Tablets and Smartphones Push Amazon's Kindle Sales Past Paper

Last Updated May 19, 2011 3:08 PM EDT

It's a remarkable day in publishing. Since April 1, Amazon (AMZN) has sold more e-books than printed copies. The number of Kindle titles sold is 5 percent larger than paperbacks and hardbacks combined.

Some call it a tipping point -- in honor of the e-book version of Malcolm Gladwell's famous title, no doubt. But a tipping point of what? Although much of the press has focused on the Kindle e-readers, this story is about much more. What we see is the remarkable market penetration of mobile devices of all sorts, which are completely changing how people interact with computers and media.

The penetration of mobile devices in general is eye-popping, according to data from Nielsen. Here are the market-adoption numbers for five common devices:

  • Smartphones -- 36 percent
  • Tablets -- 5 percent
  • Media players -- 13 percent
  • E-readers -- 9 percent
  • Netbooks -- 8 percent
It's easy to underestimate the significance of these numbers. For example, a number of outlets interpret the tablet numbers as just 5 percent of the U.S. population owning one, which effectively amounts to a snooty dismissal of the idea that anything significant is really going on with tablets.

But if you take modern tablets as having started with the iPad, that means a 5 percent market penetration in a single year. That's amazing. And adoption is likely to keep climbing.

Mobile reading screens = huge adoption
I'd also put tablets, e-readers, and netbooks in the same general bucket: mobile devices that have a screen large enough for easy reading. Even with crossover ownership, that has got to hit at least 10 percent of the population. Add smartphones, and you're already at more than a third of the country. Any of those penetration numbers are significant, especially given the size of the U.S. market.

If people are already carrying devices and also have books they want to read, they're at least going to experiment with e-books. Why lug along more weight if you don't have to? Plus, e-books are currently cheaper than their print counterparts.

None of this means that paper books are history. People still buy many millions of them a year. But they pay a premium and, increasingly, they'll pay more as publishers try to offset the lower prices of e-books. That's when a paper version is even available. Some authors have already begun to find that selling e-books directly and cutting out the publisher can result in higher income for them.

This will just continue as more people find that tablets do much of what they want on computers, smartphone use passes that of feature phones, and the e-book reader companies expand their devices into more general tablets.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.