.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.


  1. Amazon’s Press Release can be parsed by looking at what it didn’t say. Thus we can be fairly certain that, among Amazon customers, paperbacks are the biggest sellers, followed by Kindle editions, followed by hardbacks.

    I’d like to see Amazon’s stats as a part of the industry as a whole, though, including other ebook sellers and other brick and mortar bookstores.

    It’s really a crying shame that the industry as a whole has no reliable figures, if only to satisfy an academic curiosity in estimating how well ebooks are doing, and what their future holds.


  2. Amazon’s press release can be parsed by what it DID say.

    Q. Were fewer hardcovers sold or just more ebooks?
    A. The press release specifically said Amazon’s hardcover sales were up, even while ebook sales were up even more.

    Q. Why compare to hardcovers when the natural competitor to ebooks is paperbacks?
    A. Because publishers insist on pricing ebooks relative to hardcovers. Nor are paperbacks a competitor: merely a different form of distribution.

    Q. How did paperback sales compare?
    A. You, and many others, may care about this; Amazon didn’t comment. How many paperbacks did Sony sell? What about Borders, Waterstone’s, Indigo’s pbooks to ebooks ratio? Some things are privileged, competitive info. That doesn’t make any other figures released less valuable.

    Q. Do the numbers represent unit sales or dollar volume?
    A. Seriously? The stats were all about unit sales; gross and/or net revenue wasn’t mentioned.

    Q. What was the average hardcover price? Average ebook price?
    A. Some things are privileged, competitive info. That doesn’t make any other figures released less valuable.

    I fail to see how the press release was “a typical Amazon ploy”. Nor is the comparison to pbooks the “most important question”. Is there anyone except a professional debater (or curmudgeon) seriously suggesting ebooks are about to sweep pbooks away from the market?

    So, who’s on first at Amazon? Pbooks, ebooks and hardcovers … in that order. If you don’t think that’s news, I’m not sure what news would be. The industry is evolving before our eyes.

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