Despite early skepticism, Kindle may be sparking interest

[3 June 2008]

By Eric Benderoff and Wailin Wong

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - Here’s one reason why you may want to take the hardcover of David Sedaris’ new book to the beach this summer instead of the digital version for Amazon’s Kindle: Sand between the pages won’t ruin a good story.

About six months after its introduction, the Kindle electronic reading device is entering its first beach season amid increasing discussion that the gadget may have a future. Skepticism about whether people will try reading books on a screen instead of the printed page is being joined by evidence of a nascent but growing market for the Kindle and its competitor from Sony.

Much of the talk focuses on the comment by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, who said for the first time that the Kindle is having an impact on book sales.

“Of the 125,000 books available both as a physical book and on Kindle, Kindle books already account for over 6 percent of units sold,” Bezos said in a statement coinciding with a book publishing trade show in Los Angeles late last week.

On the other hand, Amazon won’t disclose how many consumers have bought a Kindle - reduced to $359 last week from $399 - or how many actual e-books have sold for the device.

Nonetheless, publishers are making more titles available on the Kindle. Simon & Schuster Inc. said it would add 5,000 titles to its Kindle offerings after e-book sales grew by 40 percent in 2007.

E-books represent the fastest-growing category for publishers, though the sales volume is tiny compared to traditional books. In 2007 sales rose by 23.6 percent over 2006, accounting for $67 million in sales. Overall, the book industry grew by 3.2 percent in 2007 and had sales of $25 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Ross Rubin, an analyst for the NPD Group, said it’s still too early to say if e-books will have a big impact on book sales but the category is emerging.

“There are only two players and publishers are just starting to open up their catalogs,” he said. The other player is the Sony Reader Digital Book.

Rubin said the Sony product had a “decent holiday season” last year and that the $299 device has some form-factor advantages over the Kindle. “It’s a thinner and simpler product in some ways,” he said. NPD is tracking sales for the Sony device, but it won’t disclose details.

For small publishers, the Kindle can provide a new outlet for sales.

“I think for small presses such as ours, whose books are often not available as readily, something like Kindle may actually increase sales,” said Donna Shear, director of Northwestern University Press.

“The groundswell has shifted among small presses, who for years might have resisted electronic publishing,” she said. “The physical book is not going to go away, but this is another viable delivery system and we have to think of it as an opportunity and not a threat.”

At the University Chicago Press, e-book sales are encouraging.

“We’re selling small numbers, but we consider it a step forward,” said Director Garrett Kiely.

But not everyone is ready to embrace the change.

Academy Chicago Publishers, a small Chicago firm that does both fiction and non-fiction, is “not planning” to produce e-books, said co-owner Jordan Miller.

“Those of us that like books and publish books aren’t too crazy about the idea of putting them into electronic media because we think that part of the enjoyment of the book is a tactile sort of sensation - the feel of a book, the smell of it, turning the pages,” he said.

The Sedaris book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” will be released Tuesday in hardcover and electronic formats. The title is expected to be “our big hit for the summer,” said Robert McDonald, the book buyer at Chicago’s Unabridged Bookstore, which has operated as an independent retailer for 28 years.

“In some ways, booksellers may have had their heads in the sand,” he said. “We love the written word, and maybe we’ve scoffed at e-books in the past. That’s unfortunate,” he said, but added there’s little the retailer can do about it since e-books aren’t sold through bookstores.

“It’s a reality we have to deal with,” he said.

One way is to offer the service and content digital retailers can’t offer. Unabridged will sell signed and personalized copies of the Sedaris book available for customers who pre-pay.

“In our store, we try to have a full-time staff of people who love to read, who can talk knowledgeably about a wide range of books,” McDonald said. “That’s a commodity that’s becoming rarer and rarer.”

Rubin, the analyst, thinks sales will keep improving, but the Kindle won’t duplicate what Apple has done in music.

“For Amazon, unit volumes don’t need to be at an iPod level, or even near an iPod level, because they have an absolute lock on the product,” he said, noting that Amazon sells both the hardware (the Kindle) and the software (the books).

Best-sellers can he had for about $10 on the Kindle, while prices for other titles vary.

Electronic books aren’t “going to replace the leather-bound classics a collector wants, but as a substitution for paperbacks, business books or summer reading, it’s a good fit,” Rubin said.

Just beware of the sand.

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