How an Amazon triumph was kindled

Branching out: Amazon's Kindle Fire HD is a combined colour ereader and tablet

Branching out: Amazon's Kindle Fire HD is a combined colour ereader and tablet

 

WORD FOR WORDIt might not have seemed like it to many outside the book trade, but when Jeff Bezos spoke about Amazon’s quarterly results in January he was announcing a victory. “After five years,” he said, “ebooks is a multibillion-dollar category for us and growing fast, up approximately 70 per cent last year.”.

The company launched a war in November 2007 by releasing the first Kindle ereader and attempting to change the way people read books. Amazon saw a future in which ereading was a significant part of the book trade, along with lower prices and simple self-publishing. Amazon was not the first company to push ebooks, but it was the first to popularise them and to create a mass market for digital reading.

The move didn’t at first win Amazon many fans among publishers. Most big houses have been reluctant participants in the ebook revolution, afraid, like most traditional media industry players, about the effects of ebooks on the economics of their existing businesses.

It hasn’t all been easy for Amazon, but its version of the future has come to pass, more or less. The company now sells millions of ebooks and ereaders and is building a large digital business in other media through its Kindle brand (now branching out into colour tablet computers).

Even Irish readers have felt Amazon’s impact on their habits. The venerable and much-loved Hodges Figgis, part of the Waterstones chain, sells Kindle ereaders, and several independent booksellers have teamed up with Amazon’s rival ebook platform Kobo. Apple, too, sells ebooks to Irish consumers, and our largest book chain, Eason, will launch its own branded ereader, the Leaf, this year.

There was one further sting in the tail at Amazon’s earnings announcement. Even as he proclaimed the success of Amazon’s digital-books programme, Bezos said: “Our physical-book sales experienced the lowest December growth rate in our 17 years as a bookseller, up just 5 per cent.”

This was a double blow for print, taking the wind out of the sails of the few remaining print believers and contrasting the success of digital with the moribund print market.

Bezos’s announcement had another, subtler message for the book trade: few other booksellers saw their print-book sales increase by 5 per cent in 2012. Even in the arena it paints as the past, Amazon is outperforming its rivals.

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