Amazon.com Inc. built its business on a digital platform, but it has always fundamentally been a paper pusher - until now.
The Seattle-based company announced Thursday that it is now selling more e-books than books printed on paper.
Amazon has reached this milestone on other occasions since it started selling digital books in November of 2007: on Christmas Day in 2009, e-book sales outpaced physical sales for the day (due largely to people who had received Kindles as gifts shopping for their new devices.) And e-book sales have outstripped hardcover in the past as well. But every day since April 1, Amazon has sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 physical books, paperback and hardcover - suggesting the growth of digital book sales is now sustained.
"Customers are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books. We had high hopes that this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly," Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos said in a statement Thursday.
However, the increase in number of e-books sold does not mean Amazon is making more money from digital book sales than physical. The company does not disclose specific sales numbers for its book segment, or break out the difference between print and digital revenues from books. More than 80 per cent of the digital books in Amazon's U.S. Kindle store are $9.99 (U.S.) or cheaper, while printed books - especially hard covers - often retail for more.
The perk of digital sales is that it takes out shipping costs for a retailer, and printing costs for publishers. The industry at large has been pushing digital books, with U.S. digital sales up 145.7 per cent in March compared to the same month a year ago, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Amazon says that book sales, in both units and dollars, have grown this year for print and for digital - digital is up three times its levels year-to-date compared to one year ago.
"This transformation is taking place. That's pretty clear," said Albert Greco, a professor of marketing in the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York, who researches the publishing industry. "If this business could go 100 per cent digital today, there would be no printing and binding [costs] no returns."
But Mr. Greco predicts that while the e-book industry will continue to grow and print book sales will fall, it will be a long time before print falls away completely. He predicts e-book revenues in the U.S. will reach $1.2-billion (U.S.) this year, compared to revenues of $9.3-billion (U.S.) for print.
Amazon's announcement applies to e-books sold in its Amazon.com store, which sell all over the world. The company would not disclose information on its digital book sales from the Amazon.ca domain. Amazon has been shipping Kindles globally for more than a year, and says it's "pleased with the response from our international customers." On the U.K. site, where Amazon has sold Kindle books for nine months, it sells more than twice as many digital books as hardcover books.
Amazon also announced that its $114 Kindle edition - which is priced cheaper because users tolerate ads and other promotions on-screen - is now the bestselling version of the Kindle. (That edition is not available in Canada.)
Many analysts have suggested that for digital book sales to explode, e-readers must be priced lower than $100. Amazon could push digital book growth even further, Mr. Greco suggested, by offering subsidized Kindle devices with a commitment to spend a certain amount on e-books over a period of years, the way that telecom companies offer free or heavily discounted phones with a wireless contract.
"If someone could come up with [a contract-based]business model, they could revolutionize this business in six months. No kidding."