It Doesn't Take Many E-Book Sales to Make a Kindle Bestseller

For the past two years, Amazon (AMZN) has been exciting consumers and frustrating book industry types with its puffed-up press releases about the strength of Kindle and e-book sales. The level of self-congratulation appears to have reached a new high with the most recent release, which boldly claimed that the Kindle has become the most gifted item in the company's history, and that on Christmas day, more Kindle books sold than physical copies.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% What's missing here is the thing that has been missing for the entire history of the Kindle -- real, numerical data. Until that so-called Holy Grail of book publishing statistics is discovered, we will have to be satisfied analyzing the few tantalizing clues available to perform mushy math calculations about how well -- or how poorly -- Amazon is really doing on the e-book and e-reader terrain.

Amazon has never made public its specific sales numbers, preferring instead to tout dreamlike qualitative measures. For example, CEO Jeff Bezos recently asserted in Newsweek that, "For titles that have a Kindle edition, Kindle book sales are 48 percent of the physical sales. That's up from 35 percent in May." But the lack of solid, quantitative data about sales means that effectively, Kindle book sales comprise 48% of some nebulous number between bupkesand infinity.

Here's what we do know: Amazon's Kindle bestseller list, as released each week to media outlets, includes only of books with actual price tags attached. But GalleyCat reported this week that of the top 100 Kindle book bestsellers on Monday, Dec. 28, 64 titles could be downloaded for free. And at any given point, only 1 or 2 of the top ten Kindle book bestsellers (this week: James Patterson's "I, Alex Cross" and Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol") require payment.

We also know that compared to brick-and-mortar outlets such as Barnes & Noble (BKS), Borders (BGP) and Wal-Mart (WMT), Amazon provides only a small fraction of total book sales, even for bestselling authors. Back in 2005, a New York Times bestselling thriller writer provided me with sales data for his or her most recent book, recorded over a three-week period. Wal-Mart and Anderson Merchandisers, together, dominated total sales; only 320 copies were sold through Amazon. Obviously, a lot has changed in four years, but, as the CEO for a publishing company told DailyFinance more recently, "Amazon has never broken a book and created a national bestseller."

The Biggest Big E-Fish in a Small-Print Pond

Amazon, however, does appear to dominate on the e-book front. Earlier this month, literary agent Steven Axelrod posted a comment on publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin's blog that revealed the percentage breakdown of "e-book sales for the recent New York Times bestselling hardcover by one of [his] most successful authors" in the period ending on June 30, 2009. According to Axelrod, Kindle book sales made up 78% of the bestselling author's total e-book sales; Sony Reader e-book sales came in a very distant second, at 12%. Rounding up the list of e-book sales by format were Palm Reader (5%) Adobe E-Book Reader (4%) and Microsoft Reader (2%). Still, there's no data as to how many e-books this particular bestselling author sold during that time period (Axelrod did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Axelrod's comments appear in an update posted below.)

Still another possible clue about the magnitude of e-book sales came from another blog commenter, albeit one who wants to keep his or her identity secret (so, cue the requisite grain-of-salt warning). Posting in response to digital-books blogger Mike Cane's open call for actual Kindle book sales data, the anonymous commenter, alleging to be "someone who receives the sales numbers for our titles directly from Amazon and I look at them every week," claimed on behalf of the trade publisher he or she would not name: "I can tell you that our top Kindle sales of any one title are in the range of about 1000 downloads life to date."

Amazon traditionally punts on confirming or denying any claims with respect to sales numbers. A company spokesperson wrote that "as a matter of company policy, we do not disclose unit sales," though they are "pleased with how Kindle's [sic] been received and the great demand." But in light of Amazon's relative proportion of total print book sales, it's not unreasonable to figure that the number of e-books it sells isn't very high -- even for its top earners such as Patterson, Dan Brown or Sarah Palin, whose "Going Rogue" was finally released as an e-book on Dec. 24.

And that means all of the battles Amazon has waged over the past year to dominate the e-book landscape and to force publishers to bend to its $9.99 pricing strategy have been rooted as much in smoke and mirrors as in making money.

UPDATE: Steven Axelrod provided additional specifics with respect to the e-book sales for the NYT bestselling author under discussion. For the period between January 1 and June 30, 2009, Axelrod said, this author - whose most recent hardcover was released earlier in the year and had sold 76,000 copies up until that same date - netted a total of 4,764 e-book sales. That means that Kindle book sales, which comprised 78% of the total, translated into 3,723 actual copies. Additional e-book sales by format were 555 copies for the Sony Reader, 238 copies for the Palm Reader, 163 for Adobe E-Book Reader and 80 copies for the Microsoft Reader.

However, Axelrod added, "Unfortunately, I didn't go back in time to measure the rise of ebook sales in general or Kindle sales in particular for this author or any other," as that was not the point of his original blog comment. "Likewise I can't tell you if other authors' e-book sales parallel the author I examined, since not all houses break down e-book sales by format and this author was the only one I represent whose sales were broken down in this kind of detail."
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