Industry

E-books overtake printed book sales at Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.co.uk marked a new milestone for the popularity of e-books today when it reported that the digital format was now outselling printed books on its platform.

The online retailer, which first started selling books in the UK in 1998, said that so far this year, Amazon.co.uk had sold 114 Kindle books for every 100 printed books sold. The figure excludes free Kindle books and includes printed books which are not available in a Kindle edition.

The company, which now has more than a million titles in its e-book catalogue, says that Kindle shoppers are more likely to buy more books. On average, it says, UK Kindle readers buy four times as many books as they did before they had a Kindle – and continue to buy physical copies at the same time as digital ones.

The news comes two years after the Kindle was introduced in the UK in August 2010. By May 2011 sales of Kindle books had overtaken sales of hardback books, and today the retailer said they had overtaken the combined total sales of both hardback and paperback books.

“Customers in the UK are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books, even as our print business continues to grow,” said Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice president of Kindle EU. “We hit this milestone in the US less than four years after introducing Kindle, so to reach this landmark after just two years in the UK is remarkable and shows how quickly UK readers are embracing Kindle.”

The top 10 most popular authors bought for the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk are EL James, Suzanne Collins, Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Lee Child, Nick Spalding, S.J. Watson, George RR Martin, Katia Lief and Kerry Wilkinson. Three of these, Nick Spalding, Katia Lief and Kerry Wilkinson, are published through Kindle Direct Publishing, which allows authors to publish their own work directly.

Our view: There’s been a lot of uncertainty about what the effect of e-book sales will be on book sales in general. Allied with a fear that digital sales would cannibalise hard-copy sales, there’s been nervousness that printed book sales might not survive the advent of digital. That’s why for us, the most interesting line to come out of this news is this one: “Kindle owners continue to buy physical books as well.” Allied to Amazon’s figures that also show Kindle owners buy four times as many books as they did previously (though presumably this means that they buy four times as many books on Amazon as they did before), there’s a strong suggestion that e-readers may have helped to reestablish interest in a wide variety of books, rather than killing off the printed version.

Could it be that the primary effect of e-book sales has been to encourage shoppers to buy in a wide range of format – depending on the purpose of the transaction. We’re sure that the digitally downloaded book has yet to take off for birthday and Christmas presents, a significant part of the book market.

This multiformat approach seems to mirror the multichannel nature of shopping, by allowing shoppers to buy in the way and at the time that is most convenient to them. To our mind that suggests that high street bookselling will remain an important part of the market. What it will look like, however, may be very different, with a need for bookshops to diversify – as many have – beyond selling books to new ways of adding value to the transaction.