Chuck's Q Blog

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Just another ICM blog

Shifting reading habits

New figures last week from Amazon.com suggest that the bookseller’s customers are ready and willing to make the move to digital.

In each of the last three months, Amazon reports that sales of books for its Kindle e-reader have outpaced the sale of hardcover books, and that growth is only accelerating, according to  Mashable.com.

E-book sales topped hardcover briefly last year, but these are sustained numbers over the course of a quarter.

Some of the increase — 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May — can be attributed to a price cut for the Kindle. But that’s not the whole story since Amazon makes its e-books available through apps on other devices.

It’s no coincidence that the uptick also coincides with the launch of the iPad, which sold 3 million units in its first three months, two of which are included in Amazon’s numbers.

The shift at Amazon is “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement.

Amazon doesn’t say how many digital books it sold during any of the periods it cites. As of early June, Apple said it had sold 5 million books and had already gained about a quarter of the digital book market.

Looking for a digital hero

Newspapers need a digital hero.

Last spring, I was at a journalism event and the discussion at the dinner table turned to the newly announced Kindle DX, which was due to begin shipping in a few weeks. People were excited about the DX because it offered a larger screen than the original Kindle, which might make it more suitable for presenting and reading electronic editions of a newspaper.

I was asked my opinion about it and I said that I would wait on buying a Kindle because there was a rumor that Apple was going to launch some kind of giant iPod Touch device, possibly as soon as that summer. If that were true, I said, I’d rather have something with a color screen and more capabilities than just an e-reader.

That June came and went with no announcement. But the rumors persisted and were finally confirmed in January with the announcement of the iPad.

Since its release in April, there have been a lot of side-by-side comparisons of these devices. The Kindle generally scores better when the weight of the units is concerned or the visibility of the screens are compared. But the iPad scores points for just about everything else.

While the Kindle is an excellent e-reader, is that enough to maintain its sales? Can it hold off the charge of the iPad when the low-end Apple device costs only $10 more than the DX, which is similar in size? Can the Kindle be the device the news industry needs now when it’s grayscale screen is stuck in the past and it doesn’t handle video or let users surf the Web when they’re done reading?

We know the iPad sold 2 million units in its first two months, but Amazon has never released sales numbers for the Kindle. That makes me suspect that they aren’t very impressive. After being on sale for nearly three years, it’s believed Kindle sales topped 3 million earlier this year.

On top of that, even Amazon must see the writing on the touchscreen since it has a Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone. (Oddly, one of the screenshots of the iPad app shows a color photo on one of the pages — something you can’t see on a real Kindle yet.)

The iPad option for news organizations isn’t without it’s problems, but as a potentially useful device, it begins to make the road ahead a little clearer. By rethinking and reinvigorating the tablet concept, it might pave the way for a print alternative in a way the Kindle — at least in its present form — can’t hope to achieve.

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