There has been a ton of "buzz" in the past couple of years about the coming changes in book publishing and in the print-publishing industry in general.
eBook readers are being touted as the next step in publishing technology. Sony has been marketing their eBook reader for years; Amazon jumped into that market a couple of years ago with the Kindle, which now also has a larger edition (presumably for newspaper and magazine consumption-- Sony has one too). Barnes & Noble dipped their toe in last fall, with the Nook. Now Apple has announced that the soon-coming iPad will have an eBook reader and a store, similar to iTunes and iPod.
In fact, that is the analogy that is so frequently tossed around: eventually, eBook readers will do for books what the iPod did for music.
I'm not buying that-- at least not outright. Here's why: the content publishers aren't ready. (Most of them, anyway.)
If the iPod had come out in the 80s, it would have sunk like lead. Why? Because there would be no easy way to get content from a cassette tape or vinyl record (both analog) into the iPod (a digital platform). There would not have been a straightforward path to converting existing libraries of music into the format(s) needed for the iPod (or any other MP3 player). By the end of the 90s, though, most people had shifted from tapes and vinyl to CDs, and had even re-purchased much of their libraries in the new format.*
Sure, Apple did a great job of promoting the iTunes music store as the one-stop solution for "filling your iPod" with digital music, and they (in cooperation with the recording industry) certainly stemmed the tide of online music piracy with iTunes. They also single-handedly changed the way we think about music-media consumption, from thinking in terms of whole albums/tapes/CDs to thinking in terms of single tracks.
But Apple's iTunes music store wasn't the thing that sold the iPod-- it was the fact that anyone could take their existing libraries of CDs and "rip" them into their iTunes library, thereby giving them a freedom for listening to the music they already owned on their iPods.
This was true for me with music. I had a library of almost 1000 CDs, and all of them are now boxed and stored in my attic; everything is ripped into iTunes, and thus distributed to my various iPods, iPhone, Apple TV, etc.-- a whole new music eco-system. I haven't bought an actual CD in probably five years, and have purchased hundreds of dollars' worth of media through the iTunes store-- yet by far the larger part of my library still is made up of content I owned prior to my first iPod.
This factor is the missing piece in the eBook puzzle. Book readers already own books! And we want/need some way to ensure that we will continue to have access to some or most of that content in the new eco-system, if we commit to it. Just as the music industry had modified their published content enough to allow (technologically, at least) the adaptation of other eco-systems beyond the traditional home or car stereo, book publishers must modify their content enough to make it more technologically adaptable.
I look at Thomas Nelson's "NelsonFree" program as a prime example of this. With this program, if you purchase a book (that is enrolled in the NelsonFree program, that is) in one format, then you automatically have access to others. For example, if you buy the print copy, you can also download the audio and eBook copies for no extra costs. (Check out Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's blog post about this program for more.)
This-- or something very like it-- has got to be the direction that the print media industry goes if they hope to see the digital shift widely embraced. Magazines and newspapers should automatically give their subscribers total online access, perhaps while limiting access to non-subscribers (as opposed to, for example, Consumer Reports: my mother-in-law has given me a gift subscription for years, and I find the print copy interesting-- but what I'd really love is to have access to the online content, which actually requires a separate subscription!). Book publishers should figure out a system at least similar to Thomas Nelson's program.
It's not the cost of eBook readers that's so daunting, in my view. Folks didn't mind paying hundreds for an iPod, and they wouldn't mind paying good money for an eReader-- IF ONLY the content is easily available. They don't have to give new books away, either-- but at least acknowledge the fact that I've already bought the book at least once!
*The reason they had migrated to the new format, though, wasn't simply because it was new. This is a key part of understanding the history here: the new format (Compact Discs) offered superior quality to the older formats, and that quality improvement was quantifiable-- better frequency range, crisper and clearer sound, easier to use, longer-lasting without wearing out, etc. All of these were necessary for the shift to take place; just a few of them wouldn't have won the day (witness the 8-track tape, which offered minor improvement in sound quality and greater portability than vinyl, but didn't last nearly as long). People bought CDs because they were simply better in almost every way-- and they were willing to re-purchase their entire library (or at least most of it) for that improvement.