There has been a lot of skepticism about the big numbers that Apple claims to be putting up with their new iPad bookstore. Apple claims that the publishers told them that they've already cornered 22% of the eBook market (which remember is still actually only about 2% of the overall market) and the even more attention-grabbing number of 5 million books "sold".
The reason "sold" is in quotes is the same reason it's always in quotes in these discussions, because like Amazon before them, Apple is being a bit fuzzy with their numbers. As suspense author David Hewson asked via his Twitterfeed yesterday: "How many of those 5 million ebooks downloaded to iPads were free?"
The degree to which ebooks are catching on and especially the perceived dominance of any particular vector for the things is always questionable because in truth, many of the ebooks downloaded to Kindles, iPads, Nooks, et al are free. Either because of promotions or because the books are out of copyright and available free from places like Project Gutenberg, or even through the commercial channels. Barnes & Noble, for instance, brags that they're offering over a million titles formatted for the iPad, over half of which are free. It isn't clear whether those free downloads are being touted as 'sales' by Apple.
Apple isn't alone in this practice. Barnes & Noble and Amazon too are vague on how exactly they report those 'sales'. That's where the ebook sales numbers get tricky and one of the many reasons why it's so difficult to pin down just how many ebooks are bouncing around out there. It is entirely possible that the total aggregate trade in ebooks both free and paid for accounts for a significantly larger portion of the booktrade. It is just as possible -- more possible according to some -- that the percentage of the booktrade being taken over by eBooks is largely made up of these free downloads and accounts for very little in actual dollars.
Here's the rub: A cornerstone cash cows for the larger publishing companies and bookstores is selling editions of books that are out of copyright. Publishers can rack up profit at little cost because there are no rights to be paid for the many editions of Dickens and Austen. Even bookstores get in on the act, which is why so many American bookshelves have complete sets of the Classics of Western Literature with a Barnes & Noble or Borders logo on the spine. For a long time, these books are essentially free for the publishing companies, all they have to do is print and bind them. I can read all of them free, now via the internet or download them to an iPad or Kindle and not have to pay anyone a dime. They won't impress anyone lined up on my bookshelves, but if the content is what I'm after rather than the perception of erudition for my house guests.
Just one more part of the whole puzzle as the publishing industry changes around us...
Technology @ The New York Times
By By BRAD STONEPublished: June 7, 2010Apple's advances in the e-book market are not as impressive as they sound, but could prove trouble for Amazon down the road.