How many Kindles have really been sold? (And other interesting tidbits about ebooks)

Although a lot of people are excited about ebooks, it's very difficult to get hard information on how the market for them is growing. We don't even know how many Kindles Amazon has sold, let alone more detailed specifics on the market.

So I was very happy Wednesday when the Book Industry Study Group (a publishing industry trade group) gave details from its recent survey of ebook adoption in the US. The survey was first revealed in January, but the press release was very sketchy and sometimes confusing. In its presentation at the Tools of Change conference, the BISG gave much more details on the results. My highlights from the presentation:

Ebook usage is growing fast, but it's still small. Roughly 2% of American book buyers over age 13 are active ebook users, meaning they obtained an ebook or a reader device in the last year. About half of those were first-time ebook buyers, so the usage of ebooks has probably roughly doubled in the last year. BISG is doing multiple waves in the survey, and says it found a 25% increase in ebook usage just over the holiday season, so it was a pretty good Christmas (and Hanukah) for ebooks.

The most-used device for reading an ebook is a personal computer (47%). Amazon Kindle is number two (32%), followed by Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch (21%).

Either there's something wrong with the numbers, or Amazon hasn't sold quite as many Kindles as some people think. More on that below.

What does it mean?

PC leadership is no surprise. There are so many PCs in the US that even a small percentage of PC users reading ebooks will swamp everything else. BISG said that the PC share of ebook reading is declining as other devices grow, also what I would have expected. I bet that in a year (or two at the most), a majority of ebook readers will be on non-PCs.

Apple is closer to Kindle than you might expect, but... A tidbit that jumped out at me was Apple's share of ebook usage. Kindle has gotten all the attention, but Apple has about 2/3 the share of Amazon in ebook usage without even trying. However, before we set off another round of "Apple uber alles" on the web, there are several big caveats:

--BISG didn't report on the number of books bought per platform. Based on my experience at Palm (which had an active e-reading community), I suspect that a lot of those iPhone book readers are pretty casual, buying a few books or publications to kill time when they are bored. I believe Kindle users are probably much more active readers.

(For comparison, about 4% of the Palm OS users in the US were reading ebooks at least occasionally in 2002. That total rose to about 8-10% if you included the Bible -- it was by far the most popular ebook. That amounts to about 1.5-2 million ebook users on Palm OS alone.)

--Apple and Kindle are also different demographically. After the presentation today, BISG told me that Kindle readers are older and more likely to be female compared to Apple readers. What we may be seeing is that if someone already carries an iPhone or iPod Touch, they're less likely to invest in yet another device just to read on it. Or maybe younger people just find it easier to read on a tiny screen. Either way, I think it's pleasant that Apple and Kindle are reaching somewhat different audiences rather than just stepping on each other.

--And of course the iPhone/iPod Touch installed base is a lot bigger than Kindle's. So as is the case with PCs, even relatively low ebook usage on the iPhone will add up to a lot of users.

How many Kindles are really in use? As far as I can tell, Amazon hasn't released any Kindle device sales figures, other than a quote referring to "millions" of users. Several analysts have jumped on the use of the plural as evidence that at least two million Kindles have been sold. But I think the BISG survey doesn't support that. Here's my math:

--About 2% of book buyers have ebooks and/or ebook devices.

--About a third of them have Kindles (that's 0.67% of active book buyers).

--If 0.67% of book buyers in the US is two million people, then there are 300 million active book buyers in the US. That is the entire US population, including infants and people who don't like books. I don't know what the base of active book buyers is in the US, but my guess is it's not over 200 million, meaning the installed base of Kindles would be about 1.3 million.

It's tricky to play with survey results when the percentages are this small -- the margins of error become very significant. But for now I think the BISG survey raises some questions, and I'm not willing to accept the two million figure for the Kindle installed base without some more rigorous evidence to support it.

Other tidbits

BISG is not going to release all of the information from the survey (that goes only to the companies that paid for it). So I took as many notes as I could during the presentation. Here's what I captured:

Ebooks are somewhat cheaper than hardcovers
On average, an ebook costs $6.25 less than a hardcover book. This is a huge issue to the book publishing industry, which worries that ebook sales will cannibalize hardcover book sales. My comment: Of course they do, get over it. The thing publishers should be looking at is the much higher margins they make per ebook sold. I don't know of many industries that resist moving to a higher-margin product, but publishing appears to be the grand exception. Of course, the thing worrying publishers is the decline of independent bookstores, and they're afraid ebooks will accelerate that. But the decline of the bookstore has almost nothing to do with ebooks -- it's being driven by online sales of paper books and predation by retail chains.

-Ebook buyers are 51% men (compared to 58% women for paper books).
-Ebook buyers are higher income than paper book buyers. Not a lot, but significantly higher income. No surprise there -- most poor people can't afford several hundred dollars for an ebook reader. Betcha they don't buy a lot of hardcover books either.

Among ebook buyers, 11% no longer buy any paper books. 8% buy mostly ebooks, and about 30% prefer to buy ebooks. So about half of ebook users prefer ebooks to paper books. That's actually a lower percentage than I expected for something that is supposed to take over the world. But remember, half of ebook users are reading on PCs. What I really want to know is the percentage of Kindle users who prefer ebooks; that'll tell us how satisfied Kindle users are.

Preferred device used to read ebooks
-PC: 47%
-Kindle: 32% (and rising in later waves of the survey)
-iPhone: 11%
-iPod Touch: 10% Hmmmm! iPod Touch really is a PDA.
-Other smartphones (including Blackberry) 9%
-Netbooks 9%
-Sony Reader 8%
-Barnes & Noble Nook 8% (the BISG folks noted that Nook was just starting to sell at this point; they believe some users confused Barnes & Noble ebooks with the Nook device)

Genres of ebooks
-General fiction, 31%
-Mystery 28%
-How To 25% (but #1 over Christmas)
-Science Fiction
I don't know where religion and travel went. I need to learn more about how this question was asked.


Tom Chavez said...
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