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Kindle fails to set light to unsold e-book pile

Rumours of death of paper greatly exaggerated

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The humble paper-based book isn't burnt just yet. Amazon is keeping schtum as to how many e-books it has sold, but evidence is mounting that predictions of iPod-grade sales and billion-dollar revenues were a smidge optimistic.

Earlier this month CitiGroup predicted that Amazon would shift 380,000 electronic books during 2008, and would see annual revenue of over a billion by 2010. But it's worth taking a moment to see where those figures came from as Amazon won't release any official figures.

The story starts with TechCrunch reporting it had reliable information that Amazon had sold 240,000 Kindles, even suggesting CitiGroup might like to revise their predictions based on this new information. CitiGroup's Mark Mahaney promptly did exactly that, and the Reg reported those predictions.

TechCrunch's figures were, it admits, based on devices shipped from the factory rather than sold to punters, and Amazon has been quick to deny that sales are quite so stellar. Analyst Tim Bueneman spoke to Amazon management last week, and was told that the estimates were not reasonable. In an emailed advisory he explains that Amazon management "told us the Kindle is definitely selling very well, but they also said the analysts and reporters giving out these extremely high estimates 'did not run them by company'".

Given Amazon's zip-lipped policy on sales figures, it's unsurprising that TechCrunch didn't check, and the site is standing by its figures despite the comments from Amazon. But if there are a quarter of a million Kindles out there, one has to wonder what they're all being used for.

The Kindle's most popular newspaper is The New York Times, but executives for the paper said last month that they had only sold a "small amount" of subscriptions, so electronic-book users obviously aren't reading the papers. Nor are they buying books, apparently, as one book publisher at BookExpo America estimated (anonymously, to the New York Times) that Amazon has sold only 10,000 devices - another reckoned that only 50,000 e-books of any kind are in circulation.

Another publisher reports that while Kindle users have been buying books, the early-adopter enthusiasm might be waning. "I have been tracking the sales of Kindle editions of our books against sales of the printed versions for the past almost eight months. Kindle sales have declined noticeably over the past few weeks, while print editions continue to sell at a steady pace."

So if they're not buying books, or reading newspapers, what are all those Kindle owners doing? Project Gutenberg is good, but eventually one is going to want something a little more contemporary. If Amazon and Sony were to announce huge sales then publishers would put out more content, leading to more sales, and everyone winning - so you have to ask why the e-book manufacturers are being so cagey about sales. Is it me, or is it a bit chilly around here? ®

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