Amazon has just announced its earnings for the third quarter of 2012, beating the admittedly low expectations it set last quarter. The company reported net sales that were 27 percent higher than the same time in 2011, coming in at $13.81 billion — which is also about a billion dollars higher than last quarter's sales. Overall, though, it reported an operating loss of $28 million. That's not great news for the company, especially compared to the $79 million operating income it made in the third quarter of 2011, but back in July, Amazon said it expected anywhere from a $50 million to $350 million loss. Net loss was also high: $274 million, compared to net income of $63 million at the same time last year.

Still a loss, but not as much as Amazon forecastedAccording to what CFO Tom Szkutak said a few months ago, that loss is partly because of heavy investment in Amazon Web Services and Kiva Systems. Amazon is also presumably ramping up holiday production of the Kindle Fire HD, the 8.9-inch version of which will be released in late November. Amazon expects sales to balloon in the coming months, reaching between $20.25 billion and $22.75 billion. For this quarter, North American sales and sales of electronics were particularly strong points, while international revenue still grew, but not as quickly.

Amazon's margins are historically pretty tight, and it's not unusual for it to report high sales but relatively low earnings, at least over the past year. In its release, the company took the opportunity to promote its Kindle Fire tablets, which it suggested were sold "near breakeven" prices. While it characteristically refused to disclose details, it said that the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD was "the #1 bestselling product across Amazon worldwide... even as measured by unit sales."

Amazon has had consistently strong sales since late 2011, but it's had to explain "pockets of softness" and declining profits to its investors, and it may need to do so again this time. A conference call will be held at 5pm EDT; we'll update at that point with more information.

Update: Szkutak has reiterated that much of this quarter's loss was due to long-term projects with Web Services and Kiva Systems, which is part of an ongoing reengineering of its warehouse system. He also pointed to the recent launch of Amazon Cloud Drive in Spain and Italy, as well as further investment in European video service LoveFilm. "We're investing very heavily in capacity, and you're seeing that impacting results," Szkutak told investors. Given Amazon's weak profits this year, though, those investments will need to start paying off soon.