With Amazon, It’s Records All The Way Down — Which Is Brilliant

So let me get this straight: this year’s “Cyber Monday” (the worst fake holiday name in the history of fake holidays — and names) was a new record day for Amazon when it came to Kindle sales. So was “Black Friday” (at least this one sounds like a plague). Overall, the holidays brought “more than double” the numbers of last year’s record sales.

Great! So what were last year’s record sales?

Well, they were “4X Over Last Year”.

Okay, so what about that last year?

“Last year was a great year.” That’s what Dave Limp, the Vice President of Kindle, said in the press release …last year. (My head is starting to spin too.) Does “great” have some sort of number attached to it? Nope, just “great”.

Got it: Records. All. The. Way. Down.

Yeah, this is total bullshit. But I’m starting to think it’s brilliant bullshit.

The closest we’ve ever gotten to an actual number out of Amazon is “over 1 million Kindle device per week,” which the company stated in yet another release in December of last year (though that number was only for that month). Digging back further, we’ve had sources pinpoint numbers but never Amazon itself.

The only thing I’m comfortable saying is that Kindle sales are somewhere between zero and infinity.

Look, clearly Amazon is selling a lot of Kindles. While they go out of their way not to give actual numbers (while touting sales!), you’re not going to take up the top four slots in Amazon’s worldwide sales charts unless you’re moving a shit-ton of product. I don’t care if Amazon is pushing their own goods; those charts, while perhaps not quite quantifiable, don’t lie: the Kindle is and has been a massive hit.

So why doesn’t Amazon give the actual numbers if they’re so great? Because they don’t have to. In fact, it’s probably not in their best interest to. Yes, all of us would love to know what those numbers are. But so would Amazon’s rivals.

Instead, Jeff Bezos appears to be taking a page out of the playbook of the Boston Police Department in The Departed. You treat the press like mushrooms when it comes to these numbers: “Feed ’em shit, and keep ’em in the dark.”

There’s another benefit to the obfuscation. Clearly, the Kindle is the best-selling eBook reader and has been since it was released several years ago. But Amazon has probably known for quite a long time that they’d eventually have to get into the broader tablet space as well. In fact, that’s undoubtedly more critical to their future than the eBook reader space.

But Amazon is not the leader in this broader tablet space. While the Kindle Fire may be Amazon’s best-selling Kindle, it’s still unlikely that it’s selling anywhere near iPad levels right now. Several third-party reports seem to back this up, as well. But again, it’s impossible to know for sure, because while Apple reports those numbers, Amazon does not. The natural side effect of this is less “the iPad is crushing the Kindle” stories, because no one can be sure.

This gives Amazon time to continue to improve the Kindle Fire (as they did in a major way this year with the HD versions). All we know for sure is that sales are improving, as well.

Yes, the press is getting more and more cynical when it comes to these numbers. But that’s all still a big diversion. Everyone is now writing about how ridiculous it is that Amazon won’t give actual numbers, but they’re not writing about the Kindle sales numbers compared to the iPad or Google’s first worthy competitor, the Nexus 7 (which we also don’t have numbers for).

Yet another benefit: if Amazon ever *doesn’t* have record sales of the Kindle line, they can twist the story another way. Maybe Kindle Fire sales were up “a lot” over some unspecified point last year. Maybe Kindle Fire HD sold more in the past week than Amazon sold of the entire Kindle line two years ago. Etc. Without any actual numbers, it’s harder and less obvious as to what to call bullshit on. There are a thousand ways to spin.

All of this also keeps Wall Street happy. While Amazon lost money last quarter, the stock is still trading at insane P/E ratios. Why? Well, at a high level, it’s about future potential. But some of this sleight of hand with sales numbers has to help Amazon, as well. All investors know is that “more than double” Kindle sales sounds great. Sure, the bottom line sucked, but clearly things are looking bright into the future.

As a guy who has closely followed the comparatively straightforward Apple (at least when it comes to releasing sales numbers) for the past several years, I used to hate Amazon’s shiftiness in this regard. But I’m starting to change my mind. They’re fucking with us, and they know it. And they’re smiling about it.

More and more, I’m starting to think Amazon is the most interesting technology company out there right now. I’m seeing these obtuse releases as less of a sign of weakness and more of a savvy business move. They seem to have a good combination of mystery, brilliance, and madness — just the right amount of each. Up 4x from last year, actually.