E-Readers Sell Big . . . Maybe

Back in August, I wrote about Amazon.com's odd habit of frequently bragging about sales of its Kindle e-reader without ever providing explicit numbers. It continues to do so -- and it's inspired its competitors to do some similarly evasive crowing of their own.

Barnes & Noble issued a press release yesterday that it had sold "millions" of Nooks since the first version's release in December of 2009. But it mostly bragged about Nook sales without disclosing them, by saying that Nooks are the company's best-selling products ever, and that the Nookcolor is its best-selling gift this holiday season.


The only hard number in the release is the "millions" of Nooks sold; we can apparently assume that B&N has sold at least two million devices. (A few weeks ago, it was a minor news story when an Amazon staffer said that "millions" of third-generation Kindles had been sold in 73 days; I wonder if B&N would have been even this specific if Amazon hadn't made the leap first?)

Barnes & Noble's release follows a recent Amazon one which doesn't mention specific Kindle numbers, but does say the new model is the company's all-time bestseller, and that it outsold Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Amazon.com today announced that the third-generation Kindle is now the bestselling product in Amazon's history, eclipsing "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)." The company also announced that on its peak day, Nov. 29, customers ordered more than 13.7 million items worldwide across all product categories, which is a record-breaking 158 items per second.

"We're grateful to the millions of customers who have made the all-new Kindle the bestselling product in the history of Amazon -- surpassing Harry Potter 7," said Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder and CEO.

[snip]

On Christmas Day, more people turned on new Kindles for the first time, downloaded more Kindle Buy Once, Read Everywhere apps, and purchased more Kindle books than on any other day in history.

As I've said before, Amazon works so very hard to promote the Kindle on its site that it would be astonishing if it weren't its best-seller. If it devoted the same energy to pushing, say, the iPad Nano, it too might well outsell everything else. And the comparison with Harry Potter, while fun, doesn't tell us much. (Or at least not as much as we'd learn if we had concrete sales numbers for, say, the Kindle and the iPad.)

Canadian e-book underdog Kobo also issued a press release this week. It's both vaguer (it doesn't make any specific claim about e-readers) and more specific (it talks about hundreds of thousands of devices -- including phones and other gadgets that can run Kobo software, presumably -- being activated per day). And it quotes a bunch of stats comparing Kobo's current performance to earlier performance numbers. Which we don't know.

Kobo, the only pure-play global eReading service built on an open platform, has revealed its Holiday 2010 momentum. This Christmas, readers around the world received new eReaders and iPads and other eReading devices under their tree. Over a million people connected to Kobo, and hundreds of thousands of devices were activated each day since Christmas Eve, fuelling the highest eBook download rate in the company's history. People around the world chose Kobo this Christmas, with the popular easy-to-use Kobo Wireless eReader, dozens of compatible eReaders, top-rated applications for iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and one of the largest catalogues in the world with over 2.2 million eBooks, newspapers and magazines.

"Earlier this month we predicted that Christmas would be a record breaker for Kobo, and we have exceeded our expectations driving several ebook downloads per second since Christmas Eve, or an equivalent number hardcover books stacked as high as 50 Empire State Buildings " said Michael Serbinis, CEO of Kobo. "I would like to thank our customers for choosing Kobo to start building their digital library this Christmas. Our success this holiday season is a pre-cursor to a New Year with people reading more than ever thanks to eBooks and Kobo."

Kobo's holiday growth also included:

· Total registered users nearly doubling from the six weeks prior

· A 50X increase in purchases from previous Holiday weekend last year

· A 5X increase in purchases from the previous biggest weekend (also in December)

The image of a stack of hardcovers as tall as fifty Empire State Buildings is fun, but also doesn't involve a concrete number. (If the hardcovers in question were an inch thick on average, we'd be talking 750,000 e-books...which sounds like it might be in line with Kobo's claim of a million users "connecting" to its service and hundreds of thousands of new users a day. Then again, maybe Kobo is talking about two-inch hardcovers.)

One other major e-reader manufacturer, Sony, hasn't put out any press releases about sales as far as I know. But the company has said that "millions" of units have been sold (since Sony's first Reader came out more than four years ago) and that they might sell out this holiday season.

Bottom line: e-reader companies almost never use real numbers except when they can mention (unspecified) millions of something.

Now, nobody in the e-reader business is required to disclose information that might be useful to competitors, or which might not be as impressive as some industry watchers would have expected. But tech companies in other categories are far more likely to use real numbers -- almost always when they're especially impressive, and sometimes even when they're not. Last week, for instance, Apple issued a release saying that sales of the new Apple TV were about to top one million. That's a respectable number, but not a surprisingly spectacular one; knowing it actually tells you something.(Then again, I don't think Apple has disclosed issued press releases about any iPad sales figures since way back on June 22nd -- as noted in a comment below, it's revealed them in financial statements.)

Similarly, Microsoft has said that Windows Phone 7 handset makers sold 1.5 million phones to wireless carriers in the first six weeks -- actual useful information that can be used for at least ballpark comparisons with other stats such as Google's claim of 300,000 Android activations per day.

Maybe it's just me -- and maybe I'm misinterpreting -- but my conclusion probably isn't the one that e-reader makers want me to come to. My takeaway from all the vagueness is that they're afraid that people won't be impressed by sales -- at least in comparison to smartphones, MP3 players, and other products which aren't Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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