It is an announcement that will provoke horror among those who can think of nothing better than spending an afternoon rummaging around a musty old bookshop. In what could be a watershed for the publishing industry, Amazon said sales of digital books have outstripped U.S. sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time.

Amazon claims to have sold 143 digital books for its e-reader, the Kindle, for every 100 hardback books over the past three months. The pace of change is also accelerating. Amazon said that in the most recent four weeks, the rate reached 180 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks sold. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said sales of the Kindle and ebooks had reached a “tipping point”, with five authors including Steig Larsson, the writer of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, and Stephenie Meyer, who penned the Twilight series, each selling more than 500,000 digital books. Earlier this month, Hachette said James Patterson had sold 1.1 million ebooks to date.

Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of the Bookseller, said the figures from Amazon were “eye-catching”, but added a note of scepticism. He said that while ebooks had outnumbered hardbacks in volume, they were likely to be some distance behind in value. Some of the bestsellers listed on the Kindle top 10 list were retailing for as little as $1.16. Free downloads of books no longer in copyright were excluded from the figures.

It does not appear that the growth of ebooks is damaging sales of physical books. According to the Association of American Publishers, hardback sales are still growing in the U.S., up 22 per cent this year.

The association says that ebook sales in the U.S. account for six per cent of the consumer book market. One publisher in London said the U.S. was “two or three years ahead of us. But there is no reason to suppose we won't see the same thing happening here.”

Kate Pool, deputy general-secretary of the Royal Society of Authors, said most authors would be “delighted” to sell large numbers of digital books. “If you speak to most authors, they couldn't bear to get rid of their old bookshelves, but if their readers want to read on an e-reader, then great. They are in it to earn a living after all.” The market is still relatively small in Britain. Digital sales were around £150 million last year, says the Publishers' Association, over 80 per cent in the academic-professional sector, with only £5 million in consumer sales.

The Kindle has been available in the U.K. since October, although customers still need to visit the U.S. site and get the device delivered from America.

The books catalogue is also available only through the American site and the titles priced in dollars. A spokesman said there were 390,000 titles available for U.K. readers to download. The company will not release figures on the number of Kindles sold. “We are nowhere near the same level as the U.S.,” Denny added. “I have never seen anyone using a Kindle in Britain. The iPad is more interesting.” Amazon cut the price of its device in June in response to the launch of Apple's iPad, which many believe could provide a substantial threat to the Kindle's market. Waterstones has sold ebooks from its website for the Sony Reader since September 2008 and will sell its one-millionth title this year, a spokesman said.

Ms Pool said she had yet to invest in an ebook reader. “I have played around with one, but I haven't read a full book on one. It is not that I am a Luddite, more of a scrooge, which I think is the same for many people. I am waiting for the price to come down, for the amount of content available to go up and I want to be sure I am not buying the wrong thing. I don't want to be left with a Betamax when everyone else is watching VHS.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Keywords: e-booke-readergadgets

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