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Even Dan Brown can't break the e-book 5% rule

September 30, 2009 |  4:30 pm

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When Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" was released on Sept. 15, Amazon's rankings revealed that Kindle sales outstripped sales of the hardcover. This led some ebook enthusiasts to herald the dawning of a new era. FastCompany asked, "Could Dan Brown's new book be heralding the e-book age?" CNet wrote: "The possibility that the Kindle version of 'The Lost Symbol' -- which follows Brown's wildly popular 'Da Vinci Code' and 'Angels & Demons' -- is outselling hard copies on Amazon could be a monumental moment in the e-book industry."

But it was only a moment, one that lasted less than 48 hours. By the time the week was out, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S., Britain and Canada -- breaking the publisher's previous one-week record set by Bill Clinton with "My Life" -- hardcover sales had easily eclipsed sales of the ebook. Of the 2 million copies sold, only 100,000, or 5%, were electronic versions.

Today, spokeswoman Suzanne Herz responded to an e-mail query by Jacket Copy: "Sales remain excellent for 'The Lost Symbol,' " she wrote, "and ebooks account for approximately 5% of all sales."

Ebook sales started slow and as recently as 2007 remained flat, but have been climbing steadily in the years since. The change seems to have been sparked by Amazon's Kindle, which debuted Nov. 19, 2007; the online retailer has made Kindle versions a prominent part of the book-shopping experience. Yet despite occasional dramatic increases, the number of ebooks sold is just 3% to 5% the total number of hardcover books sold. A complicating factor is that not all publishers have been reporting ebook sales, meaning the numbers are still a bit wiggly.

Fans of ebooks are always on the lookout for a magic bullet -- a killer app, a brilliant new device, a groundbreaking title -- to bring them to greater prominence. With the out-of-the-gate Kindle sales of "The Lost Symbol," it looked like they'd found their rocket.

But what it really showed is that some enthusiasts wanted "The Lost Symbol" immediately, and hurried to purchase the electronic version. But they remain just five out of every hundred book buyers.

Looks like even "The Lost Symbol" has not been able to herald the dawning of the ebook age.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

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