Digital technology influences just about every aspect of society, including the world of books. Bob Dylan's mantra, "The times they are a changin,'" applies here as well. Books won't go away any time soon, but there's a mighty transformation underway.
For the first time ever, sales revenue from ebooks surpassed hardcover books in the first quarter of 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback books, however, still represent the book revenue leader, although by a shrinking margin. It appears that ebooks will also surpass paperbacks in sales over the next several years.
The declining prices of such specialized ebook readers as Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, as well as the ability of tablet computers such as Apple's iPad and other portable devices to handle ebooks, are key reasons for the rise in ebook sales.
The benefits of ebooks and ebook readers, or ereaders, are palpable.
An ereader weighs the same whether it stores a thousand books or one book. This is a major convenience while commuting, traveling on business, or vacationing.
Ebooks are searchable, which can be especially beneficial when doing research with nonfiction. You can obtain ebooks immediately over the Internet, without having to go to a bookstore or wait for the book to arrive in the mail.
Unlike printed books, ebooks don't require trees for paper and petroleum for ink.
Paradigm shifts never happen without some drawbacks, and ebooks are no exception.
Unlike with an ereader, if you drop a book on the sidewalk, you typically won't risk ruining it. Same with forgetting it in your car on a hot summer day.
You won't have a problem reading a printed book on an airplane during takeoff and landing. It can be difficult if not impossible to loan an ebook to a friend or sell it in the used book market when you're done with it.
Publishers to a large extent are getting with the program, but many books are still either not published in ebook format or are published that way later than the printed version.
Ebook publishing has also seen its share of controversy recently, much having to do with pricing.
The U.S. Department of Justice has brought an antitrust lawsuit against Apple, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, Macmillan, and HarperCollins. It alleges that these companies have colluded to fix the prices of ebooks sold on Amazon so as to not undercut the prices at Apple's iBookstore.
One of the unfortunate legacies of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, as documented in Walter Isaacson's generally flattering biography of him, is his threatening of Amazon in 2010 that it wouldn't get ebooks from big publishers if it didn't go along with Apple's pricing model.
Over the past couple of years, in fact, the price of many ebooks has increased from the $10 range to the $14 range. Some ebooks, to the bewilderment or outrage of many ebook aficionados, cost more than the hardback version and sometimes even more than the paperback version when the cost to produce the ebook version is significantly less.
In the future, with healthy competition, the price of ebooks is bound to decline and more accurately reflect production costs.
Many people rue the changing world. Popular bookstore chain Borders liquidated all of its stores, more than 600, in 2011. The borders.com web address now redirects you to the website of Barnes & Noble, a bookstore chain with stores in which you can still browse the aisles and sit down with a cup of coffee.
There's no denying the attraction of the physicality of the printed book, the way it looks, feels, and even smells. But there's also no denying the economics and practicality of ebooks.
Will the book ever disappear? People will always need, in one form or another, the results of others' in-depth research, analysis, and storytelling. Books don't appear to have any likelihood of disappearing any time soon.
Printed books are another matter. It's likely that they will persist as well, but it's also likely that they will be produced in much smaller numbers.
Just as radio found a niche after television, printed books will likely find their niche after ebooks become ubiquitous. One possibility: Handsome, bound books will be used in the future primarily for such specialized purposes as presentation and collecting.
Just as with the prestige distinction for writers between being published in hardback or only in paperback, in the future there will likely be a similar prestige distinction between being published in print or only in ebook format.