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Will E-Books Save Publishing?

While scanning the post-holiday news this weekend, I was gripped by what might be the biggest retail story of the season. Amazon, in a PR release, reported a first. On Christmas day, it sold more e-books than regular print titles.

Holy page-turner. This latest chapter took me by surprise. Just this summer, Amazon-watchers and tech pundits were dismissive of its e-book vision, and plenty were critical of the Kindle DX. Today, Kindle is living up to its name — it’s caught fire. Analysts are upping forecasts, and skepticism has been replaced with euphoria.

There’s a twist, of course. When you break it down, the story’s not that simple, and maybe not so compelling. It stands to reason that, with all those freshly gifted Kindles fired up on Christmas, many new owners would immediately move to download digital titles for their new toy. Traditional bookstores, by comparison, would have been slower than usual.

And then, the announcement itself was maddeningly vague, with no actual numbers attached. Some wonder if the many public domain and other free “bestselling” titles offered by Amazon could have been included in the calculation, thus artificially inflating the numbers.

No matter how you read it, though, this holiday was the season of the e-book. And with the Kindle surging ahead of competitive devices and plans, Amazon has more leverage than ever to make more deals with publishers. The publishers loathe the terms, of course.  And there’s plenty of intrigue. Even treachery. Just two weeks ago, best-selling author Stephen Covey made an exclusive e-book deal with Amazon, cutting out  longtime publisher Simon & Schuster. Still more clout for Amazon, right?

Sure. But it’s not just through brute force that it’s been able to succeed with Kindle. It’s about smart marketing, or really un-marketing. The Amazon formula is to invest in engineering and customer service, then let customers do the evangelizing, aided by savvy PR and media relations.

Yet, what’s a good story without a great rivalry? Suddenly, everyone’s launching Kindle-killers. And, rumor has it that Apple’s next big product introduction – the long-rumored tablet that could debut as early as January – will be have a robust e-reader functionality.

Apple’s a worthy adversary. As puts it, why wouldn’t it use its vaunted design talents to “steal an already proven market, the way the company invaded personal computers, MP3 players, TV consoles, and smartphones.” And it’s not exactly a marketing slouch either.

So, the plot thickens. Not only will the book publishing industry be upturned by a real e-reader success story, but a true mass market for e-books might give the newspaper and magazine businesses a shot at salvaging their business.

The story’s still playing out. I’m betting it’s a bestseller…for somebody.

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