Apple Beating Kindle for E-books — In UK, at Least

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Amazon says Kindle book sales are rocketing, now outstripping its paperback sales by 15 percent. But who are the people buying electronic books? Is the Kindle really moving the needle on e-book sales overall? And if so, how much?

These questions are difficult to answer, given that the publishing industry — and particularly Amazon — doesn’t like to share numbers. Even Apple, which jealously guards information, will point out unit sales, but Amazon doesn’t break those figures out. The suspicion among skeptical observers (and I would classify myself as one) is that since Amazon only tells us things that make it sound incredibly successful, it might be keeping some unpleasant information away from prying eyes.

So to find out more, I talked Jo Henry, the managing director of U.K.-based Book Marketing Ltd, a research firm that does field research and surveys to understand public book consumption habits. According to data her company collected on e-book purchasing, Apple’s iOS products are outperforming the Kindle for reading in the U.K.

The figures, taken from BML’s research in Britain and from parent company Bowker’s PubTrack Consumer survey in the U.S., compare the growth curve of American e-book habits with those in the U.K. The industry generally seems to believe that British adoption is around 18 months behind the U.S. market; the numbers bear that out, at least in part.

The data shows that Kindle use rocketed in the U.S. between November 2009 and November 2010. Devices using iOS (i.e., iPhone, iPad and iPod) capture a significant portion of the market, followed by generic smartphones, Sony and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.

(It may seem a little perverse that computer reading has increased at the same time, but the rising tide of e-book releases makes it easier than ever to do this. A lot of e-book reading, Henry suggested, is done at work.)

In the U.K., however, you can see that adoption is behind. Computer reading is still by far and away the most popular method, the Kindle ranks as highly as the iPad, and iOS devices in general scoop up more than twice as much share as Amazon does.

It’s not clear whether the market will stay this way, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the war between the two heats up (particularly given their battle over subscriptions)

So that’s how they read. But who is doing the reading?

Well, in the United States, the average e-book buyer seems to have changed quite a lot over the past couple of years. They are now beginning to resemble the print buyer: skewed toward older, female and slightly less-well educated consumers.

In Britain, the average e-book purchaser still fits the pattern of an early adopter, more or less: they are younger, significantly more likely to be male than female, and with a higher education level and income. That seems to fit the idea that this is still a nascent market outside north America, yet to really break into the mainstream.

So, that leaves some questions for both countries.

Will e-book adoption outside the U.S. follow the same pattern as inside? Will other countries fall behind the Kindle in the same way as the home market? There’s some evidence to indicate that the 18 month gap could quickly reduce once e-book reading begins to pick up. After all in Europe, winning brands tend to dominate more than across the Atlantic: Google’s market share is significantly higher than in the U.S., for example.

Does this mean the Kindle is just waiting to make a major breakthrough that will suddenly catapult it way beyond its rivals? Given that Barnes & Noble has not released the Nook to the international market, is there more room for Sony and Apple to step into the breach? BML is currently compiling data from the holiday period, which should make good reading.

Update: CM in the comments points out that this data is focussed on hardware: there is also a Kindle app for the iPhone, computer and other devices, which means that you could argue that Amazon is a much larger platform for reading. Hopefully one day we’ll see figures from the company that tell us exactly what’s going on.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d):

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