I've been thinking about e-books, and what's going to happen if Amazon takes over the world and the vast majority of publishing moves to digital formats.
Traditional print books are great at filtering customers based on their demand and their resources. When a new book comes out, some people are going to buy the hardcover new, some people are going to wait for the paperback, some people are going to wait to find it in a used bookstore, some people are going to get it from the library, some people are going to borrow it from a friend, some people are going to find it in a box on the sidewalk ten years after it originally came out. And the person who finds it in a box on the sidewalk might be someone who never had the money to buy it when it was in hardcover -- or it might be someone who didn't hear about it, or wasn't sufficiently enthused about it, the first time around. And this is a model that WORKS. A person who's willing to pay $26 or $27 can have a new book in their hand the day it comes out. A person who's willing to pay 50 cents, or 25 cents, or nothing at all -- which may be either "Meh, the book doesn't look THAT good" or "I don't have the money, PERIOD" -- can still find books at the library, at GoodWill, from their friends.
I'm the kind of person ebooks work really well for. I buy very conservatively -- I buy based on friends' recommendations and starred reviews, and I rarely buy a book unless I have a very good hunch I'm going to like it. I'm rarely wrong. So I typically buy few books -- one or two a month -- and buy them new because if I really want a book I don't want to go chasing it around at a used bookstore; and if I'm buying a book at all, it's probably at least in part because I want to toss a dollar the author's way.
My friend B, on the other hand, buys a ton of books, shops heavily at used bookstores, and is a lot more willing to buy something on a whim than I am. If you give us both $25 for books, I'll buy one or two that I'm certain I want; she'll buy seven or eight that look kind of nifty. Her reading is adventurous in a way that mine isn't, and she's the one who'll recommend me something off-the-wall-brilliant. She wouldn't be well-served by e-books, and that's not just because they don't get cheap enough for her (except for self-published books and out-of-copyright books). The different web sites' interfaces for ebooks are, as far as I've seen, terrible unless you want one of the hundred most popular books of the moment, or you know exactly what book you're looking for. Last year I was traveling, and looking for an ebook I could put on my iPod, and I skimmed through the Kindle store going "Boring...boring...boring." (I'm a very picky reader).
I'm the person the publishing industry is more likely to take seriously, because I buy books the month or year that they come out, because I'm aware of publishing news and spend a lot of time in bookstores, because I'm happy to buy a hardcover rather than wait for the paperback. (This isn't because I have a ton of money, but to me it's a justifiable occasional frivolty, like a restaurant meal or a couple of movie tickets). But I do think that the book industry is going to be in trouble if books get marketed and sold in a way that shuts out other ways of buying books, and I think that people who can only buy books if they can get them at GoodWill for 50 cents are going to get shut out too.
At one level I would love for ebooks to succeed. I'm absolutely unsentimental about paper, and considering how often I've moved in the past few years I feel that the best book formats are the ones that don't weigh anything. But if the ebook revolution is going to leave behind people who can't afford to buy new books, people who rely on serendipity and chance to discover new books, and anyone who doesn't fit the industry's model of what a good book buyer looks like... it's not my revolution.