Why Apple is the stumbling block in Amazon’s ebook transition

Nobody can predict the future, but Amazon (s AMZN) thinks that when it comes to ebooks the writing is on the wall.
“We’re now seeing the transition we’ve been expecting,” CEO Jeff Bezos said in the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report, released Tuesday. “After five years, ebooks is a multi-billion dollar category for us and growing fast – up approximately 70 percent last year. In contrast, our physical book sales experienced the lowest December growth rate in our 17 years as a book seller, up just five percent.”
That’s impressive growth, but as the ebook transition moves forward, Amazon should worry that Kindle is not going to be the device leading the revolution. Apple (s AAPL) and iPad will cut into its growth.
Amazon has mastered the art of the press release that doesn’t say much. Several data points are missing from Bezos’s statement — here are some questions I have:

  • What’s Amazon’s actual ebook revenue? The company’s worldwide media sales were $19.9 billion in 2012; what percentage of that came from ebooks, and what percentage came from print books?
  • What was print book growth for the entire year — and for past years? Bezos refers to annual ebook sales, but print book sales for just one month. Print books are also starting from a much larger base; they make up over 70 percent of trade book sales in the U.S.
  • Which ebook categories are growing the fastest?
  • Where’s the ebook growth coming from? 70 percent growth is a lot. Is most of it coming from within the U.S. or internationally? And is it coming from owners of Amazon devices — Kindle e-readers and Kindle Fire tablets — or is it coming from iPad (s AAPL) and other tablet owners reading ebooks with Kindle apps?

Amazon’s not going to answer those questions (though I did ask them), but they’re important in part because U.S. book publishers are reporting slowing sales of adult ebooks: What was once triple-digit growth has fallen to the double digits. The revolution has also been largely limited to text-based titles — adult fiction and nonfiction — and categories like cookbooks and travel haven’t seen nearly as much growth from ebooks.
If the digital market for certain kinds of books is settling, as it appears to be, Amazon will have to find growth in other areas (though it doesn’t have to, and likely can’t, sustain 70 percent ebook growth for long). The company can expand Kindle internationally, as it’s been doing already, and it can still grab a certain number of ebook newbies.
Eventually, though, Amazon will have to tackle the genres that have remained rooted in print — children’s books and heavily illustrated books like cookbooks, coffee-table books and the huge textbook market. The company clearly sees potential on the children’s front: It’s launched new children’s book imprints and offerings like Kindle Free Time Unlimited. And Kindle Format 8 supports HTML5 and illustrated content.
But the biggest company it has to compete with in this area is Apple. Publishers of heavily illustrated content — both traditional publishers and digital-focused startups — are likely to focus on developing for iPad first, since it’s by far the most popular tablet. The next five years of the ebook revolution are not going to look like the first five.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Stacie Stauff Smith Photography