I agree with Becker’s analysis, but will suggest a few additional points. One is that the potentially lethal threat that online publishing poses to newspapers comes from the fact that a newspaper is a bundled good; no one is interested in all the different parts (news, sports, opinion, fashion, theater, travel, book reviews, financial data, classified ads, etc.). In addition, much of the contents of any newspaper is ephemeral; people want their news now; it can become obsolete in a matter of hours. Online publication offers both unbundling and immediacy.
That is why handbooks and other collective works are likely to migrate to the Web as well, as Becker suggests; also “quickie” books dealing with current crises.
The printed book has some important technological advantages over the online book. One is that it is easier to skim, and, a related point, easier to go back and forth in. It is also slightly easier to underline words in a printed book and write notes in the margins. And many people find it tiring to read consecutively a long work on an electronic reader, though that may just be a matter of lack of experience with the new medium. And on the other hand it is much easier to search an online book for a word or group of words, and, of course an online book adds nothing to weight: the weight of the electronic reader is the same no matter how many or how long the books stored in it are. In the case of many books—since each form of publication has both advantages and disadvantages—the reader will want to have the book in both print and digital form.
The most important question raised by the new medium is what impact it will have on the total number of books (whether ebooks or printed books) published. The impact should be unequivocally positive, on balance and in the long run. A book published entirely online (that is, a book that is not also printed) is cheaper to produce, as well as providing greater value for some readers for the reasons I’ve discussed. The publisher is protected by copyright against unauthorized copying of the work, whatever the medium in which it’s published.
We should think of the electronic book as a novel method of distribution, as the department store once was; and any improvement in distribution should help the industry that provides the goods to be distributed. Another analogy is to the invention of the paperback book; by reducing the cost of books, it increased the demand for them. It enabled publishers (and through them, authors) to increase their revenues by practicing price discrimination—charging a higher price for the hardback edition of a book and a lower price for a paperback edition published later, much like the different ticket prices for first-run and subsequent-run motion pictures.
The reason that Rupert Murdoch and others have said that the Kindle (the first popular electronic readers, although electronic readers have been around for a number of years) will kill the book industry is that Amazon (which makes the Kindle) is charging a very low price for many of the books that it sells for downloading to the Kindle. It does this partly for promotional reasons and partly because it derives its revenue from a combination of the price of the Kindle and the price of the books; the Kindle’s customer will not pay as much for a book to download because he also has to pay for the Kindle. But from a publisher’s standpoint, the price is the price he receives from the distributor; he wants to minimize the distributor’s spread, that is, the difference between what he charges the distributor and the price to the ultimate consumer, for the lower the latter price, the greater the demand for the book. The publisher decides whether to license Amazon (or any other producer of an electronic reader) to publish his book, and can refuse if the price Amazon offers him will decrease his profits.
In short, it just is very hard to see how improvements in distribution hurt the maker of the distributed goods.
Probably what underlies the fear of the effect of the e-book on the book-publishing industry is a broader concern with the competitive impact of the Internet and the Web on the demand for books. Books compete with other forms of intellectual property, the demand for which has grown with digitization: such forms as the numerous free online repositories of information (such as Wikipedia—which provides a substitute for countless reference books, including dictionaries and encyclopedias), but even video games, which compete for use of leisure time with books.