E-Books Sales: Tiny Today, Towering Tomorrow?

A day hardly passes when we're not reminded that the era of the e-book is here. Though a tiny fraction of the book-buying market today, the foundations are being laid for massive sales in the future. Competition among e-book devices and e-bookstores is one sign. USAToday's decision last week to begin including Kindle e-book sales in its bestseller calculations is another. USAToday took a visionary step, recognizing the shape in the crystal ball ahead of most distributors of bestseller lists.

"Since 1993, USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list has always evolved to reflect the ways our readers buy books," Susan Weiss, managing editor of the Life section said on the paper's website. "Adding Kindle to our group of contributors makes sense given the growth in the e-book platform."

Percentage sales of e-books are skyrocketing - but keep in mind, from a very small base. That said, traditional book sales are going in the opposite direction. Latest figures from the Association of American Publishers showed e-book sales up 167 percent through May of this year. Printed book sales were down 4 percent.

So who's buying e-books? According to a recent report by Bowker Publisher Services, it's mostly men. In 2008, men accounted for 55 percent of e-book purchases, with the figure growing to 57 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 accounted for 52 percent of e-book purchases last year.

Most striking, e-book sales made up only 0.6 percent of all book purchases in 2008, according to the Bowker report, which appeared in Publishers Weekly earlier this month. That shows why the percentage growth is so phenomenal. But there's something else indicated. With such a tiny sliver of the industry, e-books have a vast opportunity to turn runaway percentage growth into respectable volume sales.

It's worth noting, given the remarkable turnout here at the Post last week for a book signing by Nora Roberts, that there is a burgeoning audience for romance e-books. Aileen Harkwood, a California author of paranormal romances, is tapping into this with her blog Kindling Romance, which provides news and information for romance aficionados who use the Kindle and other e-readers. Most interesting are her weekly e-book romance bestseller lists. Harkwood collects the top sellers from a selection of sites, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, allromanceebooks.com, the eBook Store, Fictionwise and eHarlequin.com.

Who knows, after seeing the hordes and the enthusiasm for Nora Roberts, I may just have witnessed the key to the future of e-books.

By Steven E. Levingston |  July 27, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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Having just moved far too many books into a new house, I was just last week thinking how convenient it would be if all my "entertaining fiction that I might want to read again" were contained in a device like a Kindle.

It would however be inconvenient if those e-books were in the habit of vanishing without notice... so I remain leery of the Kindle for the time being.

Posted by: tegularius | July 27, 2009 11:15 AM

"It would however be inconvenient if those e-books were in the habit of vanishing without notice... so I remain leery of the Kindle for the time being."

Odd that someone would say this. Illegal ecopies(?) of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm were removed by Big Brother, I mean, by Amazon on 7/17 from the Kindles of people who bought them. (The Kindle "owners" were refunded.)


Posted by: prokaryote | July 27, 2009 5:17 PM

I can appreciate Kindles on one level only, for user manuals of constantly upgraded technology that are often obsolete five minutes after being committed to print. Otherwise, give me the independence of a real hold-in-your hands book (we need to find a term like "bricks and mortar" to distinguish traditional books from electronic palimpsest in these conversations) that only requires the light of day or a favorite lamp by which to see the pages. Give me something I had to browse for in a bookstore smelling of ink and fresh cut paper or the must of used volumes. Give me an art form that yields the comfortable gravitas of stitched vellum or the dash of a glued paperback's thinner pages. Give me a jacket into which an artist put thought and soul. I guess this makes me an unrepentant materialist but I don't think it makes me a dinosaur.

Posted by: cebeling | July 27, 2009 5:47 PM

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