Amazon got a lot of attention yesterday for announcing that over the last three months, it's sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books. In the last month, the ratio is 180 to 100.
There are a couple of things that occur to me about these numbers, as both an e-book enthusiast and a general skeptic.
First of all, while the $9.99 price point Amazon has tried to establish for new releases (which no longer holds as broadly as it once did) gets lots of attention, there are many, many Kindle books that cost far less than that. There are many that cost a dollar, or 99 cents, and they're all being counted. Amazon specified in the press release that free books are excluded from this number, but there are still a lot of e-books being sold that amount to very low-risk gambles by buyers who aren't making a decision between buying a hardcover book and a Kindle book. There's an almost what-the-heck quality to buying a 99-cent book that isn't even a tangible object, because worst-case scenario, you don't even have to dispose of it. You can just pretend you never even bought it, and all you're out is your 99 cents.
My guess is that there are only going to be more and more very cheap digital books of wildly varying quality. E-books are hospitable to self-publishing, after all, and the more people are self-publishing their labors of love — and presumably pricing them accordingly — the more those efforts are going to add up in raw numbers if not in real impact.
Obviously, paperbacks represent an even bigger limitation to what these numbers mean. It would be more instructive in some ways to compare paperbacks and Kindle books, since they're more comparable price-wise, in my experience. Moreover, they're more comparable convenience-wise. Reading on my Kindle might be five times more convenient than reading (and hauling) a large hardcover book, but only twice as convenient as a paperback. In other words, not only does the price advantage shrink when you compare to paperbacks rather than hardcovers, but many of the other possible advantages do, too. What that suggests to me is that it will take exponentially longer for the digital book to dent the paperback than it will for it to dent the hardcover business.
The caution to the caution, though, is that I do see more people reading e-books in the wild than I did when I first owned my reader. The encroachment of digital books on paper publishing is certainly real. But for Amazon to sell more digital books than hardcover books, while interesting, is a long way from a print death knell.