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Amazon’s sold (mumble mumble) of the new Kindles

They’re selling lots of them, but still no actual sales numbers from the ebook giant.

Okay, maybe it’s a minor point. And after Jeff Bezos rightfully taunted me on stage (an honor, really!) for something I wrote almost three years ago, I should probably shut up about the Kindle for a while.

But Amazon has just put out another press release talking about how great Kindle sales are without including a single actual sales number. Four years after launching the Kindle, Amazon has still not released one concrete number regarding either how many actual Kindle devices they’ve sold or how many Kindle books they’ve sold. To be clear, I have no doubt the number in both cases is “a bunch.” But I keep thinking back to what Steve Jobs said two years ago: “Usually, if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.”

We know, for instance, that Apple sold 14.8 million iPads in the last nine months of 2010 (it launched in April of that year) and 23.6 million in the first nine months of 2011. Amazon has never gotten any more specific than some variation of “millions of Kindles have been sold,” a numerical region it first referred to in January 2010. An IDC study in March estimated that Amazon had sold about 6.1 million Kindles in 2010. Is that accurate? Who knows?

Instead, Amazon loves making comparisons between unknown variables. Some of those comparisons are easily misinterpreted, such as when it announced in May that it was selling 105 Kindle ebooks for every 100 printed books — which led some people to write headlines like “About Time: Ebooks Outselling Printed Books.” (They’re not. Amazon has a 15-20 percent share of print book sales, whereas it’s the only vendor for Kindle ebooks. It’s like McDonald’s saying Shamrock Shake sales have passed Chicken McNugget sales — and extrapolating that out to mean that green Irish-themed shakes now outsell chicken in the United States.)

Here are today’s new unknowable comparisons for the new Kindles introduced eight weeks ago:

“Even before the busy holiday shopping weekend, we’d already sold millions of the new Kindle family and Kindle Fire was the bestselling product across all of Black Friday was the best ever for the Kindle family — customers purchased 4X as many Kindle devices as they did last Black Friday — and last year was a great year,” said Dave Limp, Vice President, Amazon Kindle.

I’m sure it was! And “millions” over a specific, defined time span is an improvement from “millions” over a multi-year period. But would it really kill Amazon to say, directly: “We had a great launch for these new Kindles! We sold [positive integer] of them!” Without hard data, it’s hard for content producers to know how much effort to expend building for the platform.

This is a much bigger issue for news organizations and other periodical publishers than it is for book publishers. If you publish books, of course you need to invest time and energy into being on the Kindle. It’s the biggest game in town in a clear growth market. But the decision isn’t as clear cut for newspapers and magazines, which need to decide whether to put a slice of their development budgets into developing Kindle-specific editions of their publications.

(I’m not talking about Android apps, which the Kindle Fire can run and which have the benefit of also working on Android smartphones and tablets. I’m talking about the Kindle-specific mags and papers that only work on the Kindle platform.)

When a media company is deciding whether or not to build an iPhone app, an iPad app, or an Android app, they have real sales numbers — or, in Android’s case, activation numbers — to use when calculating whether it’s worth investing in the platform. On the Kindle, that’s harder. If sales numbers really are impressive, shout them from the rooftops!

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  • Len Feldman

    Any publisher has a very accurate number for knowing how well their titles sell on the Kindle–their actual sales. Clearly, the lack of specific Kindle eReader sales numbers hasn’t been a big impediment to eBook publishers. It may be a problem for app developers thinking about targeting the Kindle Fire, but they have other sources of approximate shipment and sales numbers–market research companies that cover the tablet market, industry new sources such as DigiTimes, etc. It would of course be better if Amazon released the sales numbers itself, but there are ways to get the data.

  • Joshua Benton

    True — but that data only comes after they’ve already invested in the platform and gotten on it. 

    If you’re a newspaper, you’ve got limited resources available for putting your content on platforms. You’re deciding how much to devote to iPhone, to iPad, to Android, to Windows Phone, to BlackBerry, to every platform out there. It seems a lot of newspapers are ranking those (1) iPhone, (2) iPad, (3) Android, and (4) Kindle. Or maybe (3) Kindle, (4) Android. 

    For book publishers, there’s no doubt the ranking goes (1) Kindle, (2/3) Nook and iBooks, in some order.

    For app publishers, the questions are different, since the Kindle Fire runs Android apps just fine, but developers haven’t been too keen to jump into Amazon’s app store because of its less-than-developer-friendly policies. Assuming the Fire is a success, that’ll probably change.

  • Len Feldman

    Joshua, you’re right–it depends on the medium, and I was being eBook-centric. It is a different story for magazines, newspapers and apps, and your ranking for newspapers (and probably magazines) is almost certainly correct. Some Android app publishers have avoided the Amazon appstore because Amazon retains the right to set prices.

  • Thad McIlroy

    There are perhaps a dozen of us who continue to decry Bezos’ blatant manipulations, but many thousands of media outlets that run them unfiltered (including 95% of the major news sites). Bezos knows that no one dares get caught without “the story”, and the only story available is Amazon’s latest press release. Full-on interviews with Amazon executives are as scarce as those from Apple (still the all-time master of tech media manipulation).

    Bezos appears to have learned early that facts are the enemy of the truth, particularly when the media are such willing partners to promulgate whatever truth he’s selling today.

  • Thad McIlroy

    And, sure enough, the august Wall Street Journal today trumpets: “Kindle Catches Fire: New Amazon Tablet May Be First True Competitor to iPad,” in complete acceptance of Amazon’s appallingly non-specific press release.