“I study nuclear science, I love my classes…”

It would have been idyllic: basking in the glare of the Adriatic, nudging sleepy turtles in the olive grove, ignoring the pre-recorded pleas of the muezzin that tumble down the mountain…but when a friend invited me to write Becoming Charlemagne at his Montenegrin beach house, I turned him down, just as I had to say “no” to generous offers that might have put me in a cottage in Ireland or poolside in Florida. Traveling with easily-misplaced articles and books felt like a great way to miss a deadline, and I vividly imagined Balkan crime lords challenging me to win back my crate of medieval scholarship in a drinking contest ungoverned by nominal adherence to the rule of law.

My irrational fear of becoming a cautionary tale in The Economist notwithstanding, I’ve kept an eye on the e-book market for a device that does everything I need it to do. A few weeks ago, I was stunned to see a TV commercial for the latest Sony Reader, an obvious attempt to scrape away some market share from the Amazon Kindle. But how big, really, is that market? Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles are out there. I’ve spotted two Kindles in the wild, and plenty of pundits, media people, and bloggers do go on about them, but the device is hardly ubiquitous. So how un-ubiquitous is the Kindle?

Here are some ratios derived from my latest Becoming Charlemagne royalty statement. I have no idea how typical these numbers are, but here’s where e-book sales stand in the life of one modest, midlist pop-history book that’s been in print for three years:

  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 302 
  • Ratio of e-books in all formats sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 47
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to other e-book formats sold: 1 : 5.45
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to Microsoft Reader e-books sold: 1 : 3

Interestingly, Kindle sales are lumped under “MOBIPOCKET” on a HarperCollins royalty statement because the Kindle uses that e-book format (and Amazon owns the company), but 16% of the Mobipocket sales for BC occurred before the release of the Kindle in late 2007—so there’s no telling if all the sales I’m ascribing to Kindle even went to Kindle users.

So there it is: e-books account for only 2% of this one book’s total sales, which includes hardcover, paperback, and various e-book formats—and Kindle sales account for no more than 0.3% of total sales.

Perhaps, compared to sales in other genres, these numbers are weirdly low. For all I know, people who read little medieval-themed pop-history books by unknown authors are atypically hostile to e-books or simply aren’t early adapters in general. Maybe people who buy mysteries, science-fiction novels, or political screeds are far more open to new technology?

Whatever the case, while I’d like to be enthusiastic about e-books, I can’t help remembering what Charlemagne said in 793 when his flunkies promised him a canal between the Danube and the Rhine: “When you say it’s going to happen ‘now,’ well, when exactly do you mean?”

3 thoughts on ““I study nuclear science, I love my classes…”

  1. I see that your book got some good reviews, including a thumbs-up from a ten-year-old. Cool.

    Looks like Kindle versions of books I looked at just now are discounted. At first the ones I saw really weren’t. Seems like a lot of initial investment if you have to spend the same amount of money for e-books. Plus, I think a lot of people found Amazon’s yanking 1984 from their Kindles kind of off-putting.

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  2. I have a Kindle, but alas, no copy of Becoming Charlemagne on it. I got the gizmo as a gift (read: am too cheap to actually shell out the cash for one) and while I love it like no other gadget I’ve ever owned, I’ve only actually bought (meaning spent more than $1 on) 2 books out of the 60 or so I have on the thing. There are just so many wonderful public domain books and other freebies or $.99 versions that I can’t really justify spending much when there’s a library 10 minutes down the road and my to-be-read pile of used books is taller than my oldest child.

    But I do have Becoming Charlemagne and the lesser known prequel, The Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne in World History, in hardback. One must always be willing to invest in greatness. At least until it hits the public domain.

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  3. Rhine-Danube canal: “When you say it’s going to happen ‘now,’ well, when exactly do you mean?”

    It was finally finished in 1992.

    Only took 1199 years…1169 years to think about it and 30 years to actually built it.

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