Paperback vs. ebook

As many of you know, I am deeply interested in ways that developments in digital technology change our relationship to traditional cultural values, especially when it comes to the digital’s impact on reading, the cultural transmission of knowledge, and those mainstays of humanistic thought: books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no cheerleader for all things digital. Sometimes, in the midst of hyperventilating digitalistas, I find my self playing the role of the skeptic. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that there is a future for the book in digital environments.

All that is a way of introducing a curiosity I have fostered since the very first idea of publishing The Outspokin’ Cyclist: would the book be more popular as a paperback or ebook? Amazon’s Author Central gives authors unprecedented access to sales information about their books, and the geek in me anxiously set up my account in the days following the book’s release. Now that 2011 has come to a close, I have a reasonable spectrum of data to look back at.

A few caveats. Amazon’s Author Central graphs and figures report Nielsen BookScan data as well as Amazon’s own tracking.  This means that Amazon can report Amazon sales in real time but sales from bookstores only as often as those bookstores report sales. For most places, this is weekly. So, while there seems to be a pattern of weekend sales spikes, we have to interpret those spikes with a grain of salt. Another caveat is that when it comes to ebook sales, Amazon reports only Kindle sales. I don’t have a centralized method for tracking sales of epub versions.

Paperback sales
Author Central, paperback sales

Kindle sales
Author Central, Kindle sales

So, a few conclusions after looking at the graphs provided by Amazon: first, the paperback outsold the Kindle version more than 2:1 in 2011. Second, something we can see from the sales-rank graphs is that the Kindle consistently ranks higher than the paperback (difficult, if not impossible, to see in these small images. The thing to keep in mind is that each horizontal line marks a 100,000 place jump.). This is likely due to the fact that the set of books available on the Kindle is much smaller than the set of books available in print, and it is therefore easier to achieve a higher relative ranking. But the third thing I take away from these reports is that sales of the Kindle version appear to be increasing, while sales of the paperback appear to remain somewhat static (if not in slight decline). I wonder, then, which will have the longer shelf life.

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