- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It’s a paradox in the making: On Monday, Amazon.com announced that the firm had sold 180 electronic books, or e-books, the previous month for every 100 printed-on-paper books it sold.

“Even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format,” Jeffrey R. Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of the online bookseller, said in a statement released by the company. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books — astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

According to Amazon, five novelists: Charlaine Harris, Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson and Nora Roberts “have each sold more than 500,000 Kindle books.” Earlier this month, Mr. Patterson’s publisher, Hachette Book Group, announced that he had sold 1.14 million e-books, according to the Amazon statement. “Of those, 867,881 were Kindle books,” the announcement noted.

The significance of these numbers shouldn’t be missed. We are witnessing, right now, a major revolution — call it a “sea change,” if you like — in the publishing and distribution of books. Where it ultimately will lead is not clear, but the prospects are quite something right now.

Since the beginning of the computer revolution — and your correspondent has witnessed most of the past three decades of that journey — there’s been talk about “digital paper” replacing books, magazines, newspapers and so forth. While some of that has been accomplished (when was the last time you bought a business newsletter, for example, that was print only?), much of that promise has yet to be realized. After all, we still write and print tons of documents daily, especially in the District of Columbia and its suburbs.

But books are a different thing and, now, perhaps an evolving one. Amazon’s claim is a bit audacious — do people really prefer pixels to paper? — but there is also a measure of logic to the argument. The Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader, has dropped in price to $189, which is $70 less than I paid for one of mine. (It’s also about half the price of the least expensive Apple iPad, although the iPad does way, way more than offer e-book capabilities.) That lower price, Amazon says, is a “tipping point” for consumers, who are now buying the Kindle in droves, fueling the sale of e-books.

Maybe so, but I read my Kindle purchases on my iPad and/or iPhone, thanks to the free applications Amazon.com offers for these platforms, joining similar free software for PCs, Macintosh desktops, iPods, BlackBerry and Android smart phones. To buy and read a Kindle book, I don’t need Kindle hardware — just a device that supports the software.

Amazon also can boast of the range of titles available for the Kindle. According to the firm’s statement, “The U.S. Kindle Store now has more than 630,000 books, including New Releases and 106 of 110 New York Times Best Sellers. Over 510,000 of these books are $9.99 or less, including 75 New York Times Best Sellers. Over 1.8 million free, out-of-copyright, pre-1923 books are also available to read on Kindle.”

I still have issues with several navigational aspects of the Kindle platform, although it is certainly good for “basic” book reading. And because it is, and because its pricing is generally reasonable, I can recommend the platform, if not the devices, with confidence. You’ll have a good reading experience here, even if a Kindle-based version of the Bible may not jump to chapter and verse, something I miss.

What isn’t to be missed, however, is that we are approaching a state of “critical mass.” There are apparently enough Kindle users, and certainly enough Kindle-friendly titles, to make the publishing world sit up and take notice. Once it becomes extremely easy — and extremely quick — to “publish” for the Kindle, a true revolution in content creation may be under way.

Where that will lead could be quite exciting, indeed.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.