It's impossible these days to read any posts having to do with publishing without the obligatory "the book is dead" comments. And yet with another click you'll find articles about how reading is up 20% from a decade ago among middle schoolers and teenagers, how more time is spent now reading for pleasure than in the past, and how the number of titles available is growing faster than ever. Clearly the book is alive and well.
So really, what we should be discussing is how we now define "book." What people are bemoaning is that fewer hardcopy, paper books are being published, and this is affecting the health of brick and mortar bookstores and libraries. And that's a legitimate concern, but it's very different from the demise of books and reading altogether.
For years, publishing and bookselling functioned on a business model that involved small profit margins, reliance on high-volume sales of some books to cover losses taken on others, and full credit for returns. This model is no longer viable, especially when eBooks have a much higher profit and the internet makes it possible for authors to reach readers directly and bypass the middlemen. What's needed is a new model, one that includes both hardcopy and electronic books. And, I believe, a new definition for "book" that encompasses the written word in all its formats.
I'm confident that print books aren't going anywhere. Some people just prefer to hold a book in their hands and turn the pages (and that includes a lot of teenagers I know). But there's a place for eBooks as well. Not only do some books benefit from multimedia available via apps and other platforms (think of what your high school science textbooks could have looked like with a little audio and video), but the price of eBooks means you can buy three novels for your Kindle for the cost of one hardcover. Customers deserve to have that choice.
Another point that's absolutely worth discussing is that the form of storytelling consisting of written words alone should be preserved. Novels — black words on a white page, with the reader filling in the gaps with his or her imagination — are just as important as apps that move and speak and sing when you touch the screen. Both are valuable experiences, both are ways the author (and in some cases the illustrator) can communicate with the reader. But if you're reading The Catcher in the Rye on a Nook, Salinger's words will be exactly the same as when you read them on paper.
Yes, the process by which we buy and read books is changing. And traditional publishers, bookstores and libraries need to adapt, just as the music industry, video rental and phone companies have had to adapt. But for readers and writers, we now have more options when we think "book". If you like to read only paper books and you despise Amazon, shop at your local bookstore. If you don't want your kids getting hooked on apps, don't give them an iPad. If you need a new book immediately (for research, because it's 2:00 AM and you can't sleep, or because you forgot to pack that vacation novel), download it in seconds to your Nook. And if you're an author, you can now reach readers in several formats, all over the world, and at numerous price points.
The book isn't dead, it's evolving. And whatever form it takes, it's still, at its core, a book.