Claude Bouchard wrote a blog entry pointing out that in his household the unread print books are piling up because he and his wife prefer to read on their ereaders. However, this preference has had an additional consequence besides just the move from print books to ebooks: he is reading fewer mainstream authors. The reason is simple. If it costs the same, or nearly the same, to buy an ebook from the big publishers as it does to buy one of their print books, a reader will find that purchase difficult to justify. There are, however, many indie authors who are charging a fraction of that price for their ebooks.
I think that, eventually, this discrepancy will right itself. As ereaders become more and more mainstream and print sales drop off, the publishers will have no choice other than to lower the prices of their ebooks. I think a price around $5 is fair and will become standard. So what will this mean for printed books? Will they become obsolete?
For practical considerations, yes. I believe that in 15 to 20 years very few print books will be read. By that time anyone born now or within the last decade will have grown up with the technology and anyone born before that will have adopted it. Especially as those readers age they will find the ease with which an ereader can be held in arthritic hands and with which the font size can be increased to be very attractive. So yes, books will become obsolete. But they will not disappear.
I think that physical books will always hold an appeal for humans. Just as candles and fireplaces have not become obsolete with the advent of electric lights and home heating systems, we will not want to abandon them altogether. There is something about a book that is a part of our cultural DNA. Ever since the invention of the alphabet, the book (or scroll or clay tablet) has been a symbol. It has been a symbol of knowledge. And the look, the feel, the smell of a book, simply cannot be replicated by ereaders. Books will become not less valuable with the ereader revolution, but more. Books will no longer be thought of as cheap commodities to be sold by the thousands, but rather as collectibles. A $5.99 paperback will no longer be produced. For that price, the ebook will be preferred. But writers and publishers will continue to produce attractive, hard backed editions for an author's biggest fans, a treasure to display on the shelf and admire the way one does a cherished objet d'art. It will be something a reader can have signed, not with electronic pixels but with the author's own hand.
I think that if you consider how we already treat books you will agree. There is a reason those great faux leather-bound tomes of Dickens and Austen and Twain still make an appearance each Christmas, their gold-trimmed pages hinting at the literary treasure inside. We like them. We like to have those books on our shelves, we like to look at them, to show them off. Paperbacks, not so much. Those are designed to be read, then passed on to a friend, a used book store, a bus station bench. The ereader will not replace books, but rather just the disposable commodity aspect of books. Read it, lend the file to a friend, delete it when you're done. But if you love that book, if you find yourself thinking about it once it is finished and seeking out other work by that author, then perhaps you might consider owning a handsome print copy. And they will always exist. Books are a part of human culture and that will not change, at least not for a very, very long time.